Classics, rockers and all that jazz
MUSIC:Though it is written from an American perspective, a new history of the piano and pianists from Mozart to Jerry Lee Lewis makes entertaining reading
A Natural History of the Piano by Stuart Isacoff, Souvenir Press, 361pp, £20.
Stuart Isacoff’s A Natural History of the Piano is subtitled The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians – from Mozart to Modern Jazz, and Everything in Between.
In fact, chronologically Isacoff traces the prehistory of the piano back to its origins almost a century before Mozart reached his prime, but he picks Mozart as his spiritual starting point for the book. The title of that chapter, “The First Piano Superstar”, gives a clue to Isacoff’s approach: he is interested in the stellar celebrity of great pianists and pianist-composers throughout history.
However, the pianist who launches the book in the first chapter is not Mozart but the jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, and throughout the book Isacoff brings jazz pianists into the heart of his exposition, alongside their classical counterparts.
Clearly determined to cut at least partly across the historical grain, Isacoff then organises the main history of pianist-composers into four categories of his own making, devoting an extended chapter to each: Combustibles (think explosives), Alchemists (sound magicians), Rhythmitizers (percussionists) and Melodists (tear-jerkers).
The Combustibles chapter starts, after a brief nod to CPE Bach and Haydn, with Beethoven and Liszt, continues into the 20th century with Bartok, Stravinsky and Elliott Carter, and finishes with Jerry Lee Lewis (yes, rock’n’roll pianists are here too), Earl Hines and Cecil Taylor.
The Alchemists chapter includes, among others, Debussy, Messiaen, Scriabin, Billy Evans, Duke Ellington, John Cage and minimalism (Reich, Glass and Riley).
In the case of the Combustibles, of course, Jerry Lee Lewis is more than appropriate. There’s a terrific story about Lewis’s being put out because Chuck Berry, who was sharing a show with him in Brooklyn in 1958, was insisting on closing the show, in line with his contract; so Lewis, having got as far as Great Balls of Fire and with the crowd at fever pitch, kept playing with one hand while with the other he doused the piano in gasoline, managed to light a match one-handed, and set the piano ablaze without ever stopping playing. This was clearly not an easy act for Berry to follow.
Isacoff’s coverage of jazz pianists is engrossing, whereas his history of the classics is variable in its intensity and occasionally lapses into cliche: “Bach’s music rings with heavenly certitude; Beethoven’s radiates human struggle” (there is plenty of struggle in Bach too); “Despite their dearth of hummable tunes, Beethoven’s sonatas grip us and refuse to let go” (in fact they have plenty of “hummable tunes”). The stories he tells of Liszt are in the main familiar ones, and one gets more of an impression of a personal voice when he writes about Oscar Peterson.