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Book Review: A Natural History of the Piano

Jazz fans will find no major revelations in Stuart Isacoff's well researched timeline

Stuart Isacoff kicks off A Natural History of the Piano with a recollection of a 2006 concert at Birdland by Oscar Peterson, the jazz giant whose style, according to Isacoff, was a synthesis of “the disparate strands that ran through the piano’s history.” Like Peterson’s music, Isacoff’s book attempts to consider all aspects of the piano, from its compositional mandates to the ways in which the instrument was used by the geniuses who carried it to the pinnacle of musical art. It’s a tall order for any one volume, but to Isacoff’s credit, he accomplishes the task with reasonable facility.

Given Isacoff’s background, which includes stints writing for Chamber Music and Symphony, it should come as no surprise that his emphasis falls heavily on the classical spectrum. The author takes the piano from its invention by Bartolomeo Cristofori to the parlors of post-Baroque Europe, where demigods like Mozart and the ever-tempestuous Beethoven plied their trade. The piano brought music into countless homes and launched professional pianists around the world in a sometimes literal daze (Isacoff recounts more than one story of pianists collapsing and even dying at the keys). The instrument made legends of towering virtuosos like Franz Liszt and idiosyncratic aesthetes like Glenn Gould. The piano’s very construction spawned unique innovations, from upright-stringed “giraffe” pianos to John Cage’s bizarre “prepared piano” percussion experiments.

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