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.
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