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.