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There are 88 keys on a standard piano1 and today is the 88th day of the year, which means it’s World Piano Day: essentially an annual excuse, if such a thing were needed, for millions of pianists to come together and discuss all things pianal2. My contribution to the party, as both an exceedingly bad piano player and a lover of letters, is to send you these letters of note3.4
I wish the Government would put a tax on pianos for the incompetent. Osbert has brought off a coup about pianos with the gardener’s wife, who has recently purchased a piano to be hit by her four-year-old daughter. Osbert, with his eyes starting out of his head, told the proud mother that the Death Watch Beetle had got into the piano, and that it must be returned immediately to the manufacturers, otherwise the whole of the furniture will start ticking. The advice was effectual. But I can't believe it will be lasting.
Edith Sitwell | Letter to Ree Gorer, 21 Jun 1943 | Selected Letters
Your question about ‘gesticulations’ is a rather difficult one. I would indeed like to think that they represent a kind of intensifying relation to music that you very generously suggested. But its hard to know, since I have never been able to play the piano without gesturing semaphorically toward an imaginary horde of sidemen. I suspect that it has to do with a desire to externalize, not the music or even one’s relation to it, but perhaps the responsibility for it. That sounds rather strange, I know, but I have thought a good deal about this question and, as of the moment, it is the only relevant answer I can arrive at.
Glenn Gould | Letter to a fan, 12 Apr 1967 | Glenn Gould: Selected Letters
Most letters from a parent contain a parent’s own lost dreams disguised as good advice. My good advice to you is to pay somebody to teach you to speak some foreign language, to meet with you two or three times a week and talk. Also: get somebody to teach you to play a musical instrument. What makes this advice especially hollow and pious is that I am not dead yet. If it were any good, I could easily take it myself.
One of the most startling things that ever happened to me when I was your age had to do with a woman who was my age now. She didn’t know what to do with her life, and I told her that the least she could do was to learn to play the piano. By God, she did!
I plan to buy a piano. But my apartment isn’t big enough for a piano, and I’m too lazy to move. Edith has the right idea for lazy people: marry somebody with energy to burn.
Kurt Vonnegut | Letter to his daughter, 20 Sep 1970 | Kurt Vonnegut: Letters
Without music I should wish to die. I find that lately more and more my fingers itch for a piano, and I shall not spend another winter without one. Last night I played for about two hours, the first time in a year, I think, and though most everything is gone enough remains to make me realize I could get it back if I had the guts. People are so dam lazy, aren’t they? Ten years I have been forgetting all I learned so lovingly about music, and just because I am a boob. All that remains is Bach. I find that I never lose Bach. I don’t know why I have always loved him so. Except that he is so pure, so relentless and incorruptible, like a principal of geometry.
Edna St. Vincent Millay | Letter to Allan MacDougall, 11 Sep 1920 | Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay
During one of my first harmony classes with Dawson he asked me, who was not a pianist, to play a certain progression of chords on the piano. I made an attempt and as luck would have it I struck a wrong note. But then, failing to understand that I was supposed to return to my seat, and having studied harmony with Mrs. Breaux for four years and therefore quite familiar with the progression, I realized, and immediately corrected, my mistake. Whereupon Dawson, who wanted the next student to supply the correction, threw a piece of chalk at my head.
Well, I didn’t like that worth a damn, and after class I went to his office and informed him, man to man, that anyone who threw at me should be thrown at in turn. Which was an unusually rash act for a Tuskegee student, and one that might well have gotten me expelled. But luck was with me, for although a man of quite volatile temper he apologized for his action and physical combat was averted.
Ralph Ellison | Letter to Charles Tucker, 21 May 1988 | The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison
The other evening Mrs. Sinor was prevailed upon to play the piano, which she did interminably and with many a false note; unfortunately, she’s a teacher of the history of music so she gave the history of each piece she played. Oh dear, I practically faded away from the boredom.
Jessica Mitford | Letter to various friends, 18 Oct 1975 | Decca
It gives me great pleasure to express my admiration for your pianos. Their tone is noble, sonorous and pure; even in the utmost fortissimo, it is rich and sweet; moreover, it carries so far that it makes the most delicate pianissimo practicable in very large halls. The tone is not only large and round, but exquisitely sensitive and fresh. These qualities make the Steinway piano better adapted to cantabile playing at one extreme and to the most passionate bravoura at the other, than any other piano that I know. The scale is very even in the best sense of the word:- the bass rich and pure, the treble singing and full, the upper octaves round and replete with vitality and character.
Adele aus der Ohe | Letter to Steinway & Sons, 1894 | Letters of Note: Music
I am certainly not implying that pianos with fewer than, or even more than, 88 keys are substandard. Dear god no.
I have not googled extensively (risky!) but it seems that pianal was not a word until I typed it—at least, not in this sense. Consider it coined.
This is a pun.
I’ve belatedly discovered the footnote function and I’m having a ball. Please bear with me.