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Mr. Langshaw's Square Piano: The Story of the First Pianos and How They Caused a Cultural Revolution

Madeline Goold

(Bluebridge; US: Jan 2012)

The popular representations of revolutions involve the overthrow of tyrannical power, bloodshed, and sanctioned violence. However, behind the militarized curtain dwell momentous cultural and social currents that transform and restructure everyday life. Cultural revolutions are central to this restructuring as demonstrated by Madeline Goold in her book, Mr. Langshaw’s Square Piano: The Story of the First Pianos and How They Caused a Cultural Revolution. She situates the Broadwood square piano as a symbol that caused a significant impact on cultural institutions, social rituals, and material culture.


Goold’s work attempts to engage an interdisciplinary approach in order to unpack the square piano as a revolutionary cultural symbol in an era when “a piano was and is a social instrument that draws many different people into a harmonious ambit” (11). Unfortunately, the book’s overall writing lacks life, the emphasis on research is overbearing, and the tune of the narrative reads more like a diary of a hobbyist than a clearly written history. While Mr. Langshaw’s Square Piano is a book inspired by a symphonic passion, for the most part, it ‘sounds’ like little more than a hum. 


Goold’s story begins when she unknowingly purchased Mr. John Langshaw’s (a Lancaster parish organist) square piano from an antique sale “almost 200 years after he had purchased it in 1807” (12). Noticing the etched number 10651, Goold traces the serial number to John Broadwood, an important piano manufacturer in the late-Georgian London music industry. From here the author embarks upon rehabilitating the piano’s physical structure, all the while unearthing the instrument’s rich and complicated history of commodification, popularity, and cultural durability.  Thus, Mr. Langshaw’s Square Piano represents an entryway into 19th century British cultural society while offering the reader an interesting account of the globalizing popularity of the piano.


The most interesting chapter of Mr. Langshaw’s Square Piano is “Pianos in Drawing-Room and Parlour” (sic), which examines the intersection of gender, social norms, and culture. For example, Goold writes: “whether she played well or ill was not the point. What mattered was that a piano was a yardstick by which people could judge others and at the same time support their own possibly uncertain [social] positions” (218). In connection to this point, Goold also utilizes the works of Jane Austen as supplementary cultural examples. This chapter serves as an important contribution to the field of cultural/historical studies and women’s studies, because it repositions women into the cultural-historical narrative.  By including the women who were engaged in such social moments, Goold expands the foundational modes of historical scholarship while presenting a discursive and rarely included emphasis on gendered culture. 


Goold asserts that culture, specifically musical expression, is central for a society’s drive towards modernity. To defend her point she employs a wide array of primary and secondary written sources, material objects, and commercial regulations; Mr. Langshaw’s Square Piano is replete with visual examples of maps, engravings, tattered ledgers, and faded letters, etc. Additionally, Goold also studies more abstract examples such as performances, rituals and celebrations, and parlor customs to complicate our understanding of how objects effect historical change and take on meaning that infuses social relations. The accompanying website for Mr. Langshaw’s Square Piano is vibrant and engaging; here visitors can experience audio samples and visual examples of sheet music etc. in closer detail. In conjunction, these sources and artifacts bring forward the practices of everyday life in the early 19th century and serve to illuminate Goold’s study.


Nevertheless, this is also the source of the book’s overall problem. Goold unknowingly foreshadows the primary issue with this text: “if a period piano is over-zealously restored, what it can tell us about the music and culture of its age is lost” (24). Perhaps it’s too harsh to say the history of the Broadwood is lost; however, it’s accurate to say this book is an over-zealous articulation of the piano’s history. There’s simply too much information. Goold’s extensive research buries the longevity and life of the instrument, the individuals, and social chronicles. There’s an extensive focus on secondary stories, biographies of minor characters, and reiteration of cultural norms that renders her writing trite rather than impressive.


Mr. Langshaw’s Square Piano provides a descriptive and illustrative analysis of the importance of material culture and its connection to political and social paradigms, everyday life, and the emergence of cultural ideologies. As Goold writes, “a wave of voices woven together in polyphonic harmony, the expressive voice of the new instrument could reflect the dramas of individual experience… and gradually re-shaped, the reciprocal interplay between social change, technical invention and musical composition became the story of the piano” (59-60).


However, it seems that Goold loses sight of her ultimate goal. She strays too far from the examination of the piano and incorporates too many varying social and cultural factors occurring around the piano rather than centralizing the cultural effects of the piano. For example, she incorporates lengthy tangents on a piano’s configuration, music histories, or the structures of canals (175) that would be better served as footnotes. Goold attempts to pack as much information into her text as possible serves only to slow down and drag along the text.


This also frequently renders facts underdeveloped and pieces of history carelessly bridged. More so, this makes it impossible to discern Goold’s intended audience: this is not a scholarly examination, this is not a historical recollection, this is not a biography, and this is not a critique of a culture’s political economy. Rather, this is an individual’s written testament to her passion and personal interests.

Rating:

Elisabeth Woronzoff-Dashkoff is currently a graduate student in the American Culture Studies Ph.D. program at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green Ohio. She is interested in visual and musical popular culture, and wishes to research the ways in which the role of women in music, both contemporary and historically, have shaped the gender, political and cultural boundaries of the independent and mainstream music industry. I love music in all forms - but there is no way to tell what I will or will not like. One thing remains certain: I love everything Morrissey and Bruce Springsteen have created.


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