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What Killed the Golden Age of the Piano


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You have to realize how piano-mad the world went for a while.

Before 1900, with no radio, television, cars, record players or electricity, what else was there to do but listen to someone play the piano?

If you lived in a city you might have had a chance to hear an orchestra, but not very often. Most people experienced classical music by listening to a pianist or a small ensemble playing a wide variety of symphonic music arranged for various groups.

Many composers, Liszt among them, earned a living arranging Beethoven symphonies for everything from a single piano to a string quartet, all to whet the insatiable appetite of the public for live performances of the latest masterpieces.

And these performances took place in your living room, if you were suitably wealthy enough to have time and resources to educate your sons and daughters. The music was played by the family, by their friends, and by anyone who could wield a tune, and was willing to participate.

General musical skills were far higher than now, for music was one of the few respectable pursuits that the middle and upper classes adored. Most people could read music, or at least had the rudiments of it included in their education.

A young lady was not considered properly “turned out" unless she could play the piano or sing creditably. It was a social mark of distinction, to be able to entertain others with music.

An orchestra concert was a major event, for the public. The ultra wealthy, in Beethoven's day, kept their own private orchestras, but soon that became too expensive even for the rich.

And so the piano stepped in, and became the musical synonym, as it were, for the orchestra. Virtuosi like Liszt and Chopin filled that need for complex music played on the readily available, ubiquitous piano.

And the public's need fueled a culture among the musicians, who, of course, made livings creating, playing and arranging the masterworks and humbler works of every kind. So their skills were passed on to their sons and daughters, and musical culture grew with each generation in the 1900's. Then came several events that almost single handedly destroyed the momentum of that musical revolution, known as the Golden Age of Piano.

First came the automobile, which gave America mobility at the turn of the century. Who wanted to sit home listening to a piano when they could be whizzing down the road in their Model T?

Next came the gramophone, or record player, fully developed by around 1918. This alone minimized the need for piano and pianists, although it disseminated the recordings of many great early artists (Gabrilowitsch, Paderewski, etc. ) who would otherwise have been lost.

Next came the Radio in 1926, the year they figured out how to mass-produce it.

That was the death knell for the piano, for now Americans were addicted to the idea of entertainment issuing from machines. Perhaps it was simply the enthusiasm for machinery and gadgets that swept America at the time.

From then on, it was downhill, and although radio and then television promised at first to widen the piano culture, they were in fact in the 1950's singing its Swan Song.

By the 1970's the Golden Age of the Piano had disappeared and the digital age was right around the corner.

Are we better off?

By John Aschenbrenner Copyright 2008 Walden Pond Press All rights Reserved

John Aschenbrenner is an Emmy Award Winning Composer and a leading children's music educator, book publisher, and the author of numerous fun piano method books in the series PIANO BY NUMBER for kids.

You can see the PIANO BY NUMBER series at and


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