- The Player Piano and the Edwardian Novel by Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg
Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg’s The Player Piano and the Edwardian Novel is a meticulously researched work. It examines the cultural significance of the player piano, a type of piano invented by Edwin Votey in 1895 (17) that did not require its performer to touch the keys. Rather, players would insert a piano roll, onto which musical notes had been punched, into the instrument (15) and would then control the “tempo and expression” (2). Björkén-Nyberg addresses this subject from multiple perspectives—legal, philosophical, scientific, gendered, political, and musical—to show the instrument’s “subversive effect on traditional notions” (2) of music itself. She draws from a diverse archive encompassing music reviews, advertisements, philosophical treatises, scientific studies on fatigue, and articles on sound and pianolas from music periodicals to demonstrate that the player piano made music more democratic, participated in contemporary discussions on virtuosity, and challenged Victorian notions about the gendering of music. Throughout, the book connects the historical background of the instrument to a selection of “music novels” (14): The Challoners, Christian Thal, Howards End, Maurice, Maurice Guest, Melomaniacs, Pointed Roofs, A Room with a View, Sinister Street, and Zuleika Dobson. Björkén-Nyberg “uncover[s] the latent mechanical discourse in pianistic culture” (5) to argue that such works “challenged the prevalent antithesis expressed in contemporary music literature... between a nineteenth-century conception of music as a means of transcendence and the increasing mechanization of music as represented by the player piano” (2).
Björkén-Nyberg builds on extensive interdisciplinary scholarship to historicize and situate her claims about sound: she cites Phyllis Weliver’s and John Picker’s work on Victorian music and sound culture to demonstrate how the player piano affected Edwardian views, situates her own philosophy on the role of the mechanization of art alongside new media critics Tim Armstrong and Ivan Raykoff, and invokes Jacques Attali and Susan McClary in her consideration of the politics of the music the player piano produced. It is harder, however, to provide a list of the primary critics of Edwardian literature to whom she responds, as the book focuses more on the player piano’s role in Edwardian musical culture than on Edwardian fiction as a whole.
The first chapter defines the player piano and argues for “an analogy between storing more music and providing more storage space for music as a topic in Edwardian fiction” (6). It provides a general introduction to pertinent media theories to consider philosophical similarities between Edwardian modes of inscription: the piano roll, the score, literature, and even the alphabet. The second chapter examines the similarities [End Page 130] in rhetoric between actual player piano advertisements and fictional representations of piano players struggling with fatigue and precision to argue that “this advertising discourse prompted a new pianistic behavior” in The Challoners and Christian Thal (6). The third chapter discusses Pointed Roofs, Maurice Guest, and Zuleika Dobson to examine fictional representations of “the hand of the performer—as agent of wonder, excess, and deception” to argue that “the player piano became a material repository for nineteenth-century notions of Lisztian virtuosity” (7). The book’s final chapter brings together these disparate strands. It examines how player pianos let performers adjust the tempo and sound of the original composition to produce a new composition, which “facilitated self-expression and individuality for women performers” (7), and cites A Room with a View and Pilgrimage as examples of women “manipulating the male script” (7) in ways that exemplify the New Woman.
Musicologists with literary interests will find this book and its sustained examination of the cultural history of the player piano especially illuminating. The book’s discussion of gender in the final chapter is a particular highlight, especially in the explication of the paradoxical relationship between Frédéric Chopin and gender as mediated by the player piano: “Thus, at the same time as the instrument was advertised as playing without the expenditure of muscular force, a...