Viewpoint: review of A COVETED POSSESSION

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Published: 10th February, 2019

Extending our concept of Viewpoints, we present the first of two book reviews by concert reviewer and pianist Glenn Riddle.  Both relate to the instrument he plays – the piano.

Michael Atherton’s A Coveted Possession traces the socio-cultural history of the piano in Australia.  It is a history that began auspiciously when, in 1788, the First Fleet’s flagship HMS Sirius transported our first piano –a Frederick Beck-made square piano belonging to navy surgeon George Worgan.  Miraculously, it seems to have survived and is housed at the West Australia Academy of Performing Arts.

In the nineteenth century wealthy settlers and an ever-expanding middle-class continued to import pianos from Europe, mostly from England.  The piano represented “enhanced social status” while also providing a nostalgic cultural link to the old country. Many of these fragile instruments failed to survive the long and arduous journey. In one distressing instance, the Romeo, having successfully negotiated its way from Hamburg, sank somewhere between Melbourne and Sydney, its cargo containing no less than 147 pianos!

European wood however was not suited to the rugged Australian climate and so it was inevitable that a home-grown piano manufacturing industry would soon emerge. John Benham, a recently arrived carpenter, built the first Australian-made piano in Sydney in 1834. Based on an English design, its case was made of sturdier Australian red cedar while its soundboard featured local hoop pine.  Others followed in quick succession.  John Williams, William King and Joseph Kilner had all trained with the famed Broadwood and Sons firm in London and all successfully transported their craftsmanship here.  Kilner later went into partnership with Broadwood-trainedpiano-tuner Joseph Wilkie, who was not only an excellent tuner, but an astute businessman who was later elected to Victorian State Parliament – surely a singular achievement amongst the piano-tuning fraternity.

And so the industry continued to grow, crossing social boundaries such that, by mid-century, pianos were to be found in “goldfields singing tents, pubs and brothels”.  By the end of the century, Australia had more pianos per capita than anywhere else in the world.

The most successful of the local manufacturers was Octavius Beale, an ambitious and entrepreneurial Irish immigrant who patented several innovative design features, garnering numerous prizes at prestigious International Exhibitions.  Despite fierce competition from European manufacturers, Beale’s company produced some 95,000 pianos and both Sydney-based Beale and his Melbourne counterpart, Hugo Wertheim, were to become household names.  Wertheim’s pianos often featured ornate carvings featuring local flora and fauna.  Australian piano manufacturing was thriving and was a source of national pride.

Not surprisingly,the piano featured prominently in early Australian literature, notably in the works of Rolf Boldrewood, Henry Handel Richardson and Henry Lawson. More recently and in different artistic disciplines, there’s been the Academy-award winning film Shine and Graeme Murphy’s piano-focused ballet Grand.

The beginning of the twentieth century however saw the arrival of the pianola, the gramophone, the wireless and the “talkies” and fewer people were inclined to devote the necessary time to learning the piano.  These factors, combined with having to compete with cheaper and now sturdier European imports, as there was a protracted and fierce debate over free trade versus protectionism, saw the inevitable decline of both piano sales in general and the local piano manufacturing industry.

One extensive chapter details the significant role of the “goanna” in both world wars as communal singing boosted morale.  Atherton writes, “the importance of a piano on a troopship could not be underestimated: anything that could make their lot easier to bear and keep them happy … was organised”.  But pianos featured elsewhere too: on the battlefields, at camp-fire concerts, in Cheer-Up Huts, and in hospitals for wounded soldiers as an early form of music therapy.  Some pianos, against insurmountable odds, were even smuggled into POW camps.

A further chapter has an honour-roll  of Australia’s greatest (classical) pianists, beginning with the iconoclastic Percy Grainger, followed by sometime film star Eileen Joyce, and the too-soon lost Noel Mewton-Wood.  One curious omission though is Leslie Howard, whose 100 CD survey of the music of Franz Liszt represents a unique and stellar achievement in recording history.

Finally, Atherton visits the workshop of Wayne Stuart,who almost single-handedly is trying to revive the Australian piano manufacturing industry.  Now based in Tumut NSW, Stuart makes aesthetically stunning, hand-crafted instruments using Tasmanian Huon pine. They havefour pedals (instead of the usual three), and come in models that feature 97, 102 and most recently 108 keys instead of the usual 88. Stuart is an innovator who is challenging the European hegemony of piano manufacturing and design, and his instruments deserve to be represented in every conservatory and major concert hall in Australia.

A Coveted Possession is a well-researched and lavishly illustrated book.  It will interest anyone who has ever played, or enjoyed listening to, the piano and its detailed end notes will interest those wishing to explore individual topics further.



This review was originally published in The Age.  Republished with author’s permission.