I feel a bit guilty admitting this, but I love writing essays. Really. My classmates- if any of them actually are reading this- are probably rolling their eyes and groaning, but call me a nerd, I don’t care and I’ll say it again: I love writing essays. I especially love writing them when they are not on set topics and I am free to explore familiar regions, themes from my own life, stories chosen directly from my bookshelves. Having, over the course of the last two weeks, written a total of nine essays for AP Literature (even for me, this was too much), I suppose I was bound to find at least one where I could choose my own topic and, to my delight, the final prompt was the one.
I was instructed to choose a motif not generally taught in English course and discuss its appearance in several literary works, but having just spent several hours practicing piano, it was hard to switch gears so suddenly into essay mode. But, as it turns out, I didn’t have to! My favorite instrument (sorry, bagpipes) happens to be a common motif in literature and I was so embarrassingly excited to write this paper that I may or may not have written it to be two pages longer than required… oops.
Anyway, here is the finished product:
Grave con Brio: On Pianos in Literature
“I tell my piano the things I used to tell you.” -Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
In this one heartbreaking statement, Frédéric Chopin, the “Poet of the Piano,” describes not only his yearning for a lost friend but a motif that has played its way into numerous literary works: the piano. This instrument is one that I hold dear to my heart, as it has been an extension of myself since I learned my first tune; it has been and continues to be a source of comfort and companionship for
the emotional artist in times of loneliness and despair. Like Chopin, many authors have understood this connection between musician and keyboard and made use of it to portray depression, isolation, but also a hope for recovery.
The piano as a motif appears in most literary works on my bookshelves, but is especially prevalent in those dealing with thwarted love. For instance, in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, when Marianne is abandoned by her unprincipled lover, she sinks into a sorrow beyond the reach of her friends and family. However, she finds comfort in the notes of her pianoforte, which provides a means for her to both express her woe and piece her heart back together. Similarly, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, when Jo March refuses to accept the hand of her best friend and ardent admirer, Laurie, in marriage, he storms away. A few hours after his disappointment, Laurie is heard playing the opening lines of Beethoven’s “Sonata Pathetique,” which is considered among the most keenly sorrowful works for solo piano, having been composed around the time of Beethoven’s tragic hearing loss. In fact, Beethoven wrote it to be performed “grave” and then “allegro di molto con brio,” which mean gravely and then with fiery passion. In this instance, like that of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, Laurie feels that none among his friends can empathize with his disappointment and thus turns to the piano, which is always there to suffer under his angry fingers and propel him toward recovery through its understanding melodies.
The piano as a motif does not merely appear when cupid’s arrows have misfired, however, for this instrument can be the medium for emotion and healing from misfortunes beyond star-crossed romances. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, when Daisy and Gatsby are finally reunited in Gatsby’s mansion, one of the first things that they do is find the pianist who has been “visiting” for many months and make him play a song for them called “Ain’t We Got Fun?” This piece, while frivolous, bridges the gap between them in a way that words never could and it allows Gatsby to feel for the moment that he is not completely alone. Granted, this still seems romantic, but Gatsby’s true desire is for acceptance by the “Old Money” families of society and he has simply found this desire personified in Daisy. Thus, when the piano is clinking away a familiar melody, Gatsby is actually expressing his longing to be a part of a world that he has been excluded from and creating a feeble link between himself and the representative of this world. The piano music, although performed by another, was commissioned by Gatsby to serve as the accompaniment to his heartache and attempts at healing. Another example of the piano motif, and perhaps the most obvious, is in Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. In this novel, the face of the title character, Erik, is horribly disfigured. This, combined with his extraordinary genius, gives rise to violent suspicion in other men, thus forcing him to cut himself off from his fellow men to become the “Opera Ghost.” He conceals himself within the cellars of the Paris Opera House and spends his indistinguishably dark days and nights at his organ and piano, composing his masterpiece. The dissonant tones and provocative melodies of his composition parallel the turmoil of his forsaken soul. Only the keys of his instruments understand his anguish and give a voice to his misery. Like most appearances of the piano motif, the music has a restorative nature, keeping Erik alive only for as long as he continues playing; when his masterpiece is completed and he leaves the piano bench, his life too comes to its finale. Here, as in The Great Gatsby, the piano offered a catharsis for Erik’s emotion, but when its notes faded, the healing was halted.
The piano is a staple instrument. It is used to find pitches for singers, tune violins, unify jazz band riffs, and create mood in silent films. Nearly every home has one crouching in its living room, or at least a keyboard lurking in some forgotten closet, but wherever the piano is, there lies the heart of the house and the musician who resides there. I can personally attest to this truth, for I have a piano dominating my front room and seek refuge in its music whenever my heart is overwhelmed. In the same way, pianos furnish the pages of literature as a motif that is generally overlooked but can provide major insight into the souls of the players if examined closely. From the works Austen to Leroux and Alcott to F. Scott Fitzgerald, the members of the literary canon are crowded with pianos, which, although they play different tunes, all represent an emotional outpouring and a gradual calming of the mind, experienced through the impassioned performances of their owners.