April 24, 2020
Irish pianist John Field and Hungarian composer Franz Liszt were greeted by audiences in Russia like rock stars during the early to mid-1800s. According to the 250-year history of pianos and works composed for the instrument in Sophy Roberts’s fascinating new book, The Lost Pianos of Siberia (Grove, 448 pp.), Liszt, Chopin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and many other musicians owe a portion of their universal popularity to the odd, combined, and powerful vortex of Catherine the Great’s piano enthusiasms, Russia’s chaotic 1917 Revolution, and, two decades after that, the piano diaspora prior to and during the country’s Great Patriotic War (WWII).
Roberts, a highly respected British journalist, describes in her first book an improbable four-year odyssey she undertook in 2015 to search from Siberia’s Ural Mountains in the west to the Kamchatka Peninsula in the country’s far east — first for a tiger, but soon enough, for a piano suitable for a young, talented, Mongolian pianist she had met while working on the tiger story.
Fueled by feverish curiosity and often led by quirky piano tuners, proud owners, dedicated village history preservationists, and vigilant safekeepers, Roberts unearthed remarkable pianos scattered across the area’s “bald, scarred, austere” landscape. The stories — hidden in archives or retold and retooled repeatedly in long-cherished narratives — spring to life in firsthand interviews Roberts conducted and in written accounts drawn from extensive research. She describes Russia’s dynamic musical culture: a vibrant, surreal environment that in boom-bust cycles developed or lapsed according to variable forces. Among the powerful influences Roberts tracks: composers’ rich creative spurts, improved piano construction (sturdier frames and higher-quality strings), musicians’ increased performance skills, massive political disruption or chaotic, unprecedented social pivots in response to war, economic deprivation or abundance, and more.
“As for St Petersburg, the people’s obsession for the instrument caused one musical commentator to dub the city ‘pianopolis’,” she writes in the three-part book’s third chapter. Music grew to be as important to Russians as air, Roberts claims. Most intriguing are the exceptional journeys and intriguing contents found in pianos — German grand pianos built in the Becker and Bechstein factories became status symbols that somehow ended up in village homes, community centers, and fields; Soviet-manufactured “Red October” uprights popped up in penal colonies and prisons; a piano teacher’s family jewelry was found stashed safely inside a grand piano, and so on.
In addition to providing a solid, well-documented history of Russia and the piano’s evolution and its music culture in the country, Roberts provides a swift-moving narrative. Her obvious energy and enthusiasm for the topic lifts the heft of historical facts with skilled writing that lends suspense not unlike the screenplay of an adventure/action/mystery movie. Even she admits about her quest that “the entire endeavor had been inflected with a measure of madness.”
Satisfyingly, in the book’s epilogue, the young pianist, Odgerel Sampilnorov, plays on her new piano the work of contemporary Mongolian composer, Byambasuren Sharav. About the revamped Grotrian-Steinweg found and brought with no small effort by Roberts and many other people the 2,000 miles from Novosibirsk to Mongolia, Sampilnorov deems it “superior in sound to the Yamaha baby grand.” Roberts writes of the concert experience: “This was music at its best: intimate, pure, and true. Russian, Mongolian, German — it didn’t matter whose; the music flowed so effortlessly it was as if it were revealing a shared and noble truth.” Later referring to Siberia as “a wellspring of culture, humanity, and moral courage,” Lost Pianos’ great truth is that out of pain, darkness, and calamity, music emerges as solace, and pianos, a source for celebration.