Sophy Roberts' The Lost Pianos of Siberia, our Champaca Book Subscription pick for October 2021, takes us through Siberia through the stories of its pianos. A journey through time and space, this is also a journey through music. Thejaswi Shivanand writes.
The Lost Pianos of Siberia is an unusual travel book by Sophy Roberts, a travel writer based in the UK, which was shortlisted for the 2021 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year prize. In this book, Roberts travels across eight time zones in Siberia in search of pianos. The book has three sections that span the last 250 years of modern Russian history. Each section traces the spatiotemporal fate of nearly 24 pianos, both indigenously produced and imported. Roberts’ quest for these instruments and the stories of the pianos are a palimpsest in which we see Russia’s history, landscape and regional travel writing.
Roberts tells us the unique story of each piano: their makers, owners, players, tuners, and the places they were housed in. She speaks of a Steinway Grand that travelled with the famous pianist Svetslov Richter who performed to sell-out crowds in a whirlwind tour of Siberia. Another piano that survived historical vicissitudes and Siberia’s damaging swings in humidity was made in the German workshop of Grotrian-Steinweg in the 1930s. It now resides in the basement workshop of the Lomatchenko family of piano tuners and restorers in the central Siberian city of Novosibirsk. They were deeply moved, one of them to tears, on hearing of Roberts’ interest in their work. The family dreams of starting a Russian piano factory to manufacture the best instruments in the world. The story of each piano in the book is therefore of people’s lives and aspirations as much as it is about instruments and history.
We learn of other pianos that are truly lost to time. A grand piano that travelled to Ekaterinburg with the family of Tsar Nicholas in his last days in 1918; a piano played by the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1942 at the height of a four year siege of the city during the Second World War, which received a standing ovation from starving citizens and German soldiers across the siege line. There are lost pianos Roberts traces with diligence: a piano on a fishing ship from the Kamchatka peninsula, one in a Stalin-era gulag in Sakhalin island, and another in a state-run music school in the Altai mountains.
The stories are testament to Roberts’ experience and resourcefulness as a journalist. She meets people, gathers stories to trace provenance, tracking these pianos across a vast landscape. Her empathy for people comes through, but most of all it is her connection with the instruments we see, perhaps one of the reasons she tells the stories so well.
The Lost Pianos of Siberia: A Playlist
We have included a Spotify playlist, compiled by our curator Thejaswi Shivanand, to accompany your reading of The Lost Pianos. The explanatory notes that follow will guide you to locate the pieces sequentially in the book, indicated by page numbers at the end of each note as p. 1-4 (pages 1-4). The notes include links to introduce you to various piano makers mentioned in the book. The playlist features past and present Russian pianists wherever possible.
Sophy Roberts begins the book with a sketch of a time-honoured journey on the Trans-Siberian railway to invite our imagination to the vastness of the country, landscape and time zones that one would inevitably encounter in a search for pianos. Listen to Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne played on a Bechstein piano as you dine in candlelight or to his Concerto as you watch the timeless coniferous landscape whiz past only interrupted by the occasional industrial town, oil rig or large river. Some of the pianos that Roberts attempts to trace on her journey travelled across this landscape before the railway was laid. p. 1-4, 11-18
Roberts relates the surge in popularity of the piano in Russia to Catherine the Great’s influence which tempted the greatest composers and pianists of the day to travel to Russia. She presents highlights of the technological revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that changed the piano to the modern instrument that we recognize today. Listen to Listz’s Waltz played on a period Erard piano that recreates the sound of the times when Listz played for delirious droves of swooning admirers. p. 18-27
Roberts was moved to look for lost pianos in Siberia when she listened to the music of a young Mongolian pianist Odgerel Sampilnorov. Listen to Odgerel play a variation of a Mongolian folk song to take you to the Mongolian ger where Roberts mused thoughts of listening to a historical piano on the steppes as she is drawn deeper into the soundscape created by Odgerel’s playing. p. 30-32
Roberts traces the journey of pianos deep into Siberia in the nineteenth century, accompanying Russian expansion into these previously unclaimed lands lived by non-Russian tundra pastoralist communities and tribes. Tsarist rule viewed territorial expansion into Siberia as a natural extension of Russia's burgeoning state power, which brought settlers, trappers and missionaries to the land. In this expansionist phase, European composers like Paisiello, Clementi and Field flocked to sell music and pianos to the growing Russian elite, and even Mozart was sorely tempted but eventually never made it. At the same time, the state brooked no dissent as the century progressed, inventing penal colonies to the distant tundra. Political prisoners such as the Decemberists were banished to the cold far east. p. 38-107
Roberts travels to the central Siberian city of Tomsk to locate the Polish political connection to Siberia and the lost music of Chopin, and by chance locates a glorious 1896 Bechstien baby grand piano. Listen to Chopin played on an 1898 Bechstein grand to take you to Olga Leonidovna’s remote village as you rediscover a lost piano with Sophy Roberts. p. 108-126
The second half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries represent a renaissance of Russian composers, that Roberts briefly chronicles, starting with Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila and reaching a zenith under Anton Rubinstein, who was influential on other well-known composers of the period such as Mussorgsky and Borodin. This was the kind of piano music that Anton Chekov is likely to have heard in the penal colony of Sakhalin island. He travelled there in pre-revolutionary Russia by horse-drawn coaches on slushy summer roads across the Siberian heartland, where he met accomplished musicians among the inmates of Sakhalin. Listen to these composers as you travel to the island with Roberts to locate one of the several lost pianos that travelled far east. p. 127-146
A historically important lost piano travelled with the Romanovs once Nicholas II was deposed as Czar after the October Revolution and incarcerated in the central Siberian town of Yekaterinburg. You may listen to Czarina Alexandra’s favourite piece of music from the time, Beethoven’s piano sonata, The Appasionata, as you travel with Roberts in her attempt to unearth the story of the Becker Grand Piano in the last days of the Romanovs. p. 149-175
Sophy Roberts travels to the northern Chinese city of Harbin tracking down more lost pianos that date from the turn of the twentieth century when the city was a major Russian trading post located in China. Listen to Duke Ellington who brought the jazz age to Russia through Harbin, as Roberts researches the fate of pianos from Harbin’s heyday that survived the Cultural Revolution under Mao. p. 190-201
The soul shattering gulags of the Soviet Union are perhaps the last place for a piano, you might think, but Roberts takes us through a search for pianos of musicians imprisoned under Stalinist purges who found ways to access instruments. You can listen to Zaderatsky and Kozin as you follow their life-threatening subversions to save themselves in prison through the only way they knew, through music. p. 222-234
Music was as much propaganda as it was food for the soul, and nowhere was it highlighted more than in the premiere of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony on a pivotal day in the siege of Leningrad by the Germans in the Second World War. Listen to the thundering last movement of the symphony as you read Roberts’ search for the iconic Steinway Grand piano that played in that premiere as she travels to Novosibirsk to locate it. In the process, you meet a remarkable family of piano tuners and restorers and are introduced to another lost piano, a rare 1930 Grotrian-Steinweg instrument that can produce sublime sound. p. 235-257
After travelling to the Cold War-Era Siberian city of Akademgorodok in search of a 1905 Muhlbach piano belonging to a reclusive but brilliant pianist, Roberts heads east once more, this time to Kamchatka. This peninsula forms the eastern end of Russia, a volcanic landscape of ten thousand smokes, hardy people and more lost pianos. In search of another piano, Roberts meets a performing pianist who plays on an 1850 Ibach piano that has survived the vagaries of travel across Siberia and remained there for decades. Listen to his favourite Chopin nocturne as you read his story and that of others in this distant land. Read also about the 1986 blitzkrieg across Siberia by the virtuoso pianist Sviatoslav Richter, ending in Kamchatka, as you listen to him play a Schubert sonata and a Scriabin etude. p. 258-303
Roberts winds up her quest for lost pianos in Khabarovsk in eastern Siberia with a very old piano made by a fascinating piano maker and tuner. Discover a modern edge to the piano’s inevitable story of changing hands as you listen to Shostakovich performing a concerto movement and a fugue. p. 324-335
We conclude the playlist with three podcasts, one on the musical history of the piano, another an interview with a representative of the renowned German piano maker Bosendorfer on the long history of the company and finally an interview of the author of The Lost Pianos, Sophy Roberts. We hope you have enjoyed the book, the journey and the music.
When Thejaswi Shivanand began reading in childhood, the Indian tectonic plate was farther away from the Eurasian plate by 66 cm. He likes to track the consequences of this plate movement during annual hikes in the Himalayas while continuing to read history, geology, natural history, music, picture books and much fiction while in Bangalore.