In 1864, in a small workshop in Hradec Králové, in the Kingdom of Bohemia, an enterprising young man made his first grand piano. He used gorgeous fruitwood for the case and ornate lyre pedals and, to both the black marquetry fallboard and the company he founded this same year, he attached his name: Antonín Petrof. For the next 84 years – pausing only when the Austro-Prussian War came to town – the Petrof company produced instruments of outstanding quality.
In 1948, after the coup d’état that left the Communist Party in control of the government, the Petrof company was nationalized. Czech pianos – like cars and beer, chocolate and cattle – were now ideological. Markets were redefined, trade repositioned and the quality of Petrof’s instruments gradually slipped away amidst the stultifying conformity and lack of opportunity of communist rule.
When this ideology began to fall apart throughout Eastern Europe in 1989, the fate of a single piano manufacturer was not a high priority. Yet, in 1991, the Petrof family and the government of the emerging Czech Republic initiated the slow process of re-privatization that they would go on to complete in 1998, 134 years after the company was founded. Petrof began, once again, to manufacture instruments of astonishing quality.
My Petrof grand dates from 2002. It’s a beast of a piano that has followed me from Saxmundham to London to Hamburg to Berlin and now to Melbourne, requiring a crane in four of these places to lift it into position. (In Berlin, a giant backwoodsman loaded all 500 kilograms into a sling on his back and, guided by a colleague, heaved it up two storeys. He then told me never to call him again.) Yet, even though it is an instrument of beauty, one to which I readily tip my cap, my tribute here is not so much to a company that completely reinvented itself following the fall of communism, but to something more fundamental to the culture that this instrument and maker serve and represent.
In December 1991, the European Council met in Maastricht and agreed a treaty for the formation of the European Union, which was signed into law the following February. Former communist countries – such as Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland – signed agreements with the Council, which opened up trade and markets as they prepared themselves for full membership of the European Union. Other countries joined when they could: Finland in 1995; Lithuania and Latvia in 2004; Croatia in 2013. The single currency aside, it was a spectacularly bold and imaginative project, a repudiation of a bloody European century; a repayment, with interest, of pure Enlightenment notions.
Music changed its sound after 1991. Light was shone into the darkest corners of the continent to reveal the most wonderful traditions, which had been isolated by cold war ideologies and boundaries. One of the so-called four freedoms underlying the European single market – the free movement of persons – meant that these traditions were now portable and, in the decades that followed, art music blossomed. It was a bit like in the middle of the 19th century, when the implementation of railway networks throughout Europe meant that musicians could tour with relative ease. At both times, the extent to which different countries shared a culture was starkly illustrated. Little-known composers entered the canon; Karol Szymanowski was hardly played outside Poland before 1989, the year in which I wrote my honours thesis on him and struggled to obtain Polish scores of his music. This is now impossible to imagine.
I’m not one who laments the dilution of tradition that has come about from previously impossible collaborations and juxtapositions. I do, however, lament a new, narrow ideology that threatens the beautiful ideas of that European summit in December 1991. But lucky Hungary, lucky Poland: they, at least, have the union on their side as an autocratic wind blows through their lands.
Main Image: Petrof Grand Piano. Courtesy: Petrof, Hradee Králové
Paul Kildea is a conductor and writer and former artistic director of Wigmore Hall, London, UK. His most recent book, Chopin’s Piano: A Journey Through Romanticism (2018), is published by Penguin/Allen Lane.
First published in Issue 200