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The Piano Maker by Kurt Palka – Review: How does artistic consciousness connect with the world?

The Piano Maker by Kurt Palka (McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd., 2015)
The Piano Maker by Kurt Palka (McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd., 2015)

The Piano Maker could have been so much less, and in that way, been so much more. I thought that the author, who has written five novels before this one, would have been experienced enough to have realized the benefits of a simple structure focused on a primary theme. But in stead, there are too many themes that do not seem properly integrated, resulting in a melodramatic tone. The title, The Piano Maker, seems to be an afterthought rather than a sustained theme, while in actual fact, the history of pianos and their makers is fascinating – as I found out when I researched the provenance of my own piano. There are parallel themes of art theft and smuggling, war, workplace safety, even palaeontology, French Indochina, France at the end of the 19th century, the French in Africa, and quite a lot of religion (religious music, liturgy, priesthood, etc.) The main idea is probably “survival” or “closure” or the redeeming value of confession, and the fact that I cannot pinpoint exactly what the point is, is the problem.

The plot is this: “Hélène Giroux” grows up in France, the daughter of the owners of a firm, “Molnar”, that produces hand-crafted pianos – hence the book title. She gets involved with a man who robs her blind in the first world war, and – despite this – ends up as his partner, “appropriating” cultural treasures from all over the world. En route to appropriating another valuable artefact, this time a dinosaur skeleton from Northern Alberta, something happens (spoiler avoidance!) and she is arrested. In 1933, she lands up in a small, fictional town in Nova Scotia, Canada, Saint Homais. She goes to work as the pianist in the local church and is soon discovered by the police on the basis of fresh evidence – and the drama unfolds. Her past life is told in flashbacks from her new life in Saint Homais.

All the time I was reading I kept thinking that all the exotic elements are too much for what could have been an understated, elegant depiction of the power of music, the beauty of pianos, and the skill needed to make them. Seriously, the history of pianos and their makers is riveting stuff. I have not read any of Palka’s previous five novels; Clara, first published as Patient Number 7 (2012); Scorpio Moon; Rosegarden; The Chaperon, a sound recording of a novel; and Equinox. Perhaps understatement is not his style. But even as a romance it isn’t much. (I am not convinced that her besotted American suitor would have found it difficult to say “Hélène” rather than “Helen”.)

As a mystery it is so-so – the case hinges on a small point of law. As a historical novel on the piano-making industry, it is all right but could have been so much more. Perhaps the author, who credits an “old-world accordeur” (tuner) with introducing him to the world of pianos, simply could not get sufficiently into the subject of piano-making to have depicted more of it. It is after all, a particularly arcane industry, and unless you are an artist writing about their art, like soprano Vivien Shotwell writing about opera in Vienna Nocturne, writing with true insight and depth would be a tall order.

Some mentions of music and pianos

Thankfully, the parts about music and pianos – mostly the first half of the book – are acceptable, like Palka’s description of the kinds of wood that pianos are made of, and the process for Hélène to become a certified piano maker. Palka frequently mentions the popular religious music of the time. He writes that she plays Morning Has Broken in the church. (p.89) Not the Cat Stevens version, obviously; the song only became known as Morning Has Broken when it originally appeared in the second edition of Songs of Praise (1931), to the Scottish tune Bunessan, and with lyrics by English author Eleanor Farjeon. So barely two years after being published in England, Hélène is performing it in Nova Scotia, Canada. Mmmm – so soon? Exceptionally efficient international distribution of sheet music I would say.

But some passages about music and piano-playing seem forced, for instance:

“She played ‘In the Bleak Midwinter,’ and there was not one cough or shuffle to be heard in the church, Once she’s established the melody, she started from the beginning and, guided by the fine lyrics, expanded it into a circular ballad of her own spontaneous creation.” (p.114)

In the Bleak Midwinter was written by Christina Rossetti before 1872 and posthumously published. It became a Christmas carol after it appeared in The English Hymnal in 1906 with a setting by Gustav Holst (the melody is called Cranham), and Harold Darke also set it to music in 1911, and since then everyone from the King’s Singers to Susan Boyle have recorded it. The words are simple, and no doubt Holst or Darke would’ve made the most of them and added as many frills and furbelows as the lyrics could stand. I cannot see how anyone, especially an amateur, could’ve taken the song and “expanded it into a circular ballad”. A circular ballad? What is that in any case? With its simple couplet rhyme scheme the poem is not a ballad, nor a rondeau, nor a roundel. So much for it being circular. And as for making it something different, Darke had already set it to music and varied the melody from verse to verse – from slow and pompous to dramatic and sentimental.

I think Palka overstated Hélène’s talents as a pianist. Below, the lyrics and the rhyme scheme:

In the bleak midwinter

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, (A)
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; (A)
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, (B)
In the bleak midwinter, long ago. (B)

In another incident, where the music (and not necessarily the piano) is the highlight, she plays ’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime, a.k.a., The Huron Carol, a Canadian Christmas hymn (Canada’s oldest Christmas song), written probably in 1642 by Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons in Canada. Brébeuf wrote the lyrics in the native language of the Huron/Wendat people; the song’s original Huron title is Jesous Ahatonhia (“Jesus, he is born”). The song’s melody is based on a traditional French folk song, Une Jeune Pucell (“A Young Maid”). The well-known English lyrics were written in 1926 by Jesse Edgar Middleton. If only books could be played, you could’ve had this sweet yet somber hymn running through your head while reading about Hélène coaching the church choir.

Big shoes to fill

Tackling this novel meant that Palka had big shoes to fill. Even though it is differentiated by the fact that it is partially set in Canada in the early 1900s, the fact remains that readers could have – would have – compared it to novels on a similar theme by other authors.

I remembered all the very good novels I’ve read where piano players and tuners were core themes and the plot and characters almost purely focused on pianos and music: The Piano Tuner (Daniel Mason, 2002), The Piano (Jane Campion and Kate Pullinger, 1995), The Piano Teacher (Janice Y.K. Lee, 2009), infamously, The Piano Teacher (German: “Die Klavierspielerin”, by Austrian Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, 1983), and more recently and perhaps not as focused, Vienna Nocturne (Vivien Shotwell, 2014). No doubt, the subject of pianos and those that make them, play them, tune them and teach them, is wide and fascinating and inherently dramatic.

For instance, there is the weird  – but apparently true – story about how in 2000 a grand piano was brought from London and got dragged through the rain forest of Guyana, to a small, remote village of the Wai Wai people, re-assembled, played, retuned and eventually lost to the elements. The film about this incident, by Dr. Michael Gilkes, is called Concert in the Rainforest (2002)

In terms of a Künstlerromane which expertly portray both the artist and the medium, a pianist and her piano, there are Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out (1915) and The String Quartet (1921).

Could it have been a Künstlerroman?

According to Zarina Maiwandi in her 2013 Ph.D. thesis at Columbia University, We Are the Thing Itself: Embodiment in the Künstlerromane of Bennett, Joyce, and Woolf, Künstlerromane are “born of the field of aesthetics, the literary genre of Künstlerroman inherits its conflicts. The chief dilemma of the form is how an isolated artistic consciousness connects with the world through a creative act.”

By most definitions of the genre, this book is not fit. But novels in this genre is as much about the instruments or mediums of the artists as about the artists themselves. It’s about the paints and canvases of painters, the pianos of composers and pianists, the clay and metals of sculptors – and how, through these, and their own lives, the creators connect with the world. In my mind making a piano, giving it a voice, a tone, a timbre, making it sing, making it possible to be played – that is a creative process. Even though it is a mass process, it is no more mass manufacture than say, Jeff Koons producing signed copies of his own works. Each piano is about as unique as the next one, though it is made in the same way by the same master craftsman.

The issue is, I suppose, where the line is between art and craft. Is piano making an art or a craft? I believe it is an art. And this novel falls short on the aesthetics and art of pianos, music and their makers. By contrast, Woolf’s descriptions of music and playing show deep personal insight and an ability for the words to render the music and the mental processes of the pianist, for instance in this quote from The Voyage Out:

“Early in the novel, the narrator describes Rachel playing the piano: ‘In three minutes she was deep in a very difficult, very classical fugue in A, and over her face came a queer remote impersonal expression of complete absorption and anxious satisfaction.’ (pp. 48-49)”

Here is Woolf’s descriptions of the first few notes of the musical performance in her short story, The String Quartet, where the music is described in visual terms, like a landscape.

“Here they come; four black figures, carrying instruments, and seat themselves facing the white squares under the downpour of light; rest the tips of their bows on the music stand; with a simultaneous movement lift them; lightly poise them, and, looking across at the player opposite, the first violin counts one, two, three – Flourish, spring, burgeon, burst! The pear tree on the top of the mountain. Fountains jet; drops descend. But the waters of the Rhone flow swift and deep, race under the arches, and sweep the trailing water leaves, washing shadows over the silver fish, the spotted fish rushed down by the swift waters, now swept into an eddy […]. (1989: p. 139)

A practical problem: How to depict music in words?

You could ask, but how would one express the experience of sound or music in words? How can you use visual terms to describe auditory sensations? The analogies between music and art, part of a field of study called Audiovisuology, are explained in this scientific paper: Dieter-Daniels_Audiovisuology_2015

“The choice of musical themes such as the depiction of musicians or instruments was a long-standing tradition in painting before tone painting — which found expression even in literature, in numerous Künstlerromane — came to be propagated more forcefully as of the eighteenth century. Under the influence of musical aesthetics, musical art became something of a role model for painting in the nineteenth century and, subsequently, structural principles were transferred gradually to the production of visual imagery, as illustrated by Philipp Otto Runge’s Die Zeiten (The Times of the Day; 1807).


Because of the rise of photography, among other things, painting lost its monopoly on figurative reproduction and, in the course of its reorientation process, discovered in music a role model for an abstract approach to artistic material. To this attests a growing preference, manifest by the end of the nineteenth century, for musical titles for semiabstract or abstract paintings. By the same token, mimetic representation of events in the real world was achieved in nineteenth-century music solely by recourse to tone painting. Imitations of natural phenomena such as birdsong, thunderstorms, idyllic landscapes (including a rushing stream and the blast of hunters’ horns), and a railway journey are just one example of this.” (Extract from: Structural Analogies by Jörg Jewanski and  Sandra Naumann, quoted in the paper on Audiovisuology, above.)

The analogies between art and music include:

  • Temporal sequences
  • Harmony and rhythm
  • Counterpoint and permutation in composition
  • Improvisation

And vice versa, musical analogies to the visual arts:

  • Forms and planes
  • Colours and relationships between colours: nuances and contrasts
  • Corresponding procedures: collage and frottage

So, it’s not impossible – it’s just difficult. It takes skill and applying the metaphors, analogies, concepts and idioms of art, for instance, to descriptions of music. But Edmund de Waal did it quite successfully in The White Road, where he effectively compares porcelain objects to music.


I bought this book because I was drawn to the theme of pianos, since I have always loved pianos and had so enjoyed novels on these subjects. Despite my eager anticipation, it was something of a disappointment. On the one hand, it was quite pleasant, fast read. On the other, it wasn’t memorable, and it failed to move me. I thought there could be more on the theme of the artist connecting with the world. The moments when Hélène demonstrates the firm’s pianos to prospective buyers seemed superficial – a business deal with a pretty girl playing the pianos to sweeten it – even her mother explains it like that. There was nothing about the pianos once they had left the factory. There was no mention of the tension between the creator of the pianos and the world, other than one phrase which I do remember and which sticks out; when her mentor tells her about tuning pianos:

“Rounded shoulders to the notes, Mademoiselle. Perfect in the middle, but rounded sides, nothing abrupt.”

As I said, there are numerous themes; piano manufacture, ancient artifacts, war(s), workplace safety, nursing, even palaeontology, French Indochina, France at the end of the 19th century, the French in Africa, and quite a lot of religion. So much going on that it is difficult to find the book’s focus. I identified the climax but could not find a link between music, piano-making and that moment or in the book’s conclusion. The first half of the book is about her life in France as a piano maker – which is not bad – but then the events in her life after France are about many things other than the manufacturing of pianos. The conclusion seemed to be about repentance and forgiveness. Again, I wondered what that had to do with the price of eggs.

I guess I wanted too much from this novel. It is just a historical romance, well-researched, with interesting detail, no anachronisms that I could pick up, with a twist of romance and mystery, competently written. Perhaps the fault lies with the publisher for allowing that title in the first place.

I was expecting a Künstlerroman of sorts, with the piano maker as artist. And actually, when you go into the history of the piano and its makers, it is fascinating – idiosyncratic, specialized and inherently dramatic, mainly because pianos are furniture, but they are also the instruments that composers use to deliver the most sublime music. Just like Claude Debussy would go into the finest detail on the “voice” required of the instruments on which his music is to be performed, so each maker had to put the greatest effort and skill into  the quality of the sound and tone produced by their instruments. (Read more about one piano maker, Geissler, here)

Some instruments are marvels, others merely something for children to practice playing on. And some pianos, like mine, are loved and valued merely because its sound is the sound of my childhood and all other pianos do not sound quite right by comparison. This could’ve been the novel’s theme throughout. But like a poem which does not quite become what the writer or reader had in mind, the novel also falls short of expectations with this reader.

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