The lost pianos of Siberia

Sophy Roberts

Book - 2020

"Siberia's story is traditionally one of exiles, penal colonies, and unmarked graves. Yet there is another tale to tell. Dotted throughout this remote land are pianos--grand instruments created during the boom years of the nineteenth century, as well as humble, Soviet-made uprights that found their way into equally modest homes. They tell the story of how, ever since entering Russian culture under the westernizing influence of Catherine the Great, piano music has run through the countr...y like blood. How these pianos travelled into this snow-bound wilderness in the first place is testament to acts of fortitude by governors, adventurers, and exiles. Siberian pianos have accompanied extraordinary feats, from the instrument that Maria Volkonsky, wife of an exiled Decembrist revolutionary, used to spread music east of the Urals, to those that brought reprieve to the Soviet Gulag. That these instruments might still exist in such a hostile landscape is remarkable. That they are still capable of making music in far-flung villages is nothing less than a miracle. The Lost Pianos of Siberia is largely a story of music in this fascinating place, following Roberts on a three-year adventure as she tracks a number of different instruments to find one whose history is definitively Siberian. Her journey reveals a desolate land inhabited by wild tigers and deeply shaped by its dark history, yet one that is also profoundly beautiful-and peppered with pianos"--

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Subjects
Published
New York, NY : Grove Press 2020.
Edition
First Grove Atlantic hardcover edition
Language
English
Physical Description
433 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
Bibliography
Includes bibliographical references (pages 360-363) and index.
ISBN
9780802149282
0802149286
Main Author
Sophy Roberts (author)
  • Pianomania, 1762-1917. Music in a sleeping land : Sibir; Traces in the snow : Khabarovsk; Siberia is "civilized" : St Petersburg to the Pacific; The Paris of Siberia : Irkutsk; Pianos in a sandy Venice : Kiakhta; The sound of Chopin's Poland ; Tomsk; Home in a hundred years : Sakhalin Island
  • Broken chords, 1917-1991. The last Tsar's piano : the Urals ; The end of everything : the Altai Mountains; The Moscow of the East : Harbin; Beethoven in a red chum : the Yamal Peninsula; Music in the Gulag Archipelago : Kolyma; The Siberian Colosseum : Novosibirsk; Vera's Mühlbach : Akademgorodok
  • Goodness knows where, 1992-Present day. A game of risk : Kamchatka; Siberia's last piano : the commanders to the Kurils; Provenance regained : Khabarovsk
  • Epilogue : the Orkhon Valley.
Review by Booklist Reviews

The origins of this title's "lost pianos" start with the mass manufacture of the instruments in Russia beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Their production was inspired, English travel writer Roberts writes, by a national fever dream over the arrival—more pointedly, the playing—of Franz Liszt in St. Petersburg in 1842. With the banishment of millions of Russians over the decades to tsarist prisons, later gulags, in the unimaginably vast Siberian expanse, the pianos followed, establishing cultural beachheads that Roberts seeks out here in digressive, hopscotch fashion, with a passion bordering on obsessive. She finds herself in the Urals, in Ekaterinburg looking for the last piano the Romanovs, all of them executed there, ever played; and in an abandoned penal colony in far-eastern Sakhalin Island, where a prisoner's wife, a former student of the great Anton Rubinstein, was forced to play for local officials. Roberts has a splendid eye for detail, whether in the history and flavor of the cities and regions she visits or in the living, breathing people she encounters on this almost otherworldy journey. Copyright 2020 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

A journey ignited by a search to bring a piano to Mongolia, this work is history mixed with travelog. Journalist Roberts travels across Siberia, mainly near the trans-Siberian railway, though she also explores isolated towns that contribute to an intimate portrait of a part of the world that has long held the public imagination, though is little understood, and even less visited. Aside from some setbacks, including being detained by border guards, Roberts tracks down numerous pianos, both Russian and foreign-made, and ties the pianos, and Siberia, to Russia's history from Tsarist times, through the overthrow of the Romanov's, the USSR, to the present day with the Gulag, the prison camps synonymous with Siberia, playing a central role throughout. The approach each government took toward music provides valuable context on the culture of each era. A background in music or pianos may enhance the journey, though the nonmusical reader will not be intimated or overwhelmed. VERDICT Tigers, pianos, prisoners, and historical perspective throughout Siberia's past and present are the heart of this personal account that starts and ends with the search for a piano. While the pianos and their providence are captivating, the history and people stand out.—Zebulin Evelhoch, Deschutes P.L., OR Copyright 2020 Library Journal.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

In this luminous travelogue, journalist Roberts travels through Siberia looking for historically significant pianos, which she sees as symbols of civilization, refinement, and artistic freedom amid vast, frigid wildernesses and primitive settlements scarred by Russia's bloody revolutions and barbaric gulags. Her quest also serves as a vehicle for her to investigate Siberia's dramatic past. Episodes include mid-19th-century noblewoman Maria Volkhonsky's journey into political exile, piano in tow, with her liberal Decembrist husband; the disappearance of a piano in the Ekaterinburg house where Bolsheviks executed Czar Nicholas II and his family; the somber picaresque of musicians and dancers incarcerated in Soviet prison camps, performing in the Arctic wastes; and the fate of a concert grand used by the Leningrad Philharmonic during its exile during WWII. The instruments often elude Roberts, but her quest sometimes achieves inspiring musical fruition, as when she arranges for a family of piano technicians in Novosibirsk to truck a resonant upright 2,000 miles to a pianist in Mongolia. The book is an eccentric meander, but Roberts's mix of colorful history, rich reportage, and lyrical prose—"You can hear Siberia in the big, soft chords in Russian music that evoke the hush of silver birch trees and the billowing winter snows"—makes for a beguiling narrative. (June) Copyright 2020 Publishers Weekly.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

A first book by an acclaimed British journalist tours the history of piano music in one of the world’s harshest landscapes, chronicling how Russian-made pianos have played a diverse part in remarkable lifetimes and historical events.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

"Siberia's story is traditionally one of exiles, penal colonies, and unmarked graves. Yet there is another tale to tell. Dotted throughout this remote land are pianos--grand instruments created during the boom years of the nineteenth century, as well as humble, Soviet-made uprights that found their way into equally modest homes. They tell the story of how, ever since entering Russian culture under the westernizing influence of Catherine the Great, piano music has run through the country like blood. How these pianos travelled into this snow-bound wilderness in the first place is testament to acts of fortitude by governors, adventurers, and exiles. Siberian pianos have accompanied extraordinary feats, from the instrument that Maria Volkonsky, wife of an exiled Decembrist revolutionary, used to spread music east of the Urals, to those that brought reprieve to the Soviet Gulag. That these instruments might still exist in such a hostile landscape is remarkable. That they are still capable of making music in far-flung villages is nothing less than a miracle. The Lost Pianos of Siberia is largely a story of music in this fascinating place, following Roberts on a three-year adventure as she tracks a number of different instruments to find one whose history is definitively Siberian. Her journey reveals a desolate land inhabited by wild tigers and deeply shaped by its dark history, yet one that is also profoundly beautiful-and peppered with pianos"--

Review by Publisher Summary 3

From acclaimed journalist Sophy Roberts, a journey through one of the harshest landscapes on earth—where music reveals the deep humanity and the rich history of SiberiaSiberia’s story is traditionally one of exiles, penal colonies and unmarked graves. Yet there is another tale to tell.Dotted throughout this remote land are pianos—grand instruments created during the boom years of the nineteenth century, as well as humble, Soviet-made uprights that found their way into equally modest homes. They tell the story of how, ever since entering Russian culture under the westernizing influence of Catherine the Great, piano music has run through the country like blood. How these pianos traveled into this snow-bound wilderness in the first place is testament to noble acts of fortitude by governors, adventurers and exiles. Siberian pianos have accomplished extraordinary feats, from the instrument that Maria Volkonsky, wife of an exiled Decembrist revolutionary, used to spread music east of the Urals, to those that brought reprieve to the Soviet Gulag. That these instruments might still exist in such a hostile landscape is remarkable. That they are still capable of making music in far-flung villages is nothing less than a miracle.The Lost Pianos of Siberia is largely a story of music in this fascinating place, fol-lowing Roberts on a three-year adventure as she tracks a number of different instruments to find one whose history is definitively Siberian. Her journey reveals a desolate land inhabited by wild tigers and deeply shaped by its dark history, yet one that is also profoundly beautiful—and peppered with pianos.

Review by Publisher Summary 4

From acclaimed journalist Sophy Roberts, a journey through one of the harshest landscapes on earth—where music reveals the deep humanity and the rich history of Siberia.