D. H. Lawrence 1913
A lyric poem reflecting the speaker’s struggle to ward off childhood memories that threaten to engulf him, “Piano” embodies many of the conflicts that would plague D. H. Lawrence throughout his life. The poem describes how a man is “transported” to the past while listening to a woman singing at a piano. Though he fights against what he sees as his sentimental response to the music, the speaker finally surrenders, giving himself over to his memories, until, finally, he is living in the past. Critics and biographers have written at length about Lawrence’s relationships with women, and Lawrence himself has made the examination of man-woman relationships the thematic center of both his fiction and poetry. “Piano” has become widely anthologized not because it is necessarily a good poem but because editors consider it representative of Lawrence’s ideas about mother-son relationships.
“Piano” exists in two versions. The first was written in 1906 and begins with the following stanza: Somewhere beneath that piano’s superb sleek black / Must hide my mother’s piano, little and brown, with the back / That stood close to the wall, and the front’s faded silk, both torn, / And the keys with little hollows, that my mother’s fingers had worn …” This stanza was dropped in the revised version, written in 1911, a year after Lawrence’s mother had died. There are other changes as well, most of them serving to make the revised version of the poem less subtle, less about the piano per se. “Piano” appeared in Lawrence’s first collection of verse, Love Poems and Others, published in 1913.
The son of coal miner Arthur Lawrence and schoolteacher Lydia Beardsall, David Herbert Richard Lawrence was born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, England in 1885. Although his later novels, stories, and poems would address the possibilities of living in harmony with both the opposite sex and the natural world, Lawrence experienced neither of these during his childhood. His parents bickered and quarreled regularly. Biographers maintain that Lydia Beardsall and her family believed she married below her and that her life as the wife of a coal miner never lived up to her expectations. Compounding her misery was her husband’s drinking and carousing with his male friends. Eventually, Lydia turned the five children against their father, and the family lived in a tense atmosphere, with the children devoted to their mother but disdainful of their father. Lawrence had a close relationship to his mother; she had nursed him back to life after a childhood bout of double pneumonia, and he, in effect, became the person on whom she hung her hopes and dreams. When she died, Lawrence’s sickness returned in full force and almost killed him. After recovering, he quit his teaching post, terminated his romantic relationships, and flung himself into his writing career.
More than most fiction writers, Lawrence drew upon his own experiences to inform his work. His modern attitude manifested itself in his depiction of his family life and in his relationships with men and women. Sons and Lovers, Lawrence’s autobiographical novel about his relationships with both his mother and a love interest from his youth, illustrates what some critics refer to as Lawrence’s conflicted desire for his mother. Lawrence’s own theories about human behavior revolved around what he called “blood consciousness,” which he opposed to “mental and nerve consciousness.” Lawrence contended that “blood consciousness” was the seat of the will and was passed on “through the mother or through the sex.” Modern society, however, had somehow come to be dominated by mental consciousness and was thus largely unconscious of its own desires. Lawrence wrote about his theories of human behavior in Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (1921) and Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922). By explicitly depicting human
sexuality in his fiction, Lawrence flouted the moral conventions of the genre and of society, and his notoriety grew. His controversial novel Lady Chatterly’s Lover (1928) was accused of being obscene and pornographic, and its publishers were taken to court. Lawrence also disregarded accepted mores in his personal life. In 1912 he eloped with Frieda von Richthofen Weekley, the (still-married) wife of a professor at the University of Nottingham, who left her three small children to be with Lawrence. Weekley divorced her husband two years later and married Lawrence.
Though a few of Lawrence’s poems, such as “Snake” and “Piano,” are often anthologized, he made his reputation as a novelist. Lawrence’s own view of his poetry was that it was not only autobiographical, but that it documented a mind in process, rather than one already made up. He called his verse a “poetry of the present,” distinguishing it from a “poetry of the beginning and poetry of the end,” which attempted to create finished products that could be easily consumed. This process-oriented approach to writing marked his work as distinctly modern. Lawrence’s own peripatetic existence—he and Frieda traveled constantly—was also a work in progress. That work came to an end on March 2, 1930, when he finally succumbed to tuberculosis, a sickness he had battled his entire life.
Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother
who smiles as she sings.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song 5
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into
With the great black piano appassionato. The 10
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a
child for the past.
From the opening line of “Piano” we are asked to see from the point of view of the speaker, who waxes nostalgic as he listens to a woman singing to him in the evening. Lyric poetry is defined by the expression of strong emotion from a first-person point of view, so we are given every indication of what to expect. The imagery of this first stanza sets the tone for a poem about memory. Because memory itself is a function of the relationship between past and present, it is significant that the poem takes place at dusk, a time somewhere between day and night. The image that sets up his memory, “the vista of years,” is also apropos because it prepares us for a visual remembrance: the speaker literally sees a younger version of himself “sitting under the piano.” The “boom of the tingling strings,” an aural image, echoes the suddenness with which the memory hits the speaker, and, as readers, we are left in the same place as the speaker.
The scene embraces sentimentality because of its clichéd representation of a mother and her child: he is sitting at her feet, adoringly, pressing her “small, poised feet.” Though we have come to expect this type of imagery in greeting cards, we usually do not expect it from poetry, especially modern poetry. It is significant that this image pits the
- The Twayne Authors series has put out a video documentary about the life and work of Lawrence. Many libraries carry the video, but it can also be ordered at amazon.com.
- In 1983, Spoken Arts produced an audiobook titled The Poems of D. H. Lawrence.
- An audio cassette of Lawrence reading his Women in Love has been produced by the BBC and is available from Bantam Books.
- The D. H. Lawrence Collection at The University of Nottingham can be accessed through the World Wide Web at http://mss.library.notting-ham.ac.uk/dhl_home.html.
interior world of the house against the exterior world of winter, as domesticity suggests safety and the innocence of childhood, whereas winter suggests the insecurity and experience of adulthood. The aabb rhyme scheme also adds to the clichéd nature of the image, as it underscores the conventional form of the poem.
The second stanza takes us deeper into the speaker’s memory, which he tells us he is fighting against. By using the word “insidious” to describe the woman’s “mastery of song,” the speaker suggests an almost adversarial relationship with her. That he is “betrayed” deeper into his memory, emphasizes the resistance he is putting up against the onslaught of the memory. The last two lines of the stanza participate again in image building. Now the speaker presents us with an idyllic picture of his childhood. Like the initial image of the speaker as a child with his mother, this representation is also stock; it conforms to all of the stereotypes of what a middle-class Sunday night with the family would be like in the late-nineteenth century. The image of the piano links the first and second stanza to highlight the relationship between music and memory. Music was the speaker’s guide when he was a child, and it remains his guide as an adult.
The third stanza signals the speaker’s thorough capitulation to his memory. It is “vain” for the singer “to burst into clamour” because the speaker has already done that, giving himself over to the barrage of feeling and memory. But it is not to the singer that he gives his passion, but to the past. In this stanza, the speaker also makes a link between manhood and childhood. It is not only the adult world of the present that he is forsaking for the past, but also the adult world of manhood. By equating manhood with the ability to resist the temptation of sentimentality, Lawrence embodies yet another stereotype: that of the male whose identity rests upon his capacity not to feel. The image we are left with is the adult as child, uncontrollably weeping for his past.
“Piano” suggests, quite literally, that the child is the father of the son. The bond that the speaker formed with his mother in childhood follows him through life and makes him the adult he is. Lawrence’s notions of both adulthood and manhood were configured during his childhood, and both of these concepts are represented in the way he writes about them. Making a woman singing to him the catalyst for memories about his childhood tells us that Lawrence sees one of the essential attributes of adulthood existing in the relationship between man and woman—more specifically, a romantic or sexual relationship between man and woman. That he is unable to pay attention to that relationship tells us that he believes he has lost, albeit temporarily, that adult part of himself. For Lawrence, adulthood is also tied up in notions of gender or, as he put it, “manhood.” He is “betrayed” by “the insidious mastery of song”; hence, he has lost self-control, a feature of being an adult. But it is also the way that he has lost control that makes him say that “[his] manhood is cast / Down in the flood of remembrance ….” It is not only remembering his childhood days with his mother that makes Lawrence think he is less of a man, but it is the crying that accompanies such memory. Lawrence’s conception of manhood, then, rests upon conventional, even stereotypical, ideas of what constitutes masculine behavior. Seen in this light, the emotional turmoil of the speaker is a turmoil caused, in large part, by the loss of identity.
Topics for Further Study
- For one month, keep a journal of all the times that a particular sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste causes you to think about an event from your childhood. Pay attention to the strength of the memory and to the amount of time it makes you think about the past. Write an essay examining your own relationship to the intrusion of these kinds of memories into your daily life.
- Many sociologists and psychologists claim that human beings are only aware of their gender at certain times. That is, we don’t go around thinking that “I am a woman” or “I am a man.” For one week keep a record of the times when you are made aware of your gender. Then examine your notes and write a short essay exploring what it is about these times that make you aware that you are a male or a female.
- Provide your own definition of “regret,” then argue for why you think it is a mostly positive or mostly negative human emotion. Use personal examples to back up your argument.
Such a loss, however, is ultimately ironic, for it is only through articulating what he has lost that the speaker can name what he is. However, sappy and sentimental the poem may be, as readers we can only be sympathetic to the emotions of the speaker.
In “Piano” Lawrence suggests that memory is so powerful it can prevent us from living in the present, effectively making life a haunted affair. The speaker ignores the singer in front of him and instead begins to fantasize about the past, imagining himself as a small child at the feet of his mother, who is also singing. It is the past that the speaker desires to live in; the present is only pretext. The speaker is sucked into an idea of his past, believing his childhood was a time of contentment and bliss. Without memory he wouldn’t have even an idea of the past and, hence, an object for his longing. “It is vain for the singer to burst into clamour” because the speaker can no longer appreciate the passion of the singer, only of her song. It is song, Lawrence implies, that is like memory, starting small and building toward an emotional climax in which the listener/rememberer becomes lost in another world. By foregrounding memory in this poem, Lawrence pays homage to Mnemosyne, the Grecian goddess of memory and mother of the muses. If we consider the singer in “Piano” as being analogous to Mnemosyne, then the speaker’s memory of his own mother becomes the muse.
“Piano” is a lyric poem, written in quatrains and rhymed aabb, that juxtaposes the speaker’s present experience to his childhood. Lyrics are short poems that reflect the feelings and thought of a single speaker. The term “lyric” derives from the Greek word for lyre, which is a type of musical instrument. “Lyric” was initially meant to name any poem that was sung accompanied by the lyre. Now it means short, first-person poems in which the focus is on subjective experience, imagination, and melodic tone. Today, the plural “lyrics” refers to the words of a song. The title “Piano” is significant because it foregrounds the poem’s song-like qualities.
The central image of the poem is the childhood scene that the speaker remembers. This image evokes the myth of the ideal family, a myth at the heart of western-European, Christian capitalist societies. Many readers will be attracted to this image because it is so deeply ingrained in our psyches. Sunday evenings are the time when the entire family can be together after a week of work. As such, the image functions to evoke in us the same feelings the speaker experiences: nostalgia, security, and the desire for better days.
Tone signifies the relationship between the speaker and his subject matter. “This poem’s tone is intimate and self-aware. Reading “Piano,” we have the sense of watching someone falling. The reader’s own awareness that the speaker is falling into the “trap” of sentimental nostalgia and his inability to stop it provide a sense of irony to the poem, as a child’s perspective that everything is well with the world is undercut by the adult’s knowledge that, in fact, everything is not.
A poem of personal experience and pain, “Piano” was perhaps most shaped by ideas of the human mind—particular those of Sigmund Freud—that circulated at the beginning of the twentieth century. Freud established his own practice in Vienna in 1886, espousing controversial views on the psychological causes of mental illness. In 1896 he named this field of study psychoanalysis. Freud introduced the technique of free association to explore his theories of repression and resistance, focusing on the patient’s free flow of thoughts to uncover the mental processes at the root of the disturbance. Analyzing dreams enabled him to construct a theory of infantile sexuality, at the heart of which was the Oedipus Complex. This condition— representations of which are evident in much of Lawrence’s work, including “Piano,”—involves a child’s erotic attachment to the parent of the opposite sex and his or her hostility to the other parent. Lawrence’s own preoccupation involved examining the ways this complex manifested itself in adults as well as children. After World War I, Freud began examining ways in which he could apply his theories not only to living patients but to art, mythology, and religion as well.
The popularization of Freud’s theories accompanied the birth of what we now call “popular culture.” The late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries witnessed the exponential rise of literacy, which meant an increase in newspapers and reading in general. Pulp fiction, cheaply produced paperbacks detailing lurid crime, was also born during this time. Providing an escape from the drudgery of increasingly routinized work, these books could be purchased at newsstands or taken out from a lending library. As more and more people moved to cities from the country, various entertainment industries also boomed. Theaters and music halls sprung up in London and other European capitals, and football (soccer) established itself as the first mass spectator sport. More than one hundred thousand people attended the Football Cup Final in England in 1901, for example.
Poets and novelists documented these rapid changes in culture. A group of British poets known as Georgians—because they wrote during the reign of King George V—attempted to yoke together nationalist sentiment with their love for the natural world. They published an annual anthology called Georgian Poetry, which included the work of poets such as Walter de la Mare, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Rupert Brooke. Lawrence himself was also occasionally included, but he later distanced himself from the Georgians, as he began to focus more and more on love and the relationship between men and women in his writing. But
Compare & Contrast
- 1912: Sigmund Freud delivers a speech before the London Society of Psychical Research for the first time and details his theories on the unconscious as a repository of thoughts repressed by the conscious mind. Over the next few decades, psychoanalysis grows in popularity, with thousands of psychiatrists undergoing and then practicing Freudian psychoanalysis.
Today: Though academic interest in Freud remains strong, very few practicing Freudian analysts remain.
- 1906: Scottish anthropologist James Frazer publishes the twelve-volume version of The Golden Bough, a seminal work on religion, music, and folklore.
Today: The Golden Bough is required reading in most anthropology, and many humanities, courses in higher education.
- 1910: The first wireless telegraph message was transmitted between land and an airplane.
Today: Satellite technology and the internet have made international communication almost instantaneous.
- 1913: D.H. Lawrence publishes his first collection of poems, Love Poems and Others.
Today: Lawrence’s poetry is largely ignored, but he is widely considered one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century.
- 1928: The publisher of Lawrence’s novel Lady Chattererly’s Lover is taken to court on obscenity charges.
Today: Sexual themes and content in books and movies have become commonplace. By today’s standards Lady Chattererly’s Lover would be considered tame.
like many of the modernists writing at the time, Lawrence, for the most part, wrote in free verse and put much of his energy into content rather than form, choosing to write direct, often confessional statements about his own experiences. The overt nostalgia and depiction of his love for his mother in “Piano” illustrates this technique.
Critical reception to “Piano” has been mixed. In Poetry and the Common Life, M. L. Rosenthal praises the poem, calling the scene that Lawrence creates “romantic and evocative” and claiming that the poem “catches the rush of emotional surrender as the speaker’s childhood self leaps from the darkness of forgotten life.” In Practical Criticism, I. A. Richards had a group of readers respond to and evaluate “Piano.” Although sixty-six percent of the readers gave the poem an “unfavorable” rating—many claiming that it was “grossly sentimental”—Richards largely dismissed these readings as being uninformed, exemplifying an ignorance of critical principles.
On the other hand, critics such as Philip Hobsbaum have maintained that the poem does not deserve the praise it has been given, largely because Lawrence could not find the right form to harness its emotional intensity. Hobsbaum examines two versions of the poem, one written in 1906, and one (the published version) in 1911. He claims that the first draft was more “authentic” and that the second draft, written after Lawrence’s mother had died, suffered because it had lost a degree of subtlety. Hobsbaum attributes this to what he claims was a sudden shift in Lawrence’s personality brought on by his grieving, which manifested itself in “a period of hyperactivity and disturbance.” W. D. Snodgrass thought the poem ironic in that Lawrence, known as a modern prophet of sexual emancipation, could not respond to the woman singing passionately in front of him. “Must our sexual emancipator present such an image of impotency?” Snodgrass asks.
Alice Van Wart
Alice Van Wart is a writer and teaches literature and writing in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Toronto. She has a Ph.D. in Canadian literature, has published two books of poetry, and has written articles on modern and contemporary literature. In the following essay, Van Wart argues that Lawrence’s mastery of form is evidenced in “Piano,” which expresses a complex, emotional response to loss.
D. H. Lawrence, a British writer of novels, poetry, drama, and travel pieces, and the son of a miner in the industrial town of Nottingham, England, published his first poems at the age of nineteen. He began writing poetry as a way of expressing himself, and during his life he wrote more than a thousand poems, which were collected in two volumes. While attending Nottingham University for his teacher’s certificate, he wrote his first novel, The White Peacock. From its publication in 1911 to end of his life (with the exception of a short period as a schoolmaster), Lawrence lived entirely by his writing, leading a peripatetic life, traveling extensively, living in Europe and New Mexico, and, always, writing.
In his writing, Lawrence explored the tension between passion and reason, nature and civilization. He also attempted to create new modes of expression that would better accommodate his own acute perceptions and emotions. He broke with traditional structures in search of a form that would express the rhythms of deeply felt emotion. In these attempts, he was both praised as a major poet and criticized for being egotistical and self-absorbed.
Lawrence’s early poetry is largely autobiographical and traditional in form. The poems depict a young man of genius struggling with inadequate modes of expression. In his poem “Piano,” however, he was able to use a traditional form to successfully render unsentimental feelings of tenderness and loss about the death of his mother. In three quatrains of rhyming couplets, Lawrence moves beyond conceptual statement to express, in form and language, his personal response to loss.
In “Piano,” Lawrence recounts personal emotions awakened by hearing a woman singing. The song stirs memories of childhood and his mother. Remembering his mother makes him experience again his loss, and he begins to weep. The emotions that Lawrence describes in the poem are more
What Do I Read Next?
- Harry T. Moore’s 1974 biography, The Priest of Love, provides a detailed and highly entertaining account of the relationship between Lawrence’s love life and his work.
- In The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud, Philip Reiff examines ways in which artists and writers manifest their secular belief systems in their work.
- Pelican’s Social History of Britain: British Society 1914-1945 documents the social history of Britain from the beginning to the middle of the twentieth century.
- Roger Ebbatson explores the role of sex, survival, and self–interest in the works of three British novelists in The Evolutionary Self: Hardy, Forster, Lawrence.
- In Culture and Society 1780-1950 Marxist critic and writer Raymond Williams looks at the how the material world has shaped ideology in Great Britain during the modern era. This is one of the most perceptive examinations of the inner life of a country ever written.
than those of sentimental nostalgia and loss, however. The poem demonstrates a complex interplay of feeling behind the poet’s experience, conveying the sense of the presentness of a past experience and the changing emotions of this awareness.
In the first stanza, the poet sits in the dusk listening to a woman singing. The singing takes the poet “back down the vista of years.” There is a suggestion of intimacy between the poet and singer when he says, she is “singing to me.” The song not only wakens feelings from his childhood, but it also provides the bridge between the present and past. The past becomes a part of the present as the poet sees “a child sitting under the piano” and hears “the boom of tingling strings.” In these lines, the use of the progressive present tense conveys a sense of immediacy. The poet hears the “boom” of the music and feels the sensation of the piano strings as
“In three quatrains of rhyming couplets, Lawrence moves beyond conceptual statement to express, in form and language, his personal response to loss.”
he watches “the small, poised feet” of his mother, “who smiles as she sings.” Present time gives way to the past as the woman’s singing becomes his mother’s. The mother’s smile and the child’s awareness of her “poised feet” suggest a close bond between mother and child and the adult perception of her self-possession. The image prepares for the sharp jolt back to the present when the poet acknowledges that the song “betrays me back.”
The use of the word “betrays” complicates the reader’s perception of the poet’s initial feelings. There is a darkness in the poet’s admission that he is being pulled back in spite of himself. The description of the singer’s “insidious mastery of song” shows that the poet is aware of the treachery behind the song; it entices him into remembering “the old Sunday evenings at home,” where he sang hymns with his mother in “the cosy parlour.” Though the song entices, it also betrays because the recollection makes him want to be there so badly that his heart “weeps to belong.”
In the third stanza, the poet admits that since he has been tempted by the song into remembering another time, he now claims little interest in the song and notes—“It is vain for the singer to burst into clamour.” The use of the word “vain” suggests both the singer’s vanity in continuing to sing and the futility of her effort. The “burst into clamour” contrasts with the poet’s recollection of the sounds of the “tinkling strings” in the second stanza. The mood evoked by the phrase “piano appassionato” also contrasts with the atmosphere of the “cosy parlour,” in which hymns were sung. The implicit difference between the child’s world and that of the adult’s is made explicit in the enjambment of “appassianto” with “glamour.” The line break clarifies that the glamour is not associated with passionate playing of the piano, but with “childish days.” The play on the word “glamour”—in its association both to alluring charm and to enchantment—points to the contrast between the poet’s unconscious perceptions of childhood innocence and the unruly passions associated with adulthood. When the poet admits the “childish days” are “upon” him, “childish” suggests both the qualities of childhood and the poet’s awareness of being childish—“the flood of remembrance” makes him weep “like a child.”
The connection between childhood and adulthood creates a complex duality in the poem. In the third line of the last stanza, “childish days” are connected to the poet’s “manhood” which, the poet says, “is cast.” The word “cast” suggests something that is formed and cannot be altered. But the line break connects “cast” to the first word of the last line of the quatrain, so his “manhood is “cast, / Down.” The play on the word “cast” shows the poet being over taken by remembrance and giving in to weeping “like a child. In the second stanza, the recollection of childhood made the poet “weep to belong.” Having given in to “the flood of remembrance,” the poet is in the past, or the past has become one with the present.” The “childish days” of the past connect with the poet’s weeping “like a child for the past.” In the poet’s unconscious, past and present time are one.
The paramount sense of “Piano” is of the dominating presentness of past experience. The poem subtly conveys the poet’s awareness of inner experience that seems to live on beneath the level of ordinary waking consciousness and, at the same time, it shows the poet’s awareness of what, in fact, is remembrance. “Piano” presents a complex awareness of inner being characterized by what Alfred Alvarez, in his essay “D. H. Lawrence: The Single State of Man,” calls “a complete truth of feeling.” The power of the poem lies in the seemingly effortless way that Lawrence’s conveys— though the poem’s language and form—the process of the poet’s changing response to personal experience. By reading the poem, the reader shares in the process and watches the barriers between past and present collapse. Though, in his later poetry, Lawrence would abandon traditional forms in favor of a looser or “free” verse that would be shaped by the material, in “Piano,” Lawrence achieves a perfect union between content and form.
Source: Alice Van Wart, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999
Clifford Saunders teaches writing and literature in the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, area and has published six chapbooks of verse. In the following essay, Saunders contends that while “Piano” may come dangerously close to sentimental indulgence, it nevertheless captures—in memorable fashion—a universal experience.
Whoever said that “all great art borders on sentimentality” must have been thinking about D. H. Lawrence’s “Piano.” The poem conveys, quite simply and beautifully, an experience more common than many of us would like to admit: the headlong tumble into emotion-laden nostalgia brought on by “the insidious mastery of song.” The experience happens to most people at one time or another. It could be a seventy-five-year-old concentration camp survivor who gets goose bumps at the opening chords of “Lili Marlene,” a song made popular by actress Marlene Dietrich during World War II. It could be a forty-year-old baby boomer who becomes misty-eyed for a romantic past whenever Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” bursts forth from the car radio. It could even be an eighteen–year-old high–school student who fondly remembers a friend whenever he or she hears the song “Under the Sea” from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Music, for some reason, has the power to open the floodgates of remembrance in the human psyche, and it is this universal experience that Lawrence captures so memorably in “Piano.”
Of course, Lawrence comes dangerously close to succumbing to sentimentality in the poem. In such phrases as “the heart of me weeps to belong / To the old Sunday evenings at home,” he verges on the kind of fuzzy-warm, sentimental language that frequently characterizes greeting-card verse. Indeed, criticism of the poem’s “sentimentality” goes back at least as far as I. A. Richards’s Practical Criticism (1929), in which several of Richards’s students express annoyance with what one of them termed the poem’s “gross sentimentality.” As Richards himself pointed out, however, sentimentality develops in such poems from the excessive response of readers, not solely from an author’s expression. Richards also emphasized his judgment that “Piano” is actually a study in universal longing for the past, not an indulgence in nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. So, if this poem strikes the reader as a lapse into sentimentality, the reader should question whether the fault is Lawrence’s or the reader’s own.
It is also important to note that the speaker of the poem is characterized as someone who is not an easy mark for the sentimental impulse. “In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song / Betrays
“Music, for some reason, has the power to open the floodgates of remembrance in the human psyche, and it is this universal experience that Lawrence captures so memorably in ‘Piano.’”
me back,” he says, clearly indicating that he is one not prone to slipping into tearful outbursts. In fact, he seems to be resisting the grief welling inside of him over his lost childhood, and he possibly would have succeeded if not for the “insidious” ability of music to strip away all intellectual defenses against the onrush of deeply felt emotion. Any thick-skinned moviegoer who has wept at the happy ending of a romance in spite of him-or herself knows how easily a well-placed crescendo of violins can melt the heart—even if that happy ending is forced, tacked on, or otherwise undeserving of such a response.
Perhaps it is the speaker’s resistance to the emotional nostalgia building inside of him that saves the poem from “gross sentimentality.” In less capable hands than Lawrence’s, the poem could have easily slipped into self-indulgent mawkishness. The important point to remember is that Lawrence is totally aware of the poem’s flirtation with sentimentality and doesn’t allow it to go any further than that. A greeting-card versifier would have demonstrated no such resistance to the sentimental impulse; in fact, that impulse would likely have been milked for all it was worth.
Something else, though, is at work in the poem, preventing from wallowing in cheap sentiment: its very form. When sentiment becomes overbearing in a poem, it is often because the poem’s form reinforces the sentiment with, say, a heavy-handed meter or a highly predictable choice of rhyme (e.g., moon-swoon-June). Such is not the case in “Piano,” with its nonmetrical, almost prose-like rhythm and unobtrusive rhyme scheme. No greeting-card obviousness is evident here; in fact, Lawrence fought consistently against the “habits” of verse, prefering
“Curiously, the poem explores the muddy terrain of remembering in a rather conventional verse form.”
ring what he called a “poetry of imperfection” that stressed the ebb and lift of emotion to the “tyranny of the ear.” And so it is with “Piano,” where the poem’s long, loping lines tend to obscure the aabb rhyme scheme and diffuse any emphasis on words that might go begging for an overly emotional response from the reader. It’s interesting to note that at the place in the poem where the emotional current runs strongest (“my manhood is cast / Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past”), the rhyme scheme fairly vanishes into the page because Lawrence uses an enjambment—i.e., splitting the closely related words “cast down” so that they fall in different lines—in such a way that any emphasis on end words is undercut. By doing so, he allows the emotion—rather than the ear—to become, in a naturally organic way, the master of the poem.
This isn’t to say that Lawrence doesn’t have an ear for poetry. On the contrary, “Piano” is a textbook example of how sound patterning can greatly enhance a reader’s enjoyment and understanding of a poem. For instance, Lawrence’s use of assonance (i.e., resemblance of sound in words or syllables, especially vowel sounds), particularly in the first two stanzas of the poem, strikes a tone that corresponds with the highest notes on a piano’s keyboard. Notice how often the soft “i” tone appears in the poem:
Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother
who smiles as she sings.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano
That soft “i” tone is subtle but dominant in the poem, and what makes it doubly effective is its corresponding intonation to the tinkling sound of a piano’s upper register. Lawrence may not have even known consciously what he was doing; it may have all been intuitive. But Lawrence was an intuitive writer, and he trusted his ear enough that he could allow such “beautiful accidents” to occur in his poetry. Decades before poet Charles Olson made his famous declaration, “form is an extension of content,” Lawrence was doing just that—allowing the content to dictate at least one aspect of the poem’s form, its sound patterning.
Lawrence’s repeated use of the sibilant “s” sound also contributes to the poem’s subject matter and emotional context by reinforcing the tenderness that is at the heart of “Piano.” Notice how many words start with “s” in the first stanza alone: “Softly, singing, see, sitting, strings, small, smiles, she,” and “sings.” The combination of the soft vowel “i” and the soft consonant “s” adds to the poem’s musicality, producing an overall mood of softness and tenderness. And, ultimately, it is this tenderness, not “gross sentimentality,” that one takes away from the poem. It is the tenderness of childhood, the kind of tenderness that can “cast down” someone’s rugged manhood, the tenderness one feels when recalling a moment of pure innocence, the tenderness that is shared between family members singing hymns, the tenderness between mother and son.
While “Piano” is a very memorable poem, it is by no means a perfect one. Something falls apart in the writing during the third and final stanza. The emotional truth underlying the stanza is inviolable, but one gets the feeling that Lawrence hasn’t expressed it as well as he could have. One reason may be that he was still caught up in the conventions of the day and wed to a rhyme scheme that leads him into some questionable choices of diction in that final stanza. The rhyme of “clamour” and “glamour,” for example, seems heavy-handed and jarring, both rhythmically and contextually. The choice of “childish” in the stanza’s third line also is an unfortunate one; the word has a negative connotation (i.e., “Stop being so childish!”), but Lawrence is, in fact, looking back at his childhood with fondness as well as loss. A better word there would have been “innocent.” And, come to think of it, when is childhood ever “glamorous?”
Perhaps most bothersome of all, however, is the monotonous rhythm conveyed by the poem’s final sentence: “The glamour / Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast / Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.” The poem’s conclusion would have been much more effective if Lawrence had varied the syntax instead of allowing the rhyme scheme to coax him into such rhythmically plodding closure. One gets the feeling that if Lawrence had abandoned the rhyme scheme in the third stanza and switched to free verse instead, his expression might have more powerfully and aptly delivered the emotional catharsis at poem’s end. Indeed, it wouldn’t be long before free verse would become Lawrence’s modus operandi. Then, and only then, did Lawrence start writing the kind of incantatory verse that he was born to compose.
Source: Clifford Saunders, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Chris Semansky’s most recent collection of poems, Blindsided, has been published by 26 Books of Portland, Oregon. In the following essay Semansky argues that, in “Piano,” Lawrence uses form to hold the speaker’s volatile emotions in check.
A common-enough desire, nostalgia evokes a sentimental longing for the past. For the speaker of D. H. Lawrence’s poem “Piano,” however, nostalgia also evokes longing for the person he was as a child, before his own adult identity was solidified. Curiously, the poem explores the muddy terrain of remembering in a rather conventional verse form. The relationship between the restricted form and the theme of the poem makes for an intriguing reading of how the speaker of the poem implicitly, though not consciously, constructs an image of himself.
We can think of form as a container of sorts, the thing that holds the “stuff” of the poem (i.e., what it is about). If we think of a poem as a can of beer, the form would be the can and the beer would be the content. The poem’s three quatrains, rhymed aabb, provide the container for the speaker’s longing for and reminiscence of his childhood—the content. By relying on rhymed quatrains, the poem carries with it a certain set of expectations. In Poetic Designs, Stephen Adams claimed that “Rhyme has a powerful capacity for structuring the dynamic movement of the stanza. The first rhyme word sets up an anticipation and thus forward momentum; the second creates satisfaction and thus the possibility of closure; any further rhymes create a sense of insistence, saturation, or excess.” After the first stanza, not only do we anticipate that the lines will contain end-rhymes, but we are also able to anticipate, or flesh out, the scene being described after being given the initial image. Once we are told that “a child [is] sitting under the piano,” being sung to by a woman, we can infer that the woman is the speaker’s mother. The image of a child sitting at the feet of his mother is fairly common; no surprises there. However, we are surprised when the speaker’s longing takes on a life of its own. In the second stanza, the speaker’s nostalgia deepens, throwing him into emotional turmoil.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano
No longer are we in the realm of sentimental yearning for a more innocent time. Rather, we get the sense that the speaker has been hijacked by memories beyond his control. He has been “betrayed” by the very thing that initially brought on this nostalgia: it’s not simply a woman singing softly to him, but the “insidious mastery of song” that works on his emotions.
That music triggers the speaker’s daydream about the past is not unusual. Sensory stimuli often cause the human brain to call up past events. Novelist Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, in fact, is largely based on this very premise. That the speaker becomes overwhelmed by these memories is more unusual, though, as it suggests an almost pathological relationship to his past. The speaker is not merely seeing from a child’s perspective, as some critics suggest; he is seeing from the perspective of an adult who has constructed an image of his younger self. This distinction is important when we examine the idealized way in which he has represented his younger self. Though we should never assume that the speaker of a poem is, indeed, the poet, Lawrence’s work invites us to, as he has always woven autobiographical material into his writing. As his biographers tell us, Lawrence’s own childhood was anything but ideal. His parents quarreled and bickered, and his mother frequently attempted to turn Lawrence and his siblings against his father, a heavy drinker and embittered man. Seen in this light, the conflict in the poem is not between the demands of adulthood and the security and comfort of childhood, but rather between a sentimentalized version of the past and his actual past.
It is unclear whether Lawrence is aware of this conflict. The first line in the second stanza suggests that he is. He claims that he is being drawn back into the past “In spite of myself.” Reasonable readers might infer that by acknowledging that he is no longer in control of himself, Lawrence also opens the door for readers to think that whatever he says will be suspect because of his heightened emotional state. The last stanza provides evidence suggesting that he is not aware of his rose-colored view of the past:
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into
With the great black piano appassionato. The
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a
child for the past.
After spelling out the futility of the singer’s music to stave off his plunge into the past, he states, “The glamour / Of childish days is upon me ….” Our reading of the poem turns on the word “childish.” If he uses it to designate the silliness of his present state of mind, we can assume that he is cognizant of his fantastic rendering of his family life. If, however, Lawrence uses it as a synonym for childhood, we can safely assume that he is not aware of his sentimentalized view of his past. The latter, I believe, is the correct way to read the poem. This is because he refers to “the glamour” of those days, which suggests a naivete, rather than an awareness, of his nostalgia. Why call childish days glamorous unless one is valorizing those days? Lawrence cements this reading of the poem by saying that his “manhood is cast / Down in the flood of remembrance.” In his mind, he has become the child that he has been longing to be by the very act of his longing to be that child. And he has surrendered his adult identity as a man in the process. But it is not the child Lawrence was (a sickly child who endured a household full of parental discord), but the stereotype of a happy, well-adjusted child. What is ironic about this poem is that the speaker— in his almost maudlin dip into what might have been—becomes an adult version of what he was: a child deeply conflicted both about his loyalties to his parents and about the meaning of his own manhood. This is not only the manhood of adulthood or chronological age, but also the manhood of one who does not cry for his mother. Such a view of manhood itself further underscores the speaker’s inability to choose between competing versions of reality. Not only can he not distinguish between his actual and his imagined past, but he cannot live up to the image of being a man that he equates with adulthood.
All of the psychological movement in this poem—the speaker’s mind oscillating between past and present, between former and current conceptions of himself—takes place in the tight form of rhymed quatrains. Stanzas themselves, of which quatrains are one kind, have their origin in lyric poetry written for music, with each line fitting into one of the tune’s musical phrases. Lawrence plays on our expectations for the regularity of rhymed stanzas in his poem, but he does so by writing about an emotionally chaotic experience. In this way, he uses the form of the poem to hold in check the volatile emotions of the speaker and provides the reader with the curious feeling of being pushed, then pulled.
Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Adams, Stephen, Poetic Designs, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1997.
Hobsbaum, Philip, A Reader’s Guide to D. H. Lawrence, London: Thames and Hudson, 1981.
Moore, Harry T., ed., A D. H. Lawrence Miscellany, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1959.
Richards, I. A., Practical Criticism, New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1929.
Rosenthal, M. L., Poetry and the Common Life, New York: Oxford, 1974.
Ruderman, Judith, D. H. Lawrence and the Devouring Mother: The Search for a Patriarchal Idea of Leadership, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1984.
Snodgrass, W. D., “Against Your Beliefs,” Southern Review, Vol. 26, No. 3, summer 1990, pp. 479-96.
Williams, Raymond, Culture and Society, New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
Worthen, John, D. H. Lawrence: The Early Years 1885-1912, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Bloom, Harold, ed., D. H. Lawrence, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.
A hearty selection of twenty essays—most of which have been reprinted—on the poetry, fiction, and non-fiction of D. H. Lawrence, edited by one of the foremost literary critics of our time.
Lawrence, D. H., Studies in Classic American Literature, New York: Penguin, 1977.
Lawrence provides iconoclastic takes on some of America’s best-known writers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fenimore Cooper, and Herman Melville. An entertaining as well as thoughtful study, this text tells us as much about Lawrence as a writer and utopian thinker as it does about the writers he evaluates.
Leavis, F. R., D. H. Lawrence, Novelist, London: Oxford University Press, 1955.
Leavis is an unabashed admirer of Lawrence. Focusing on Lawrence’s major novels, Leavis praises the writer’s courage and originality of thought. Leavis claimed that Lawrence was “the greatest kind of artist” and “one of the major novelists of the English tradition.”
The piano may be the best known and loved of all musical instruments. It also has the broadest range of any instrument, so music for all other instruments can be composed on it. It can be played solo, but most other instruments, including the voice, use the piano for accompaniment. Technically, the piano may also be the most complicated musical instrument with over 2,500 parts.
The piano is a stringed instrument. Its many parts are organized into five general structural and mechanical areas of either grand or vertical pianos. These are: the case of the wing-shaped grand piano (or the cabinet of the vertical or upright piano); the soundboard and the ribs and bridges that are its components; the cast iron plate; the strings; and, collectively, the keys, hammers, and piano action or mechanism. The case has many structural parts for attaching legs and tuning pins, but perhaps the rim and the keybed or shelf where the keys and piano action will be installed are most important. The soundboard amplifies the vibrations of the strings, which are transmitted through bridges.
The cast iron plate is installed over the soundboard and pinblock (part of the case), and it provides the strength to anchor the strings under tension. Nose bolts and perimeter bolts anchor the plate to the braces and inner rim of the case. The 220 to 240 strings of the piano are attached to hitch pins along the curved edge of the cast iron plate and to tuning pins across the front of the piano, roughly parallel to the keyboard. The piano action is still more complicated and includes the keys, hammers, and mechanism or action.
Names for pianos usually indicate their sizes. Grand (wing-shaped) pianos range in length from 4 ft 7 in-9 ft 6 in (1.4-2.9 m) from the front of the keyboard to end of the bend. The "baby" grand is 5 ft-S ft 2 in (1.52-1.57 m) in length; smaller grand pianos are called "apartment size." The larger sizes are the medium grand and concert grand. Modern vertical piano design has changed little since 1935. Verticals range in height from 36-52 in (91-132 cm) with small variations in width and depth. The five standard sizes from smallest to tallest are the spinet, consolette, console, studio, and professional pianos. Pianos are frequently chosen for appearance, and cabinets are available in most furniture styles and finishes.
The piano's ancestors are the first stringed instruments. Plucking, striking, and bowing of strings was known among all ancient civilizations; the harp is mentioned in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. The psaltery was an ancient box-type instrument with strings that were plucked with a pick. Keys were added to stringed instruments to make the family of instruments led by the harpsichord, but keys are used to pluck strings in the harpsichord, the most popular instrument of the seventeenth century. A parallel development was the dulcimer, another stringed box with strings that are struck. Keys and strings were paired in a striking instrument in the clavichord, which led directly to the invention of the pianoforte or fortepiano.
Bartolomeo de Francesco Cristofori made harpsichords in Padua, Italy. He is credited with having invented the piano in 1700. Cristofori's piano had hammers that struck the strings by falling by momentum, after having been moved by the action parts linking the hammers to the keys. The hammers were caught by back checks or hammer checks to keep them from bouncing up and down on the strings after the initial strike. This method allowed the strings to continue to vibrate and make sound and for them to be struck loudly or softly, unlike the harpsichord. Johann Andreas Silbermann of Strasbourg, France, continued Cristofori's interest in the pianoforte, and the instrument became popular in Germany after Frederick the Great purchased several. Johann Sebastian Bach approved of it in 1747.
The piano had replaced the harpsichord in importance by the end of the eighteenth century. Cabinetmakers built beautiful cases for them. The square piano was built mid-century, and more musicians began writing music specific to the piano, rather than borrowing harpsichord tunes. Piano building began in America in 1775, and changes to the design of the hammers and to the playing mechanism or action improved the sound and responsiveness of the instrument. Jean Henri Pape of Paris patented 137 improvements for the piano during his life (1789-1875). In England, John Broadwood developed machines to manufacture pianos and reduce their cost.
Improvements continued from 1825 to 1851 with over 1,000 patents in Europe and the United States for stronger, more deft pianos with greater control and repetitive motion. By the mid-nineteenth century, the modern piano had emerged based on the development of the cast iron plate for structural strength and cross-stringing by fanning bass strings over trebles. By 1870, Steinway & Sons had developed this fanning method called the over-strung scale, so that the strings crossed most closely in the center of the soundboard where the best sound is produced.
In the early twentieth century, the player piano achieved great popularity, allowing people to feel artistic and produce music in their homes without having to invest endless hours in practice. The pianos, equipped with a built-in player mechanism, were activated by foot pedals or electricity and used perforated paper rolls to play a variety of music.
Manufacturers advertised their player pianos as good family entertainment and a source of cultural enrichment. An eager public responded with enthusiasm, purchasing over two million pianos by the end of the 1920s. Parents hoped that the pianos would interest their children in attaining musical skills—although they often had the opposite effect, since player pianos offered, as one manufacturer described it, "perfection without practice."
Dealers offered music rolls for a broad range of age groups, musical tastes, and interests. Young adults sang along with the latest tunes, while musical versions of nursery rhymes enchanted toddlers. Classical music enthusiasts listened to sonatas or operatic melodies. Many Greek, Italian, and Polish-Americans purchased song rolls with words printed in their native language.
Coin-operated player pianos were popular among hotel, dance hall, and restaurant owners, who purchased them to serenade customers and increase profits. Fitted with rolls that played several tunes, these pianos poured forth music at the drop of a coin. Customers glided across dance floors to waltzes and fox trots, dined in restaurants to popular melodies, or drank in speakeasies to uptempo tunes.
The enthusiasm for player pianos began to wane in the late 1920s, however, as phonographs and radio provided keen competition for leisure time and entertainment dollars.
Jeanine Head Miller
C. F. Theodore Steinway also developed the continuous bent rim for the case, which enhanced sound transmission by using the acoustic properties of long wood fibers. These improvements were adapted to all styles of pianos including grand, upright, and square pianos. By 1911, there were 301 piano builders in the United States. Production peaked in the 1920s and declined greatly because of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Today, there are approximately 15 piano manufacturers in the United States, and Japan is the world's largest producer of pianos.
The design of the piano has not changed appreciably since the late 1800s, although manufacturers may use different materials or approaches to the manufacturing process. The manufacturing process for the grand piano is described below; there are some differences in manufacturing the vertical or upright piano and in operation methods, particularly the angle at which the hammers strike the strings.
Pianos are made of the finest materials, not only for appearances but for excellent sound production. The long fibers of maple wood are strong and supple for construction of the rim, but long fibers of spruce are needed for the strength of the braces. Wood is also needed for making patterns of other parts. Metal is used for a variety of parts, including the cast iron plate. Sand is needed for casting molds. The character of the sand is modified by using additives and binders such as bentonite (a type of clay) and coal dust. Molten iron for the casting is made of pig iron with some steel and scrap iron to add strength. Strings are made of high tensile steel wire that is manufactured at specialized piano string mills.
Pianos are designed by specially trained and educated engineers called scale engineers. Scale engineers choose the materials, create the designs and specifications, and develop the interactions of the parts of the piano. Perhaps the most important aspect of design relates to the structural strength of the piano. About 160-200 lb per sq in (11.2-14 kg per sq cm) of tension is exerted on each of the 220 or more strings in the piano. The piano must perform well, but it also must remain stable over time as changing conditions affect the many materials in the piano differently.
The cast iron plate must support the tension of the stringing scale, covering the sound-board very little; it must have maximum mass for strength, but minimum mass for sound quality. Its shape is unique to the design of the piano because it conforms to the string layout, the placement of the bridges on the soundboard, and the paths of the strings. Because the material is brittle, it must be supported in places where the strings apply tension. Holes are designed in the curved side to prevent the plate from cracking due to thermal stress after it is poured and cooled, and this design allows sound to rise from the soundboard too. The scale engineer first sketches a proposed plate, draws it to scale, and makes a wood pattern; this design is later used for manufacture.
Bending the rim of the case
- 1 Steinway's method of rim bending is still used and is the first step in assembling the grand piano. Layers of long-fiber maple wood are glued together and bent in a metal press to form a continuous rim; both the inner and outer rim are made this way. Up to 22 layers form each piano rim, and the layers may be up to 25 ft (7.62 m) long. Resin glue is applied by machine, then the layers are carried to the press where they are shaped. The rims are stored in braces to keep them from changing shape. They are seasoned in controlled temperature and humidity conditions until the wood meets a specific moisture content where it will hold its contour. The bent inner rim is then fitted with other wood components, including the cross block, the pinblock, the cross braces, the keybed, and the backbottom. These are glued and doweled in place.
- 2 The cabinet is finished to improve sound properties as well as for appearance. The cabinet is sanded so stain is absorbed properly, wood is bleached to equalize appearance of the veneer, prestaining and staining are done next, wood fillers (sometimes with a washcoat) are added, and a first coat of sealer or lacquer is applied. The surface is sanded again, special glazes (for antiquing or other effects) are added followed by two more coats of lacquer, sanding is done again, special trims are added, and two final coats of lacquer are used. The cabinet is dried for up to 21 days before it is hand-rubbed to its final finish.
Making the structural components
- 3 The wood components of the piano (collectively called the framework)—the pinblock and the cast iron plate—are the parts of the piano that support the tension of the strings. Braces are made of select spruce, and the pinblock or wrestplank is constructed of bonded layers of rock maple. The pinblock is quarter-sawn or rotary cut to maximize the grain structure's grip on the tuning pins. The laminated layers are also glued at different angles to each other so that the pins are surrounded with end grain wood. The pinblock has one hole per string, or up to 240 holes, drilled in it.
- 4 The cast iron plate is made in a piano plate foundry. Match-plates are made of metal from the wood pattern designed by the engineer with top and bottom pieces to match. Sand molds are made from the match-plates, and these are used to cast the plate. Molten iron is poured through the molds and allowed to harden during the founding process (a controlled cooling process) to produce a plate weighing about 600 lb (272.4 kg). After the plate is cooled and removed from the molds, sand is blasted off the plate with steel grit. The plate is transported on overhead conveyors to a drill room where holes are drilled for the tuning pins, nosebolts, bolts to the frame, and hitch pins. The hitch pins are inserted next; then the casting imperfections are removed from the plate by grinding and drilling. Oils are also removed. The plate is hand-sanded and rubbed, primed, and painted.
- 5 The cast iron plate is suspended above its piano during the process of fitting. The plate will be lowered and raised in and out of the piano several times as the pinblock, seal against the rim, and the sound-board and bridges are fitted.
Creating the soundboard
- 6 The soundboard is a thin panel of spruce that underlies the strings and the cast iron plate and rests on the rim braces. Its parts are the board itself, supporting ribs on the underside of the board, and the two bridges over which the strings are stretched. The soundboard is made of spruce that is 0.25-0.375 in (0.635-0.95 cm) thick; it acts as a natural resonator, is strong for its weight, and can be vibrated by the strings because of its lightness. Spruce is air dried then kiln dried to a specific moisture content. It is then cut into strips that are 2-5 in (5.08-12.7 cm) wide, the edges are glued, and the strips are pressed together and dried. A pattern is superimposed, and the soundboard is trimmed to grand piano size.
- 7 The soundboard is curved to produce the right sound. The curve is called a crown that arches upward toward the strings. The arch is made by fitting ribs of lightweight spruce or sugar pine wood to the underside of the board. The ribs are carefully cut from patterns, then fitted and glued to the sound-board using a rib press that accurately positions the ribs, then forces the board into the proper curvature. The ribs are cut along the wood's lengthwise grain and fitted at right angles to the lengthwise grain of the sound-board, so that vibrations are evenly transmitted. The ends of the ribs are feathered, then fitted into notches in the framework of the piano that will exactly support the arch of the crown; the pianomakers use special patterns to guide these cuts in the frame.
- 8 The two soundboard bridges transfer the vibrations of the strings along their lengths to the soundboard. The long bridge is crossed by treble strings, and the bass strings that fan across the trebles cross the short bridge. The bridges are complicated because they must parallel the grain of the soundboard closely, curve with the crown, and support the strings, which exert a down-bearing pressure on the bridges and therefore on the soundboard. This pressure must be supported by the strength of the bridges and the arch of the crown, or the tone of the strings will drop. The bridges are made of solid blocks of wood or of laminated wood. Hard maple is used in American-made pianos, and falcon wood (beech) is used in Europe. Laminated bridges must be placed with laminations perpendicular to the soundboard or the glue layers have a damping effect. The bridges are glued to the soundboard and also fastened to it with wood screws capped by soundboard buttons made of wood that act like washers and keep the screws from grinding into the board. The bridges are notched on both sides where each string crosses, so the string strikes a small part of the bridge and can vibrate easily. Pins are inserted in the bridge, and strings are threaded between the pins.
Stringing and tuning
- 9 Piano string is made in specialized mills and consists of carbon steel wire. The bass strings are also wrapped with copper windings in a process called loading the strings. The windings add weight and thickness to the steel core strings so they vibrate more slowly and can be made to lengths that fit a piano of practical size; without loading, bass strings would have to be 30 ft (9.14 m) long to produce their sounds. Treble strings are short, are not wound with copper, but are grouped in threes to make one tone. Scale sticks are used as standards for each string, acting as a gauge of each kind of wire and determining how many sizes of string are needed; up to 17 different diameters of wire may be used to string one piano. Piano strings require special care and handling because they lie straight after they are formed, cut, and loaded and are never wound on rolls. After the strings are strung, they are held in place near the tuning pins by metal bars and special brass studs called agraffes. Other bars position the strings properly near the hitch pins.
- 10 Tuning pins are made from steel wire. The wire is cut to the proper length, the ends are shaped with a die, and the pins are loaded in a tumbler where rough edges are smoothed away. The tumbler empties them into a press where swags that fit tuning hammers are formed at the tops of the pins. Holes for the strings are drilled into the swagged ends of the pins, the pins are cleaned of metal chips and oil, and nickel-plating is applied to the pins to keep them from rusting. The pins are threaded to turn easily during tuning, then they are subjected to controlled heating called blueing, which oxidizes the outer surface of the threads of the pins (where the nickel plating was removed during threading) so the pins will grip the wood in the pinblock. Special machines insert several pins at a time through the holes in the cast iron plate and into the pinblock where they are fitted in place by hand.
Constructing the keyboard and action
- 11 Keyboards, key and action frames, and actions are made by specialty manufacturers. The keys balance and pivot on a set of either two or three rails that are covered with felt to prevent noise. Guide pins for each key are inserted in the front or head rail and the middle or balance rail. The keys themselves are made of lightweight wood that is cut to size and dried in kilns. The keys are covered with black or white plastic, although in the past ivory and ebony were used. The plastic key covers are molded to cover a group of keys that are later cut individually. Holes are drilled on the undersides to fit the guide pins. Capstan screws are mounted on the back edges of the keyboard extending inside the piano; the action will be seated on these. The keys are now cut into 88 individuals, which are sanded and polished on the sides. The black keys are also stained black before the black caps are glued on. The keys are rematched to the keyframe, punchings resembling washers are placed over the guide pins, and the keys are placed on them.
- 12 The voice of the piano depends on the quality of the hammers. Many materials from elkskin to rubber have been used over the history of the piano, but today, hammers are covered with premium wool felt of precision-graduated density. The felt is made by specialists who begin with select wool that is carded, combed, folded, and compressed into felt in tapered strips. The thinnest felt is used for the treble hammers, while thick felt is used for the bass. The core of each hammerhead is a wood molding, and an underfelt and top felt are bonded in place with resin to cover the molding. The hammerheads are made in long strips of the same size then sliced into individual hammerheads by hand or automation. The complete set of hammers is installed in the piano. The sound of the piano is adjusted by a specially trained tuner called a voicer. The key actions must respond with the same resistance. The felt hammers are modified with a sticker or needler that retextures the hammerheads and changes the sound.
- 13 The final parts are added, including the pedals and their trapwork, the fall-board or key cover, the music rack, the hinges and top lid, the topstick that supports the raised lid, and many other details. All parts are carefully made so they fit tightly and do not rattle or otherwise affect the sound of the instrument.
Pianos would not exist without quality control in all aspects of production because the instruments are too sensitive and dependent on the interaction of many parts and materials. For example, quality begins with the scale engineer's design. Metallurgists check the metal content of the iron plate; chemical analyses are made of the other contents, including carbon, sulfur, phosphorus, and manganese. Temperature is also critical; the molten iron is 2,750°F (1,510°C), and founding or hardening temperatures are also carefully monitored. String is similarly controlled and tested during manufacture for elasticity, resiliency, and tensile strength.
The process of piano manufacturing has remained essentially the same for a century, but scale engineers are always seeking new methods. Vacuum casting has recently been used to produce cast iron plates with smooth finishes requiring no grinding.
Where to Learn More
Ardley, Neil. Music: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Facts On File., Inc., 1986.
Bielefeldt, Catherine C.; Weil, Alfred R., ed. The Wonders of the Piano: The Anatomy of the Instrument. Belwin-Mills Publishing Corp., 1984.
Dolge, Alfred. Pianos and their Makers: A Comprehensive History of the Development of the Piano. Dover Publications, Inc., 1972.
Ehrlich, Cyril. The Piano: A History. Clarendon Press, 1990.
Ford, Charles, ed. Making Musical Instruments: Strings and Keyboard. Pantheon Books, 1979.
1. Instruction to play softly (abbreviation p, or pp, pianissimo, very softly). Opposite of forte, loud.
2. Eng. term for kbd. instr. whose full name is pianoforte (It.), soft-loud. This instr. is, with regard to its str. and hammers, a descendant of the dulcimer, and, to its kbd., a descendant of the harpsichord and clavichord. The modern pf. has an iron frame and is either grand (str. horizontal) or upright (str. vertical). It normally has 88 keys, with a standard compass of 71/3 octaves, but some models by Bösendorfer have a compass of 8 octaves.
Although there are other claimants to the invention of the instrument, it is generally accepted that the earliest instr. of its type was made in Florence, c.1698–1700, by Bartolomeo Cristofori, who prod. what he called a gravicembalo col piano e forte, i.e. a ‘harpsichord with loudness and softness’: for the hpd.'s plucking of the str. he had substituted the blows of a series of hammers, and it was this that gave the players of his instr. their new power of control of degrees of force. The Cristofori pfs. had a range of 4 to 4 1/2 octaves.
Cristofori's idea was taken up in Ger. by the org.-builder Gottfried Silbermann, who in 1726 made 2 pfs. which he submitted to Bach, whose opinion of them was unfavourable and perhaps led to the improvements which apparently were introduced. In 1747 Bach, on a visit to the court of Frederick the Great at Potsdam, played the Silbermann pfs. there. All pfs. up to this point were of the hpd. shape—rather like what we now call the grand pf., with the str. horizontal and in line with the relevant finger-keys. The first pf. in clavichord shape, known as the square pf., was made by Frederici of Gera, but he was closely followed by one of Silbermann's apprentices, Johannes Zumpe, who went to London and introduced there the popular rectangular form of the instr. Further impetus to the pf. was given by J. C. Bach, when he settled in London, and by Clementi. Developments in the ‘action’ of the instr. were made by Backers, John Broadwood, and Stodart. Broadwood made changes in the square pf. In Fr., Érard made the square, and later grand pfs., while the Austrian Andreas Stein found a way of giving extra lightness of touch to the grand. The first Amer.-built pfs. were by J. Behrent in Philadelphia, 1775.
The upright pianoforte, in which the str. run perpendicularly, was developed by John Isaac Hawkins of Philadelphia (1800) and Robert Wornum, jun., of London (1811, perfected 1829): the existing model is largely founded on that of Wornum. From the middle of the 19th cent. it superseded the square form, but was itself almost ousted in the 20th cent. by the ‘baby’, i.e. small-sized, grand.
Hawkins also introduced the iron frame. One advantage was the possibility of using str. at higher tension than the wooden frame allowed, so making possible the use of thicker wire, producing a fuller tone. The tension of a single str. today may be 180–200 lb., the varying stress of the different sizes of str. being more or less equally distributed by overstringing, i.e. by one group of str. passing more or less diagonally over another: this principle as applied to the pf. dates from c.1835, but there had previously been occasional overstrung clavichords.
18th-cent. hpds. had more than 1 str. to each note and Cristofori's pf. had 2 throughout: the modern pf. has 1 string for a few of the very lowest notes, 2 for the middle register, and 3 for the highest (on account of the decrease of resonance with the shorter str.): the lowest str. are wrapped with a copper coil to increase their mass without too greatly decreasing their flexibility.
The sound-board of a pf. (lying behind the str. in an upright and below them in a grand) fulfils the same function as the body of a vn.: without it the tone of the instr. would be very faint and thin. The sustaining pedal, when depressed, removes the whole series of dampers from the str.: thus any note or chord played can be given some duration, even though the finger or fingers have been removed from the keys, and also the harmonics of the str. sounded are enriched by the sympathetic resonance of those derived from other freely-vibrating str., resulting in a fuller tone. (It is a mistake to call this pedal the ‘Loud Pedal’ as it is as much used in soft passages as in loud.) This pedal must of course normally be lifted at a change of harmony, as otherwise confusion will result. There is in most instr. manufactured in the USA and Canada a sostenuto pedal. It ingeniously enables the player to make (within limits) a selection as to the notes he wishes to be held over. It was introduced by the Steinway firm and perfected in 1874. The soft pedal may act in one of several ways: (a) in grands by moving the kbd. and set of hammers sideways, so as to leave unstruck 1 str. of each note (see corda); (b) in uprights by moving the whole set of hammers nearer to the str., so that the force of their blows is diminished, or by interposing a piece of felt between hammer and str. (a crude method now little used). Many contemporary pianos are made in Japan.
Experiments in the construction of the pf. have been frequent; these have included pfs. with double kbd.; pfs. with indefinitely prolonged sounds (by means of a revolving wheel or other imitation of the vn. bow, or of a current of air tending to keep the str. in vibration, or by some electrical device); pfs. with tuning-forks in place of str. (incapable of getting out of tune); combinations of the pf. principle with that of some other instr. (e.g. fl., organ, hpd., clavichord); quarter-tone pfs. (see microtone); various applications of electricity, etc. See keyboard for experimental kbds.; see prepared piano; see aliquot and duplex scaling.
The pf. is, of course, principally used as a solo instr., or as the solo instr. in a conc. with orch., or in chamber mus. (pf. trio, pf. qt., etc.). But many composers in the 20th cent. have used it as an orch. instr., e.g. Stravinsky in Petrushka, Vaughan Williams in Sinfonia Antartica, Bartók in Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, and numerous other works. Stravinsky's Les Noces is scored for 4 pf. used as perc. instrs. Later composers, from Cage onwards, have conjured new sounds from the pf. by making adjustments to the str. (see prepared piano), having them plucked by hand, or used as resonators.
Since its first appearance, the pf. has called forth executants of varying styles and techniques. C. P. E. Bach was among the first to develop the new methods of playing so different from those required for hpd. and clavichord, followed by Clementi. Absolute evenness of touch was his ideal, inculcated also in his pupil Cramer. The Viennese-made pf. was lighter, with less sonorous tone, than the heavier English type. Mozart's playing was attuned to the Viennese action. His most famous pupil was Hummel. But Beethoven used an Eng. pf., suitable to his energetic and dynamic playing. He was the first fully to profit by the opportunities afforded by the sustaining pedal. His example was followed by Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, and Mendelssohn, whose works would be unimaginable on a pedal-less instr. John Field developed the ‘singing touch’ of legato playing and his exploitation of the nocturne influenced Chopin whose playing and comps. for the pf. opened up new possibilities of tone-colour. Liszt was the first of the virtuosi whose technique rivalled Paganini's on the vn., expanding it beyond all previous bounds, and pointing the way to the harmonic experiments of Debussy and Ravel and even to the percussive effects of Stravinsky and Bartók. Other great 19th-cent. executants were Rubinstein, Thalberg, and Bülow, while among the great composer-pianists born in the 19th cent. were Busoni, Rachmaninov, and Bartók. The 20th cent. has been rich in superb virtuosi. One need name only Arthur Rubinstein, Arrau, Horowitz, Michelangeli, and Richter as exemplars.
pi·an·o1 / pēˈanō/ • n. (pl. -os) a large keyboard musical instrument with a wooden case enclosing a soundboard and metal strings, which are struck by hammers when the keys are depressed. The strings' vibration is stopped by dampers when the keys are released, and it can be regulated for length and volume by two or three pedals.