A curved piano keyboard

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 June 2023 under Musings  •  3 Comments

A friend has sent me information about a new piano, designed with an ergonomically curved keyboard. I have wondered about the feasibility of such a keyboard for a long time, but have never had the opportunity to try one.

As a pianist, often required to traverse the whole keyboard in both treble and bass directions, one is aware of having to extend the elbow and arm in a certain way because the keyboard is straight, not curved. All pianists get used to this, of course, and indeed one almost wonders whether there is any degree of virtuosity still to be conquered by the most able pianists. But might it be more pleasant to play on a curved keyboard designed to follow the curve made by the human arm as it rotates outward from the body?

This new piano was developed in association with the architect Rafael Viñoly, who unfortunately died in March of this year. Viñoly himself was a keen pianist, it seems. He worked in conjunction with Belgian piano maker Chris Maene.

It’s interesting to wonder how the curved-keyboard piano could get into general use. There would be no point in installing them first of all in concert halls, because most pianists who came to play there would never have had the chance to play a curved keyboard. And at the moment it would be too risky to switch to a curved-keyboard piano for one’s own use at home, because when you went to play anywhere else, you’d probably have to play a coventional straight keyboard.

I haven’t had a chance to play a curved keyboard, but I did once have a go at a curved typing keyboard, and although I could see it would be comfortable, I could also see it was going to take a while to adjust. The adjustment would be greater with a piano, which has a much wider keyboard than a typewriter.

So far, I have only seen this image, from which one can clearly see that the curved piano is a thing of beauty. I’m a little puzzled about the lid, though. There seems to be no section of the lid which can fold down over the flattened music desk to protect the instrument from dust when it is not in use. Is that because the curve makes it tricky to devise a foldable section that fits neatly over the rest of the lid?

John Keats and Haydn symphonies played on a rented piano

Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 May 2023 under Musings  •  1 Comment

This week I have been in Rome, where Bob was giving a seminar at La Sapienza University. We added on a few days to turn it into a little holiday.

We visited the Keats museum at the Spanish Steps. I have been in Rome a number of times, and have toiled up and down the Spanish Steps in the hot sun, but have never managed to visit the little museum dedicated to the English Romantic poet John Keats, who lived for a few months from November 1820 to February 1821 in rented rooms in a house immediately beside the steps.

Keats was suffering from tuberculosis. He had gone to Rome in the hope of recovering his health in a warmer climate, but died in the house beside the Spanish Steps at the age of only twenty-five. It was shocking to think how many more years, or even decades, he might have had if modern medicine had been available to him. Indeed, the explanations in the museum hinted that the treatment he did receive had probably hastened his death.

In Keats’ little bedroom, my eye fell on one of the exhibits: a receipt for a piano hired in November 1820. A plaque described how in his illness Keats had asked for a piano so that his friend Joseph Severn could play to him. ‘Not only was he passionately fond of music’, Severn later recalled, ‘but he found that his constant pain and o’erfretted nerves were much sooth’d by it’. While Keats lay in bed listening from another room, Joseph Severn played Haydn symphonies arranged for solo piano. Keats would exclaim delightedly that Haydn was ‘like a child, for there is no knowing what he will do next’ (an excellent analogy in my view).

After Keats’ death, the Italian authorities insisted that the furniture of his bedroom be burned, but the contents of the sitting-room (see photo) were spared  because John Severn was able to assure the authorities that he had never carried his sick friend into that room.

The museum was very quiet while we were there. As I stood in Keats’ bedroom, looking out at hundreds of tourists milling up and down the Spanish Steps, I was touched by the thought of him lying in bed listening to Haydn symphonies played by his great friend Joseph in the sitting-room nearby.

Playing a historical piano

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 May 2023 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

This week I’m giving a recital of music by historical women pianist-composers. I’ll be playing an Erard grand piano made at the end of the 19th century by the firm of Sebastien Erard in Paris. (Officially the piano is dated around 1900, but a technician told me he thinks it could be earlier.)

This Erard, recently donated to Edinburgh University and now housed in their collection of musical instruments at St Cecilia’s Hall (where the concert is), is not only interesting to play but beautiful to look at (see photo). Enormous trouble has been taken over the piano’s casework, decorated by Paul Sormani (1817-77), a maker of fine furniture. He has inlaid (if that is the right word) marquetry work all round the case, not forgetting the music desk and the two flat ‘shelves’ either side of the music desk, where one would pile up music waiting to be used. The detail is lovely to behold.

I went down to the museum of instruments the other day to have a go on the piano. It’s currently in its usual place in the museum, so I just sat among all the historical keyboards and played for an hour or so.

Whenever I have the chance to play an antique piano, I go through several stages of getting used to it. The actual sound, characteristic of a 19th century piano, is thin and hard compared with the modern grand piano, which is mellower and fuller. An older piano can sound disconcertingly like a pub piano which hasn’t been maintained. The mechanism rattles a bit more than I’m used to. The pedals aren’t as effective as modern ones. The keyboard is less even, both in touch and in the layout of the keys, some of which have minute gaps between them. A casual observer might not even notice the gaps, but if you are used to playing a perfectly even keyboard, these tiny gaps between keys can feel a little odd.

You have to ‘tune in’ to the sound of the historical piano. At first it seems almost jangly. Then your ear starts to get used to it. The sound is less cushioned, less singing than on the modern grand piano. But when you tune in, you start to appreciate a clarity and – is it too far-fetched to say a sort of honesty?  The tone is not big, but it’s direct and clear.

It’s as well to remember that Beethoven wowed his listeners when he played pianos a hundred years older than this – their tone presumably even ‘thinner’ and ‘harder’ according to our modern taste. Chopin enraptured his audiences on pianos fifty years older than the Erard. And of course Liszt was said to make his listeners swoon when he performed on mid-19th century pianos. Clearly the tone of the piano is only a factor in the effect the player can produce. Musicianship can be appreciated on many kinds of instruments. Today we relish the full, glossy, ringing tone of the concert grand piano, but in previous eras they must have been sensitive to other qualities.

Music at the Coronation

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 May 2023 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  2 Comments

The Coronation of King Charles III came in the same week that we heard the organisation Psappha, which promotes new music, had been forced to close because of funding problems. This in itself followed hard on the heels of threats to close the BBC Singers and reduce the size of BBC Orchestras by 20%. The accessibility of music lessons for schoolchildren is decreasing all the time. Many children can only learn a musical instrument if their parents can pay for lessons. Fine instruments are out of reach for many families. Music is not on the list of subjects accepted for the EBacc qualification.

Brexit has emptied the diaries of musicians who used to pop over the Channel to play in other European countries – since Brexit, the paperwork has increased so much (for both sides – artist and promoter) that many European invitations have just disappeared. Many musicians are reluctantly thinking of leaving the profession.

Meanwhile, audiences are still nervous about going back into crowded concert halls. I know quite a few people who just haven’t felt like venturing back to concerts since the pandemic. Uncertainty about the situation has taught people to wait until the last minute until booking concert tickets. This in turn causes anxiety for musicians and concert organisers who never know until the last minute whether the concert will be financially viable.

By contrast, yesterday’s Coronation service in Westminster Abbey was full of glorious music excellently performed. There were ‘blended’ orchestras with participants from major orchestras across the UK. There were blended church choirs with the wonderfully high standard of singing which is traditional in such choirs. There were individual singers such as the marvellous Bryn Terfel and Roderick Williams. There was new music specially composed for the occasion, including quite a bit of music by female composers (hooray!) There were military bands performing with great aplomb. There was the Ascension Choir, teaching us all a thing or two about music and movement.

I followed people’s comments on Twitter as I watched the ceremony. It was clear that music played a big part in creating and resonating with the emotion of the day. Everyone praised the music and musicians, mentioning over and over again the high standards of performance.

Well, people should enjoy it while they can, because you don’t get high standards of music-making without years of training, hopefully begun at a young age so that neural pathways are laid down in the brain as early as possible.

Without expert training, few will get to be accomplished musicians. Without accomplished musicians, there will be nobody to perform the centuries-deep repertoire written for skilled performers. To play it, musicians need to be able to read music notation to a high level of complexity. But is reading music taught in schools? It often isn’t. To keep the great repertoire of the past alive, we need to be continually training new generations of musicians to play, read and perform with confidence and understanding of different styles. We need to keep fostering a culture of youth orchestras, chamber music groups, choirs and bands. Otherwise, future national ceremonies will unfold to a soundtrack of AI-generated pap.

Watching the Queen’s Coronation on TV in 1953

Posted by Susan Tomes on 30 April 2023 under Daily Life, Musings  •  4 Comments

Talk of how people are going to watch the King’s Coronation next week has reminded me of my father’s tale about Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation in 1953.

My father had recently moved to Scotland to marry my Scottish mother. Before coming to Edinburgh, my dad had been apprenticed to Mr Jolly, who started out as a gramophone dealer but moved with the times and progressed to running a television and radio shop in Aston Lane, Birmingham. (We used to enjoy the idea of a shop called Jolly TVs.)

When my dad arrived in Scotland in the early 1950s he had the idea of starting his own little TV shop to rent out televisions to customers. As it turned out, my dad’s was the first television shop in Scotland, though I think we didn’t realise that until later.

When the Queen was crowned on 2 June 1953, she requested that the event be televised. This was obviously the first time that the coronation ceremony had been seen on television. But few people had a television to watch it on. My father had the idea of renting a local church hall and putting a television (and presumably also a TV aerial) in it so that people could come and watch the Queen’s Coronation. I now don’t remember whether he put just one or several televisions there, but I seem to think he described people seated around one small television, its screen probably not much larger than that of a laptop today. The broadcast was in black and white, of course.

For many British people, the Queen’s Coronation was their first experience of watching television. The event probably triggered people’s interest in having a television in their own home, because my dad was able to build up a business renting TVs and offering a back-up repair service too. From then on he was constantly driving around Edinburgh at all hours to repair people’s TVs in time for them to watch their favourite programmes. My mother used to complain about the phone ringing during our evening meal with customers desperate for Mr Tomes to come and fix their wobbly picture in time for Coronation Street or whatever. My dad would bolt down his tea and drive to the rescue.

It’s amazing to think how much technology has changed since 1953. Next weekend, most people could watch the Coronation of King Charles on their own mobile phones if they so wished!