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'History of the Piano' is a virtuoso job

A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE PIANO: The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians -- From Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between, by Stuart Isacoff. Alfred A. Knopf, 361 pp., $30.

"I love a piano!" was the hit song of Irving Berlin's 1915 Broadway show, "Stop! Look! Listen!" It's with a similar exclamatory devotion that pianist and writer Stuart Isacoff has given us "A Natural History of the Piano." Isacoff explores the evolution of what he calls the "most important instrument ever created."

Descended from the psaltery, a plucked instrument using feather quills and originally from the Far and Middle East, the piano is today made of "wood and cast iron, hammers and pivots, weighing altogether nearly a thousand pounds -- and capable of sustaining 22 tons of tension on its strings (the equivalent of about twenty medium-size cars.)"

It is, of course, the players of the pianos who bring them to life, and, according to Isacoff, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was "the first piano superstar," the child prodigy whose "concertos changed the piano's standing." Trotted around Europe for concert tours by his ambitious father, Wolfgang played for Pope Clement XIV, for monarchs and music masters such as composer Johann Adolph Hasse, who lamented, "This boy will consign us all to oblivion."

Isacoff illuminates the lives and styles of many other great pianists and composers, whom he places in four loose categories: the combustibles, the alchemists, the rhythmitizers and the melodists.

Franz Liszt, a combustible, often threw his gloves and handkerchief on the floor at the end of concerts, causing near riots as women rushed onstage to seize them.

The author tells us how "the iridescent harmonies of Debussy and Ravel became attractive fodder for (alchemist) jazz artists in the late 1950s who had grown tired of the brashness and showy virtuosity of the bebop style and sought a new direction."

In the chapter on the rhythmitizers, Isacoff evocatively writes, "Life is rhythm. We breathe out and in, our hearts beat a familiar tattoo, bodily fluids ebb and flow, and, in this, we join a natural world filled with cycles."

As for the melodists, Isacoff writes, "Melody is the part of the music we leave the concert hall humming. . . . Composers may create bouncy jingles, as effervescent as vintage champagne, or stark, angular cries built of icy threads of sound."

Isacoff analyzes the techniques and complexities of many male artists, including Vladimir Horowitz, Glenn Gould, Art Tatum, Murray Perahia, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Jerry Lee Lewis. Until the 20th century, male pianists predominated. Throughout his book, Isacoff introduces superb female pianists, from Clara Wieck to Marie d'Agoult to jazz icon Mary Lou Williams.

Passion and unstoppable enthusiasm are palpable throughout this beautifully written and illustrated book. "The piano is more than just an instrument," the author enthuses. "It is . . . filled as much with hopes, yearnings, and disappointments as with strings and hammers and felt." Isacoff's heartfelt history of the piano will make you want to Stop! Read! and then go Listen!

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