The last piano factory (in England)

It makes me a little sad to hear that the last piano factory in the UK, Kemble’s in Bletchley, is closing today, with a loss of 90 jobs (and the skills they comprise). I visited this factory back in the mid-1980s when I was doing research for a film I never got to make on the social history of the piano (instead, it became a chapter in my book Musica Practica).

You might suppose that this closure is yet another sign of the recession, but in fact it reflects a much longer term trend, with the recession merely the last straw. As Arthur Loesser explained in his wonderful book ‘Men, Women and Pianos’, ‘The history of the piano does not coincide with the development of musical genius; it follows the development of industry and commerce’. In line with this, Kemble’s, founded in 1911, was bought by Yamaha in 1986 (also now the owners of Bösendorfer, which they bought last year), who are now shifting UK production to Asia, where almost all today’s piano manufacture is located—and it’s far from a dying trade. On the contrary. I discovered from my research that as a result of the rise of piano manufacturers in Japan, China and South Korea, the output of new pianos was higher than it had ever been at any previous time in its history.

This should also be seen in much longer historical perspective. Sixty years before Kemble’s came into existence, the London piano manufacturer Broadwood’s was one of only about half a dozen factories in the capital that employed more than 500 workers. A quarter century before that, Broadwood’s laid claim to high international status when they sent their latest model as a gift to Beethoven—the same model, I discovered, on which I myself learned to play as a child, since my parents had been able, just after the Second World War, to pick one up very cheaply. Now it would be a museum piece. But the piano and pianism are still very much alive, and it is part and parcel of this history that many of today’s leading pianists, from the great Mitsuko Uchida (here she is on the radio as I write this) to the young and infectious Lang Lang, hail from East Asia.

One of the lessons to be learned from all this is prosaic but fundamental: the effects of the recession cannot be understood if it is not re-inserted into history. Kemble’s is not so much an incidental victim of a contraction in the luxury goods trade, or something like that (in fact it seems that despite the tough economic climate sales of Kemble pianos actually increased last year), but a symptom of much bigger shifts in the production of musical instruments at a global level already long in evidence.

This shift points to another crucial lesson, that the history of the global spread of European classical music teaches us something rather different from the standard theories of cultural imperialism. This is not a simple conquest of other cultures but turns out to be a process of cultural exchange, in which the other culture appropriates the instruments of cultural production and sends them back where they came from, along with new interpreters and interpretations. This goes on in every strand of musical culture, from classical to hip-hop, and is possible because artistic creation, and music especially, is a utopian realm which transcends the socio-political arrangements in which it arises, and speaks across the gulfs and rifts which divide people by class, religion, ethnicity and nation. A hopeful sign: youth orchestras in the barrios of Venezuela, young Israeli and Arab musicians joining forces in the concert hall. Obviously the problem is not the irrelevance of dead white male composers, but rather, as a certain Elie Siegmeister wrote in a pamphlet for the Workers Music Association in 1938, ‘that, as in other fields, capitalism has created the most magnificent apparatus for the production, distribution and consumption of music that the world has ever seen: yet this apparatus is so riddled with contradictions basically economic in origin that it negates its own potentialities…’

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