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Praise of a Poor Piano - A Paradox - By Eugenio Pirani

To you, fellow artists, who during your summer vacation are condemned to put up with an inferior instrument, let me bring some consolation, singing the praise of a poor piano.

Just this summer I discovered the advantages of such an instrument. In former years it was very difficult to transport an excellent grand piano up to the top of the hill, where my bungalow is located, so this year it was decided to have a small upright instrument. Its tone proved to be as tiny as its appearance and, when touched for the first time, it produced discouragement, yea, dismay.

How was a decent tone to be gotten out of that little “flivver”?

Everybody, of course, is able to produce a voluminous tone with a modern concert grand. He needs only to glide gently over the keyboard. The tone is ready made; the pianist needs only to use it.

But here was a serious problem. Only a considerable amount of pressure could ring out of this kind of instrument a half-way sonorous tone. It was like trying to extract out of a dwarfish little lemon a large quantity of juice. It must be squeezed hard.

Notice the first advantage! Your touch will become more substantial, you have almost to create the tone, instead of simply reproducing it.

But another problem you will have to face. The comparatively acceptable tone evolved is of a very short duration; it is a point instead of a line. It ceases as soon as you have struck the key. Here again skill and ingenuity are needed to sustain the tone, especially in melodic passages, partly through a very intense pressure, partly through the help of the pedal.

And again, how is a fortissimo to be obtained? Here your art is put to a severe test. You may, of course, pound the piano and chastise it, as you would do with a restive mule, but the results would be very unsatisfactory indeed. The quality of tone would be stridulous and offensive. The task is to produce a big tone and still to avoid harshness and roughness. This is a problem for a great artist. It can be done only with a proper mixture of muscular strength and moderation. The tone must be loud and still not transgress the boundaries of beauty. You ought to have fingers of steel, lined with velvet.

No great skill is required to produce a roaring deafening sound with a concert grand; but try to do it on one of these little rattle boxes!

These and other problems go toward sharpening the dexterity of the pianist and are liable to make of him a greater artist than he was before.

And, last, how happy he will feel, when his vacation is ended, and he will return to his favorite grand! The first thing he will do is to play a couple of majestic thundering chords, like a “Jupiter tonans.” What difference indeed between the pigmy in his cottage and his superb instrument! It seems almost to play alone without the help of the pianist! He never before appreciated so much its merits. To whom is he indebted for this unprecedented artistic enjoyment? To his humble upright.

The same thing often happens to vocal artists. There are singers who are possessed of a very little voice.

Ludwig Wüllner, a great baritone who toured the whole world, in spite of the fact that his vocal powers were very limited. Somebody called him “the singer without voice.” He understood, however, how to use his little, undersized voice with exquisite art and obtained with it artistic effects which other singers, although endowed with a powerful voice, are not able to produce.

Also, Pauline Viardot Garcia, the famous singer, to whom I was introduced in Paris as she was in her eighties. She sang a difficult coloratura aria and I was utterly surprised that at her age, and with the exiguous thread of voice which was left to her, she was able to bring about such charming effects.

No wonder that the millionaire, with his unlimited income, can revel in easiness and luxury. The person who can manage to enjoy life with a diminutive income is the one who commands our admiration.

The following motto should be added to Emerson’s “Compensation”: “The poorer the piano, the greater the art!”

Let us, therefore, sing a hymn of praise to the poor pianos!

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