Piano Forte: Stories and Soundscapes from Colonial New Zealand - review

by gabeatkinson / 24 January, 2013
A new book concerning the piano in New Zealand's early colonial history hits a flat note.
James Smetham’s Maori Chiefs in John Wesley’s House, 1863.

For a book replete with the buzzword “narrative” in its text, Piano Forte: Stories and Soundscapes from Colonial New Zealand is remarkably free of narrative thread. Any sense of progression is provided not by author Kirstine Moffat’s prose, but by her deft ordering of the many and varied anecdotes, incidents and reminiscences she has collected about the life and times of the piano in New Zealand, c1830-1930.

The 275-page book has the appearance of a work of scholarly writing, and was backed by support from the Marsden Fund as well as a research grant from the University of Waikato, where Moffat is employed as convenor of English. In essence, though, it is little more than a volume of paraphrased source readings, bound together with simple segues and backed by conclusions that are, at best, wafer thin.

Generalisations such as “the clichéd association of the piano with upper and middle-class values” and “Victorian perceptions of the domestic instrument as the province of women” are exposed by the author for what they are – generalisations. Unveiling evidence that colonial men of means sometimes played the piano at home and that some servants also learnt to play does little more than prove generalisations have exceptions.

None of Moffat’s conclusions brings surprises, and most of her facts are freely available in other sources, not the least of these being John MacGibbon’s 2007 Piano in the Parlour. The Piano Forteweakness of Piano Forte is its paucity of interpretative thought, its self-evident summaries and its irritating refrain made popular by academic abstract writers, “and in this chapter I shall show you …”.

The forte of Piano Forte is its intricate descriptive detailing of all aspects of the instrument’s existence in colonial New Zealand. The difficulties of transporting instruments in a land of no roads (think Jane Campion’s film The Piano – the acknowledged genesis of Piano Forte), Maori reaction to its sounds, the players, the makers, the sellers, buyers, tuners, teachers, listeners, the lovers and the loathers are all particularised in apt and well-turned tales.

There are also striking illustrations of pianos in use, the best of which are candid portraits of performers in full thrall of the instrument’s sound.


Philip Norman is a composer and writer whose books include Douglas Lilburn: His Life and Music.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


Jacinda Ardern pregnant: Politicians past and present lend their support
86105 2018-01-19 15:45:44Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern pregnant: Politicians past and pres…

by RNZ

Politicians from at home and abroad are reaching out to offer congratulations to the Prime Minister mum-to-be.

Read more
Jacinda Ardern is going to be a Prime Minister AND a mum
86091 2018-01-19 12:36:44Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern is going to be a Prime Minister AND…

by Katie Parker

New Zealand’s newly minted PM and bizarrely cool and normal lady Jacinda Ardern has announced that she and partner Clarke Gayford are expecting a baby

Read more
Jacinda Ardern announces pregnancy
86074 2018-01-19 11:11:36Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern announces pregnancy

by RNZ

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that she is pregnant, with the baby due in June.

Read more
What the media silly season taught us
85933 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Politics

What the media silly season taught us

by Graham Adams

To the eternal gratitude of media chiefs, each holiday period seems to throw up at least one minor scandal that runs in the absence of anything newsy.

Read more
Richard Prebble: Jacinda Ardern will face the tyranny of events
86009 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Politics

Richard Prebble: Jacinda Ardern will face the tyra…

by Richard Prebble

I predicted Bill English would lose the election and the winner would be Winston Peters. But no forecaster, including the PM, predicted her pregnancy.

Read more
Aokigahara: More than just the ‘suicide forest’
85966 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z World

Aokigahara: More than just the ‘suicide forest’

by Justin Bennett

It's known as a 'suicide forest', but Justin Bennett found Aokigahara's quiet beauty outweighed its infamous reputation.

Read more
Truth and Lye: New perspectives on the brilliance of Len Lye
85816 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Arts

Truth and Lye: New perspectives on the brilliance …

by Sally Blundell

New essays on New Zealand-born US artist Len Lye elevate him to the status of Australasia’s most notable 20th-century artist.

Read more
Brain activity may hold the secret to helping infertile couples
86046 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Health

Brain activity may hold the secret to helping infe…

by Nicky Pellegrino

For about a third of infertility cases in New Zealand, there is no obvious reason why seemingly fertile couples struggle to conceive.

Read more