Monday musings on Australian literature: Pianos in Australian literature

A rather left-of-field topic for Monday Musings, but did you know that last Friday, March 29th, was World Piano Day? The Piano Day site asks how we are going to celebrate it. Well, three days late, I’m celebrating it by talking about Australian literature that features pianos. Why not?

Farewelling my late aunt’s precious Bechstein

World Piano Day is new – the first being 2015 – and it is a slightly shifting feast in that its date is related to the number of keys on a piano, 88. That is, it occurs on the 88th day of the year which is, except for leap years, the 29th of March.

Why do we need a World Piano Day? Its creator, the German musician Nils Frahm, says:

For many reasons. But mostly, because it doesn’t hurt to celebrate the piano and everything around it: performers, composers, piano builders, tuners, movers and most important, the listener.

Any keen reader of Australian fiction will know that pianos abound in Australian literature – hmm, “abound” might be pushing it a bit, but they do occur more frequently than you might think. In John Lang’s mid-19th century novel The forger’s wife (1853) (my review), the wife Emily tries to support herself by giving piano lessons. Elizabeth Jolley features piano teachers and piano playing in many of her novels. And so on…

Consequently my list is an eclectic selection, presented chronologically.


Miles Franklin’s My brilliant career (1901) (Karen’s BookerTalk review): Protagonist Sybylla loves music and the piano. For her music represents the life/world she desires. When she is exiled to work at the M’Swats’ farm she finds their piano produces only “jarring, clanging, discordant clatter” and their neighbours “lived the same slow life, and their soul’s existence fed on the same small ideas. I was keenly disappointed that none of them had a piano, as my hunger for music could be understood only by one with a passion for that art.” Harry Beecham, however, is a “fine pianist”, but unfortunately for him, Sybylla’s desire for independence outweighs even that!

Henry Handel Richardson’s Maurice Guest (1908)(Lisa’s ANZLitLovers review) and The young Cosima (1939) (Bill’s TheAustralianLegend review): Both feature pianists, which is not surprising given Richardson was a keen musician who studied music at the Leipzig Conservatorium. Although it barely references the music, I can’t resist this contemporary review of Maurice Guest (from The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 October, 1908):

Maurice Guest (Heinemann) is an elaborate study of the soul progress of a young student of music in Leipzig. It is very long for a modern novel, but it shows a finished style and considerable powers of analysis. The picture of life in Leipzig is very minute, and though the detail is rather overwhelming, it all fits in Its place. Mr. [sic] Richardson is to be congratulated on a fine and careful piece of work of more than ephemeral Interest.

Helen Garner, The children BachHelen Garner’s The children’s Bach (1984) (my review): Protagonist Athena has a piano in her kitchen:

There was a piano in the kitchen and during the day Athena would shut herself in there under the portrait of Dexter’s father and pick away at Bartok’s Mikrokosmos or the easiest of Bach’s Small Preludes. Preludes to what? Even under her ignorant fingers those simple chords rang out like a shout of triumph, and she would run to stick her hot face out of the window.

Peter Goldsworthy’s Maestro (1989): Goldsworthy is a writer, doctor and music lover, who has also written libretti. His daughter Anna, see below, is a concert pianist. Maestro, his debut novel, is a coming-of-age novel about a young boy who is taught the piano by the titular maestro (for whom the piano provides sustenance and escape.)

Sonia Orchard’s The virtuoso (2009) (Lisa’s ANZLitLovers review): While Richardson’s The young Cosima draws on the life of Richard Wagner, and the pianist Cosima von Bülow whom he married, Sonia Orchard’s debut novel draws on the life of the much lesser known Australian pianist Noel Mewton-Wood, who committed suicide when he was 31 years old, and was found next to his Steinway.

Murray Bail’s The voyage (2012) (my review): Most of the books here are about pianists, but Bail’s is about an Australian piano inventor who goes to Vienna to try to sell his piano. It’s a clever motif – an inventor from the New World taking his new piano to sell to the Old World. It goes to the heart of some of Bail’s thoughts about the challenges we face as Australians, not to mention the challenges artists face.

Zoe Morrison’s Music and freedom (2016) (Lisa’s ANZlitLovers review): Morrison is a professional musician, who learnt the violin and piano, but she is also a feminist interested in social justice. Music and freedom, which tells the story of concert pianist Alice from childhood through marriage to old age, combines these two interests.

Diana Blackwood, ChaconneDiana Blackwood’s Chaconne (2018) (my review): Blackwood’s debut novel features a harpsichord on the front cover – next to a Pershing missile – the harpsichord referencing protagonist Eleanor’s piano-playing childhood and love of Baroque music, and the missile, the novel’s Cold War setting. This novel is about a young “lost” woman whose reconnection to music helps her get her life together.

Justine Ettler’s Bohemia Beach (2018) (Bill’s TheAustralianLegend review): Another novel about a concert pianist, written by a writer who is also an accomplished musician. Protagonist Catherine Bell’s life has run off the rails and she is self-medicating with alcohol.


My main interest here, really, is fiction, but I’ll list a few non-fiction books which feature pianos or pianists:

  • Anna Goldsworthy, Piano lessons (memoir) (2009) (Lisa’s ANZLitLovers review): Goldsworthy’s life in music from childhood piano lessons to becoming an internationally successful concert pianist.
  • Michael Atherton, A coveted possession: The rise and fall of the piano in Australia (2018) (history) (Lisa’s ANZLitLovers review): a cultural history of the piano in Australia, from their arrival with the first boats in the late 18th century.
  • Virginia Lloyd’s Girls at the piano (2018) (memoir): Lloyd muses on learning the piano as a child, and the role the piano and music played in her subsequent life.

And, I have to mention Diane Bell’s Generations, in which she discusses, in the chapter “Familiar things”, the way pianos are passed down through generations of women. The piano was seen, she writes, as a symbol of “civilisation, status and sociality”. It provided an opportunity to learn to play music, a way of socialising with people, and of “keeping alive the folk music” of the countries from which people had emigrated. Bell writes that at the turn of the 20th century Australia’s population was under 4 million, but “there was about one piano for every six people.” No wonder, she says, there are many stories about buying and moving them, playing them, and socialising around them.

All these books are very different, but all have one thing in common, the capacity for music to incite some passion or vision for life. Irresistible.

Do you like reading about music? If so, please share your favourites.

32 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Pianos in Australian literature

  1. When I saw the title of the post, Anna Goldsworthy immediately came to mind. I have enjoyed her memoirs (she wrote one about motherhood as well).

  2. So interesting. Thanks. Also, a piano features in Markus Zusak’s new book, Bridge of Clay.

    Cheers Alex Warner


  3. Thank you for the links to my posts. Miles Franklin was passionate about the piano, partly I think because there were times in her life when she couldn’t afford one. In Cockatoos we get to see the difficulties she faced as a girl in a crowded, busy house trying to make time to practice. HHR (there’s someone MF was really jealous of!) has already been mentioned a couple of times but I’m sure you remember Laura playing for the school in the Getting of Wisdom.

    • Thanks Bill. And yes, in fact Sybylla and Laura were the first two names to pop into my head, when I thought of this post, but I decided to go with these other two HHRs, and not unbalance the list completely!

  4. My goodness, I didn’t know what was going on when all those pingbacks starting rolling in on my blog! What a lovely topic, and I think you’ve left almost no stone unturned in your quest…

    However, you have missed just one: Dodge Rose by Jack Cox which features four pages of onomatopoeia representing the smashing of a piano. Here’s the bit of it that I quoted in my review:
    j hop oepf eso po o tt te eem ens ennnna ak tg ebor e nes s ssii oos soo ss oo (p.188)

    Needless to say I do not approve of smashing pianos!

  5. This is a neat topic for a post. There really seem to be a lot of pianos in literature.

    The Voyage sounds interesting and different. Inventing new musical instruments seems like a fascinating topic.

  6. I love novels with music! Two additional Australian ones are Andrea Goldsmith, Facing the Music, and Steven Carroll, The Love Song of Lucy McBride. Then there is Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. All favourites, in significant part because of the music! And you MUST read Bridge of Clay, music or not! One of the best novels ever!

    • Haha, thanks Annette for all this – particularly of course for the Australian ones.

      I never did read Seth’s An equal music, but I did read Doerr. Your recommendation for Zusak is noted!!

  7. I read a short story about a woman who believed her cat was a reincarnation of Franz Liszt. It was a wonderful story and the ending not what was expected . For the life of me I can’t remember who the author is. Whenever I hear a reference to pianos in literature (not that often, I must admit), I remember that story. I don’t think it was Australian.

  8. Hi Sue. What a great list. It doesn’t quite fit your criteria, but Humphrey McQueen had a very interesting essay on the significance of pianos in Australian colonial history. I just went googling, and found that Chapter 9 of A New Britannia (1970) is ‘Pianists’.

    • Ah thanks Jonathan. You know when I was googling to find some examples in addition to those that had come to mind, or to confirm that those that had come to mind had come to mind correctly (does that make sense), I did see a reference to Humphrey McQueen. I didn’t have the time to follow it up, given it seemed, as you say, not right on my criteria. However, I do have A new Britannia here, so will check this chapter because I’m fascinated by the fact that he devoted a whole chapter to this. (The book was set – or was on the reading list – for an Introduction to Sociology course way back in my early 1970s undergraduate degree.)

  9. Hi Sue, a very interesting blog, and I do like reading about music. J M Coetzee often mentions music in his novels. I did think of another novel, Dissonance by Stephen Orr.

  10. I have to say, there are few authors I have read who I have felt really captured music in a way that I understand it. It’s a tricky task being able to write about the mechanics, the culture and the emotions of music – but some authors do get there!

  11. Only once in my reading life…did I read a part of a book while listening to piano music mentoned in the text. A grand historical epic…The Boy by Marcus Malte (winner Prix Femina 2016)

    Part 3 ch 21:
    Malte takes the reader on a walk through Paris…pointing out many monuments, temples, churches. Emma and Félix visit L’Église de La Notre-Dame. Emma tells him about the characters in Victor Hugo’s book. (Hunchback of ND)

    They visit Le Jardin du Luxembourg and see the statue of Paul Verlaine.
    You see three women en relief who represent the three souls of the poet:
    soul of the religious, the sensual and the child.

    Captivated by the narrative about Chopin’s Nocturne op 13 as told by Emma to Félix.
    She tells him the secret about the scar on her face.

    Advice: listen to this piece of music (YouTube) while you read ….you will forget time and palce and be transported into the book by piano music! Envoûtement ( enchantment, bewitching)

      • I just re-read my notes about the book. I read it in French 2016.
        Reading in French takes so much extra time…and I stopped reading the language in October 2018. Now, I feel how much I ‘ve missed reading in French. I thought I’d forget my vocabulary…but it was easy to re-read a small part of Le Garçon. So due to your post…I’m going to start the winner Prix Femina 2018 today..Le Lambeau by Phillipe Lançon.
        This book will be available in English 12 November via KINDLE….I would put it on your TBR list…if I were you!
        Philippe Lançon, a journalist, author, and a weekly contributor to Charlie Hedbo is gravely wounded in the attack, but he survives.
        This intense life experience upends Lançon’s relationship to the world, to writing, to reading, to love and to friendship.
        Doesn’t this sound interesting?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s