A friend sends an article link from the London Times Online about the recent rediscovery of Chopin’s piano, which had accompanied him to England and Scotland in 1848. This is due to persistent research by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, one of the top figures in Chopin studies worldwide and (of greatest interest to me) the person who has done the most with the study of Chopin’s pianism and performance practices. He was the first to proceed systematically through the testimony of Chopin’s students, contemporaries who heard him play, and so on.
A link to the article enables one to hear the instrument being played. What a nice thought! Nice, that is for non-Mac users, apparently, because my machines can make neither head nor tail of the recording, which has the suffix .asf. So, zillions of people worldwide can hear Chopin’s piano and I, of all people obsessed with the idea, cannot. I am trying to see the irony and humor of the situation. If I fail, I may just run amok.
The reappearance of Chopin’s piano is important to me because it is one more tantalyzing hint of the great sonic time machine, the ability to experience a remnant of a vanished sound-world, which is the ultimate (and unreachable) goal of those of us who study performance practices. Of course, I exaggerate; I see no way for the ravages of time and nature, even with the piano sitting in a protected English country house, not to have taken their toll. We are talking about 160 years of moisture, after all, strings held at high tension in a wood pin-block. I have played a couple to Pleyels of this vintage, one at the Yale Instrument Collection and one in Ashburnham, MA, and I cannot conceive of time having stopped, or the effects of moisture, temperature, and other environmental factors on wood and metal somehow miraculously being held in abeyance. So, the extent to which the piano’s present sound resembles its original sound will remain a matter of conjecture and argument.
Yet I’m still dying to hear this piano, or someday (God willing) even to play it. Whatever it sounds like, I’m sure it will be closer to a chopinesque aesthetic than the 5’8” Knabe I have at home. Given the litany, moreover, of Chopin’s contemporaries—he was unique, no one could play like him, the sound he could get out of his Pleyel was positively ethereal—the rediscovery of this instrument is a major break for Chopin studies. I await further developments with great impatience.
And you thought music history was basically established already, and unchanging?!