April 2017

April’s Big Picture

The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori & the Invention of of the Piano

Written by Elizabeth Rusch; illustrated Marjorie Priceman

If you are a well-to-do musical enthusiast in the late seventeenth century, and you’re in the market for a new keyboard, your choices are pretty limited. Organs won’t migrate from churches to homes for another two centuries; clavichords play so softly that you won’t be able to entertain your friends; harpsichords are loud, but they lack the dynamic capability of the violin and wind families. If you can hold out for a couple of decades, though, there’s a man in Florence who’s working on the problem—Bartolomeo Cristofori—and his remarkable “pianoforte,” literally a soft-loud keyboard instrument, will take the musical world by storm.

Rusch’s picture-book account of the invention of the “piano” begins with the historical attestation to Cristofori’s birth in Padua, 1655: “Bartolomeo, son of Francesco Christofani and of Luara his wife, was baptized by me, Don Gagliardi his parish priest.” Then she cuts right to the chase. Adult Cristofori (yes, the spelling of his name varies considerably) has become a maker and repairer of fine musical instruments, and his skill catches the eye of Prince Ferdinando de Medici, a talented musician in his own right. Cristofori isn’t initially interested in leaving Padua, but “the prince makes an offer Cristofori can’t refuse,” and the Paduan is now a Florentine with a splendid salary, a well-furnished household, and full reimbursement for all the materials he needs for repairs, tinkering, and invention. Under the prince’s generous patronage, Cristofori turns to solving the problem of keyboard instruments’ dynamics, testing various hammers, strings, and mechanisms that would allow a musician to control volume simply by striking the keys with variable force. Cristofori debuts his “pianoforte,” the prince is delighted, and the public is enchanted. The new instrument is tricky to learn, so it doesn’t catch on immediately. However, when instructions (or perhaps a working model) make it to Germany, Haydn, Mozart, and others of their renown play and compose for the new instrument, and the rest is musical history.

Priceman’s watercolors are zesty evocations of sound unleashed—sunny golds predominate, with curls and coils of primary and secondary colors erupting from instruments, while whooshing banners frame musical directions appropriate to each scene. Touches of humorous exaggeration abound as frustrated keyboardists struggle with their single-volume instruments, opera singers bellow on stage, and grimacing porters lug bulky keyboards from venue to venue. Fluidly rendered figures are always in motion, and the most mundane actions of everyday life are depicted with the grace and spring of a dance.

Rusch supplies an amazing treasure trove of back matter that extends the title’s interest beyond an expected picture-book audience. A timeline of Cristofori’s life and invention, arrayed under a portrait of the inventor reproduced in black and white, recaps the text and adds additional information; notes on three extant Cristofori pianofortes address how each manifests a new phase of his tinkering; “Today’s Piano” compares technical differences between original and modern instruments. These features, along with the bibliography and quotation sources, would be ample addenda for most informational works. But there’s more. The book’s flexibility is significantly augmented by the copiously entitled (with a wink, no doubt) “How the Author Reconstructed Bartolomeo Cristofori’s Life from Primary and Secondary Sources,” in which Rusch shares, spread by spread, insights into her research process and contagious enthusiasm for the quirky resources she encountered. Finally, a playlist of classical and popular pieces engages readers directly in the range and color of the pianoforte/piano over the years, with links to the performances available at the author’s website. Kids taking music lessons or preparing for a school invention fair, teachers looking for high quality STEAM materials, and anyone with earbuds dangling from her/his head need to listen to the Cristofori story.

Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

April’s Stars

BRASHARES, ANN      The Whole Thing Together. Delacorte, 2017         [304p]
Library ed. ISBN 978-0-385-90630-2       $21.99
Trade ed. ISBN 978-0-385-73689-3          $18.99
E-book ed. ISBN 978-0-399-55600-5        $10.99
Reviewed from galleys                     R*        Gr. 8-12

HEILIGMAN, DEBORAH     Vincent and Theo.     Holt, 2017      [464p]            illus. with photographs
Trade ed. ISBN 978-0-8050-9339-1          $19.99
E-book ed. ISBN 978-1-250-10969-9        $9.99
Reviewed from galleys                     R*        Gr. 7-12

MCKINLAY, MEG       A Single Stone.           Candlewick, 2017     [272p]
ISBN 978-0-7636-8837-0   $17.99
Reviewed from galleys                    R*        Gr. 6-9

PARKS, JAMES           Rickety Stitch and the Gelatinous Goo: The Road to Epoli; by James Parks and Ben Costa.     Knopf, 2017  [208p]            (Rickety Stitch and the Gelatinous Goo)
Trade ed. ISBN 978-0-399-55613-5          $18.99
Paper ed. ISBN 978-0-399-55614-2          $14.99
E-book ed. ISBN 978-0-399-55615-9        $9.99
Reviewed from galleys                     R*        Gr. 6-9

RUSCH, ELIZABETH   The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori & the Invention of the Piano; illus. by Marjorie Priceman.  Atheneum, 2017       48p
Trade ed. ISBN 978-1-4814-4484-2          $17.99
E-book ed. ISBN 978-1-4814-4485-9        $10.99                        R*        Gr. 3-5

SIMON, FRANCESCA  The Monstrous Child; illus. by Olivia Lomenech Gill.         Faber & Faber/Profile, 2017           290p
Paper ed. ISBN 978-0-571-33027-0         $11.95                        R*        Gr. 8-10

SNICKET, LEMONY   Goldfish Ghost; illus. by Lisa Brown. Porter/Roaring Brook, 2017          [34p]
ISBN 978-1-62672-507-2  $17.99
Reviewed from galleys                    R*        4-7 yrs

WATSON, RENÉE       Piecing Me Together.            Bloomsbury, 2017    [272p]
Trade ed. ISBN 978-1-68119-105-8          $17.99
E-book ed. ISBN 978-1-68119-106-5        $12.99
Reviewed from galleys                     R*        Gr. 8-12