Sunday, August 30, 2009

Why does France like the piano?

I have never given this much thought until the first night I was living in Paris. My wife, little girl and I went to Bistrot Amelot, almost across the street from our new 400 year-old apartment. We picked this restaurant because they had confit de canard and homemade sorbet but I soon noticed that it also had a 1920’s upright piano on the bar-side. When I asked about it, the waitress, who is also one of the owners, invited me to play it. This was incredible luck. I had found a regular place to play within 2 hours of moving to Paris.

So now that I have been in Paris for one month, I have made the Bistrot my own salon, where I play almost daily, take my daughter for snack and get to know my new neighbors. I could write an entire book, a kind of Damon Runyon of Le Marais tale of the regulars of the Bistrot but that will wait.

One aspect of conversation that always surprises me is how much the clientele love the piano. Everyone has a favorite piano player, piano style, piano composer, and even, in some cases, piano maker. The French pride which causes them to buy Renaults and Peugeots religiously also gives them an unquestioned loyalty to the Pleyel. This shouldn’t be a surprise to me when I think of French music history. Chopin, the most famous piano composer in history, though Polish-born, composed most of his important work in Paris. He was more than welcomed here along with Liszt, also lived in Paris. They were arguably the most sought after artists and social figures in Paris. Within one hundred year, Paris had Debussy and Satie, both innovators on the keyboard who are still respected, performed and taught throughout the world. Other examples are Messian in contemporary classical music and most recently the pianist Pierre Aimard who is so famous in the classical world that he played at the Cleveland Orchestra and Carnegie Hall in the same week.

So why do the French like the piano? I have an idea, which is so much a guess, that I am not even sure why I am bothering to write it. France has a long history of Salon life, especially in upper-class and artistic societies. This is not uniquely French, but it is famously French. Though it is hard to point to the beginning of this movement, we are certain that it is at least as old as the 17th century. I am currently writing this while looking at a house that once belonged to the writer Madame de Sévigné. She chronicled some of the most important Parisian salons, where along with food and gossip, music was served and respected.
By the time Chopin was living and composing in Paris, the salon was the primary place for musical entertainment, competition and experimentation. While Chopin didn’t much like public performances, he did thrive on salon playing. Often, Liszt would be in the same room and the two of them would replace each other at the keyboard to both try out new composition and to improvise on themes suggested by other guests. Witnesses from these salons say that the Chopin improvisations were more impressive even than the formal compositions. This continued throughout the 20th century. Even the famous art salon of Gertrude Stein had a Pleyel where both Satie and Stravinsky played while everyone from Proust to Picasso listened. Later in the 20th century, the presence of the salon and the piano were reduced in importance but some of the residual feelings remained. For one thing, the French tend to spend hours together at home, essentially around a meal. Even when a meal is finished, family and friends entertain and challenge each other with stories, jokes and even music. Some of my wife’s finest memories of childhood are late evenings falling asleep to her parents and family friends singing and playing instruments in the salon.

There is a big difference between salon music and concerts. It is of course more intimate, which may be why the French have a more personal connection with this type of music. It is hard to imagine a contemporary equivalent. It just doesn’t seem the same to have Béyoncé performing in our living rooms, though some of us wouldn’t mind.

Two nights ago, I was watching an amazing television show called “La boite à musique”. This program is 2 hours of classical and contemporary music with modern culture thrown in. There was a prodigious and creative jazz pianist, Yaron Herman who played on the show. Before the program had even ended, I had requested him as a Facebook friend and sent a message that I was also a pianist living in Paris. We are planning on soon meeting to play maybe at the Bistrot or maybe at a home. For me, this may be as close as I can come to the excitement of playing in a Parisian salon. It might also help provide more people with an introduction to the piano.

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