Coping with crisisSophy Roberts: The Lost Pianos of Siberia, New York: Grove Atlantic Press, 2020, ISBN 978-0-8021-4928-2, pp. [x] + 436, $27.00.

Note: The book has a dedicated web site that features two short documentary films made by American photographer Michael Turek (who accompanied her, as did an interpreter [or -ers] that does [or do] not seem to be thanked in the “Acknowledgments” section [pp. 364-68]) and links to listen to music played by the talented young Mongolian pianist Odgerel Sampinorov,(whom Roberts met and befriended on her first visit, and to whom she gave, on her third, a piano that she found and had restored), played on some of the pianos Roberts found (alas not all identified), and a video of her playing on her Yamaha baby grand and accompanying a young man (Munkhbayar Erdenebaatar) playing a morin khuur, a two-string indigenous instrument somewhat like a violoncello in playing technique, sound, and tone.

I first learned of this book when a good friend, who is about a decade younger than I, and whom I often see at concerts and recitals – we often sit together and occasionally travel together when a long distance is involved – who, having decided to learn to play the piano when he retired about four years ago (having found an older upright that he liked in the years just prior to that event and sharing a lot of his search for it with me during the process) forwarded to me an e-mail that he had received from his teacher (a pianist whom I also know, often see at concerts as well, and have heard play on several occasions), in which she wrote about how much she enjoyed reading the book by Lafarge on Chopin that I reviewed in these pages, and was then enjoying this one. I immediately found a copy in a public library and placed a reserve on it.

I picked it up several weeks ago and recently finished reading it, discovering in the process that she refers to another book that I reviewed in these pages – Paul Kildea’s on Chopin’s piano in Mallorca – a little over two years ago. Yet more connections are made when Roberts begins mentioning specific makes of pianos, because one of those that she liked the best is the 1930s-era Grotrian-Steinweg upright, serial number 63216 (p. 254), that she had restored and gave to Odgerel, who plays Field’s Nocturne No, 4 on it in the online link. I read, when it was published in 2008, Perri Knize’s Grand Obsession, about her ordeals getting the Grotrian baby grand that she played in a NYC piano shop, with whose sound she fell in love, from there to her home in Missoula, Montana, where she taught journalism at the University, a task not unlike getting one from St. Petersburg to Novosibirsk, where Roberts found the Grotrian-Steinweg, but early 21st-century American transport means and methods are significantly different from and easier than those of 19th- and early 20th-century Russian ones. Coincidentally, Roberts is also a journalist. In fact, I often read books by investigative journalists and enjoy them, and write from somewhat that perspective and in that style.

Roberts’ narrative is the search for instruments that might remain from the time they were purchased and trace their trajectory to their precent location and assess their current condition. Many of her quests turned out to be wild goose chases, but she found evidence of a widespread presence of pianos in Siberia, in many levels of society, not only the aristocracy. Many were German makes, such as Bechsteins, Blütners, Ibachs, but there were apparently no Viennese ones. There were makers in Russia in the 19th- and early 20th- centuries, some Russians who had learned the craft in Germany, at the Steinway Academy in Hamburg, and others, Germans such as Jacob Becker, Friedrich Diederichs, Franz Adolf Mühlbach, Johann Friedrich Schröder, and Léopold Stürzwage, and likely also Smidt & Wegener, who had moved their workshops to Russia, mostly St. Petersburg. What she refers to as a “field guide” (p. 308, also mentioned on p. 65) to them was written by an American, Anne Schwartz (see part 2, below). All production had ended in Russia by the end of the 1st decade of this century.

Some makes from other countries also made their way there beginning c. 1810: English Broadwoods (company that pianist-composer [the first to write a nocturne] John Field represented; he went to Russia to perform and stayed), Clementis, Tomkinsons, and Zumpes, French Érards, Gaveaux[/s], and Pleyels, Danish Marshalls, and Rönishes, and in the 20th century, Estonias, and Japanese Kawais, and Yamahas, post WW II; a few of all of them made their way to Siberia, but all Roberts found in many cases were parts, remnants, memories, and traces of them, their destruction mostly the result of the various revolutions, regime changes, and wars in the 20th century, but the extremes of the climate had wreaked havoc on those remaining as well.

Several pianists other than Field also played and toured in Russia in the 19th century, including Franz Liszt, Adolf Henselt, Clara Schumann [who owned an 1871 Grotrian-Steinweg that was given to her and was her favorite, according to her own words], Sigismond Thalberg, and Maria Szymanowska, who, like Field, stayed until death (in a cholera epidemic), but none went into Siberia, although a few Russian ones did, mostly in the 20th century. Nonetheless, many inhabitants of the vast and desolate area found and find their beings and souls touched by music, just as we do, and some took or take up playing the piano, and instruments are necessary for that activity and their own well-being.

The narrative reads easily, disturbing and unpleasant political behaviors and destructions aside, and is very engrossing and informative. Roberts quotes Pyotr Aidu, a Russian concert pianist “who had amassed a Moscow orphanage for abandoned instruments,” [who] “said there were voices worth seeking out in old instruments. In his opinion, restored pianos have better sound than their modern counterparts.” (p. 51) My ears think so, too; Grotrian-Steinweg beats Yamaha hands down!

Roberts quotes the piano tuner who restored the Grotrian-Steinweg in Novosibirsk, Kostya Lomatchenko (3rd generation of tuners: a photo of 5 members of the family, incl the potential 4th generation tuner, accompaniers the text [p. 250], but none of them are listed in the Index [pp. 419-33!]), as saying: “When you hear it, you cannot say it’s very dry, or very glossy, or very metallic, […] It’s balanced, full, a rounded sound. And see the frame? It’s cast iron. It has an integrity, which deserves proper restoration.[…]” (p. 257). Perhaps these are the features that made Knise fall in love with hers? NY Steinways have similar ones, but they don’t add up to this kind of sound, which you can hear on the website. Try it, you’ll like it; and then try taking the journey with Roberts – things will really resonate with you.


Part 2

Anne Swartz: Piano Makers in Russia in the Nineteenth Century, Lehigh University Press, 2014, ISBN 978-1-61146-158-9, pp. xxiv + 188, $80.43 (hardcover), $43.99 (paperback), available via Amazon; also available on Kindle, $41.50.

This is the book that Roberts calls her “field guide.” It provides details about pianos in Russia, their role in the culture, the conditions that created the industry, and the demand for its products. Nothing similar is available on the market. It is a scholarly work, so not an easy read like the Roberts, but worth reading if you want more information to fill in things that she does not specify, some of which I supply here.

In the 18th century, the Romanovs, Russia’s ruling family 1613-1917, decided (or realized?) that the country needed to align itself more, both culturally and industrially, with Western Europe: Germany, France, and England, nations with which it achieved parity at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, by virtue of its defeat outside Moscow of the Napoleonic armies on 14 December 1812. They were based in Moscow, and decided a capital near a port was needed, so built a city at St. Petersburg (founded by Peter I, ‘the Great,’ [r. 1682-1725] in 1703; the nation’s capital 1713-1918) and palace (beginning c. 1725, modeled after Versailles, but in Flemish Baroque architectural style) in the 18th and early 19th centuries, at the time that keyboard instruments were transitioning from harpsichords to pianofortes. Catherine II, ‘the Great’ (r. 1762-96), Alexander I (r. 1801-25), Nicolas I (r. 1825-55), and Alexander II (r. 1855-81) were the prime movers in these endeavors. It was the last of these that pushed the expansion into the Far East, including Siberia; chapter 7 (pp. 83-89) is devoted to this.

They did this culturally, by example, patronage, and increasing the number of public concerts, and also financially, by legislation, protection, subsidies, assistance in acquiring machinery and tools, access to the state-run foundry at Aleksandrovskiy, and subsidies for distant shipments of the instruments to customers outside the capital (p. 56). German builders who moved there were enticed by subsidies; tariffs were imposed on pianos imported from other countries, but not on the materials not made in Russia that were needed to build the instruments. Exports were forbidden, while supplying the Far East was encouraged (p. 56). Exemptions from taxation were also granted to the owners. Prices were deliberately kept low so more people could afford to purchase pianos; this was true through the end of the 19th century and the monarchy.

Schools were founded, adjacent to factories of all sorts, for children of workers, and 3 Institutes for upper- and middle-class girls, in which music performance was taught; many of the keyboard instructors, Field and Szymanowska among them, were foreign-born (p. 17). The upper-class landowners encouraged their domestic servants and the serfs to learn to perform music (p. 72). This also encouraged the purchase of instruments by parents for homes, mostly small, 5-octave ones, called ‘pianinos’; grands were called ‘royals‘ (p. xvi), and uprights are often called ‘cabinets.’ “By 1830, there were approximately twelve workshops in St. Petersburg, and by 1880, more than fifty [another source says 60] piano factories were established in the urban centers of St. Petersburg, Kiev, Moscow, and Odessa.” (p. 53)

At first, technical improvements originated in the West, not in Russia, mostly from the German firms in Dresden, and the instruments used the German action and frames. The earliest was that of Theodore Diederichs, founded in 1810; followed by that of Johann Frederick Schroeder, founded in 1818. Both survived to 1918 when they ceased production and their properties were seized by the Soviet government. The challenges were to build instruments that could withstand the severe winter season with its cold and dampness (p. 37). Some, like Lichtenthal and Schroeder, succeeded better than others.

The Schroeder firm became the dominant one, adopting innovations drawn from American technologies, the cast iron frame and cross-strung wires, and becoming more or less the Steinway of Russia (pp. 38-9). “Shreder’s [sic] piano, with its darker tone quality, enabled the pianist to interpret the expressive nuances of the melody, and such artistic interpretations came to symbolize emotion and meaning in music.” (p. 40); it ceased production in 1918, having lasted 100 years. Other makers, like Lichtenthal, are catalogued on p. 55.

Many of the visiting pianists, including Drayschock, Thalberg, Marie Pleyel (née Moke, wife of Camille, owner of the French make) and Clara Schumann, “praised Shreder’s [sic] concert grand, citing the instrument’s rich, orchestral timbre and expressive singing tone” (p. 69)/”praised the rich timbre and singing tone of the Shreder [sic] concert grand” (pp. 39-40), this being the only documentation that this was likely the instrument they played on their tours, except for Franz Liszt, who played a Lichtenthal 8-octave (A modern one has 8 1/3 octaves,) grand in 1842 (pp. 55 & 69), also praised by Thalberg, Anton Rubenstein and his student Josef Hofmann, and that Karl Meyer and Thedor Döhler preferred (p. 69). Lichtenthal purportedly built a double keyboard piano for Liszt, but it is not known what he thought of or if he played it. A Schroeder “concert grand advertised as a ‘miracle instrument’ was prominently displayed at the 1893 World Exhibition in Chicago” and created a sensation, but was returned to Russia in spite of numerous generous offers to purchase from “wealthy collectors” (p. 40).

Swartz provides more details (pp. 57-58) about the Lichtenthal firm [founded in 1840; Hermann was working in Brussels and moved to St. Petersburg.] and its instruments, than for others, because it was considered the finest quality; it had a strengthened soundboard and a metal plate over it, that produced a rich sonority, and, in 1839 he had “patented a new string-distribution system that featured an arrangement of the strings on equidistant bridges, so that the weight of the strings would be distributed evenly above the sound board.” (p. 61), but it closed soon after 1870, Hermann having died in 1853. Roberts found one, in sorry shape, in Irkutsk, and wrote about it, but you’ll need to subscribe to the newsletter in which the article appears (for a trial; you can unsubscribe afterwards) to read it all; it includes a photo of the fallboard (Some of the story, without this photo, is in her book, Pt. 1, pp. 87-88.).

Jacob Becker (mentioned by Roberts, as was Schröder) moved from Bavaria to St. Petersburg in 1841 (pp. 61 & 126), was “the first to incorporate European and American technology in the construction of the concert grand and was a prominent manufacturer in Russia.” (p. 61) He was the first to adopt cross-stringing in Russia. “[A]n unidentified critic noted that the construction of the Becker royal enabled the pianist to interpret richly all the colors and nuances of the music, from the ‘softest and most silver-toned pianissimo to the extreme limits of the piano’s sonority.'” (p. 62) It had the distinctions of having its own casting foundry and metal workshops (p. 63), and of its concert grand being the official piano to both Nicolas I and Alexander II. (p. 68) Many visiting pianists also played on Beckers; like the Schroeder, it was a popular and widespread choice. [There is a grand from c. 1879, cat. # 49, in the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands, East Clandon, Surrey, UK, whose catalogue entry confirms much of this.] In October 1899, its premises were destroyed in a fire; it rebuilt in a former cotton mill factory building in a different district, on an island (p. 63).

The company was nationalized and transformed into the Red October piano factory in 1917, and closed its doors in 2004 (p. 63), the longest-lived piano firm, having lasted 163 years (p, 127), and rendering the last four words of the book’s title incorrect. It had been perhaps the best known and most popular make: Anton Rubinstein, in a 25 August 1887 letter to the owner of a store in England, wrote: “For the last thirty years during my artistic tours in Russia I have always used the Becker Royal exclusively. In addition to the size of its sound and the perfection of the mechanism, these instruments possess the rare quality of sound modulation, such as I have never encountered in any other concert grand. As you know, during my last stay in England I played exclusively on Becker concert grands.” (p. 115) He owned one, given to him by the company. I wonder if anyone at the NY Steinway factory has read this or heard a Becker. Roberts found some of both makes in her hunts.

Karl Rönisch operated differently: he established a factory in St. Petersburg in 1856, but retained his Dresden one, and shipped some of its products to Russia, though he had to pay the tariff on them (p. 65). “The Rönisch piano featured ‘a ‘full, round, musical tone,’ and the detailed and particular workmanship ensured that the piano’s action remained stable during shipping.” (p, 64) In 1897, he purchased a large site in St. Petersburg and moved his base there. “[T]he instruments constructed and marketed in Russia received special treatments and finishes to withstand the severe cold and humidity, enabling the sales of the instruments to all parts of the Empire.” (p. 65) Because his Russian products had such a pristine reputation, he advertised and guaranteed that they were the same as those produced in Dresden (pp. 65 & 108). He “obtained the steel and metal braces necessary for the construction of the piano’s action and mechanics from the main factory in Dresden.” (p. 108) He was selling his products at the same prices that Becker and Lichtenthal had charged in the 1840s, and were still charging. (p. 66)

In the late 19th century, a few piano making factories opened up outside the capital areas. August Strobl opened one in Kiev c. 1890 (pp. 103-07); copious details about the working conditions and requirements are given, but the given name of the owner is missing. Vasilii Semonovich Karetnikov founded one in St. Petersburg in 1870 (p. 107), but Swartz gives no other details, and I find no information elsewhere about such a maker, so it may be so small that it was really more like a workshop, similar to one of a luthier. The same is the case for the factories founded there in 1881 by Anton Ksaverievch Dovnarovich (pp. 96-98, 107, & 134), and of Andrei Emel’ianovich Kulakov in the same year to make accordions (pp. 98-100, 107, & 134), for both of which she gives details about the pay scales. These were likely not really factories devoted to large-scale piano production.

Swartz also mentions pianos made by A. Berman (p. 103), who owned a store that sold primarily other types of instruments, but I find no information anywhere for a piano with that name, so wonder if he might have sold “stencil pianos,” term used (because the maker’s name is applied to the fallboard by a stenciling process) in the Pierce Piano Atlas (founded by Bob Pierce, 1947; 12th ed., Larry Ashley, 2008, 13th [“Anniversary Edition”], 2017, available, $28.00) for instruments sold with a different name than that of the real maker. The last sentence of this section says: “For the most part, the manufacturing process for pianos and other domestic instruments in the 1870s utilized Russian raw materials and components, and the instruments were sold only in Russia.” The latter was always the case; I somehow find the former unlikely, in light of other things she says, and in spite of her mention of the “I.F. Miuller [sic] musical instrument factory in Moscow [another that I have been unable to find documented elsewhere], creating a new wholesale market for piano accessories and components for sale to Russian builders. […, and] who also specialized in the production of the concert grand and the cabinet piano, as well as a five-octave harmonium […]” (p. 100). More makers were touting making pianos with American features. (pp. 108-9).

This book is chock full of information that is not available anywhere else in English, and its contents ought to be trustworthy, because its author speaks and reads Russian, but its source notes, with titles in Cyrillic Russian without translations, and that do not appear in the “Bibliography []” (pp. 167-175), are impossible to verify (They are not in WorldCat either, though they are located in the National Library in St. Petersburg.), and are single sources for many facts that seem to become generalizations. Its organization also leaves much to be desired: its chronology is scattered, nowhere near a strictly chronological narrative (e.g.: Chapter 9, “The Piano in Russia after 1917” begins: “During Alexander III’s reign (1881-1894) […]”, 33-23 years earlier.), and a lot of the data is disorganized, almost scrambled. There are misspelled makers’names, internal self-contradictions, glaring omissions (She assumes that everyone knows what she does, and many important pieces of information are absent; I’ve supplied some.), superfluous repetitions, and a lot of hypothesizing that may well be incorrect, and statistics that may not apply to situations beyond those in which they are cited or those with which they are being associated or compared. An aura of inaccuracy and imprecision hovers over and compromises the whole and, upon close examination, creates a fluid and hazy impression.

The longest chapters are: #’s 6, pp. 55-82, that covers c. 1840-1870, but actually goes from the late 18th through the entire 20th centuries, and discusses many things that are either off or beyond the topic; and # 8, pp. 91-120, that covers 1870-1900, but focuses primarily on instruments other than pianos, shops that make them, and stores that sell them, treats many other subjects, and goes to 1917. Chapter 10: “Legacy,” is an attempt to summarize, but also has to document the post-1917 demise; it opens with a misguided attempt to justify the last four words of the book’s title, becomes a eulogy for the loss of that period’s instruments’ historical dominance and success, and introduces details and facts not previously mentioned. I learned a lot, but sorting it out to be able to comprehend it and convey it to readers was not an easy task.