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The Lives of Lost Pianos Look Past Siberian Terrors


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Who had played that instrument, whose fingers had expressed the love or pain of their Harbin exile?
—Sophy Roberts
The Lost Pianos of Siberia
Sophy Roberts
433 Pages
ISBN: 0802149286
Doubleday/Grove Atlantic

In The Lost Pianos of Siberia (Doubleday/Grove Atlantic, 2020), British writer Sophy Roberts uses the piano to channel the past and tell the stories of people's lives through earlier cycles of Russian history before the current Ukraine violence. Roberts comes to understand pianos not as mere inanimate objects, passive elements in jazz and classical music until played, but characterized by place and imbued with the souls of the people who had played them.

Her journey begins on an exploratory premise to find in Russian Siberia an instrument for Mongolian pianist Odgerel Sampilnorov, who had been classically trained in Italy after her family had emigrated out of the Lake Baikal region of Siberia. The search becomes a challenge to find a quality piano that had survived earlier disruptions: the Russian Revolution and World War II, referred to in Russia as the Great Civil War and the Great Patriotic War respectively, terms which Roberts uses throughout.

Each of those data points mark periods of the rise and fall of piano's Russian popularity. The piano served as an expression of European grandeur under the czars, destroyed as bourgeois luxuries under the Soviets, then a cultural heritage to be rescued in the 1940s. Following the war the piano became a tool for mass education, then diminished from importance in the disorder accompanying the fall of the Soviet Union. Amid that sway of history, pianos were distributed throughout Siberia. Some became household items, but later unplayed and abandoned. Others decayed under the extremes of weather and economic turmoil, lost and forgotten. Roberts sought out those that survived.

Pianos had been shipped across Russia and Manchuria in the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to the Pacific. Symphonic musicians escaping the Revolution to Harbin, China, attempted early versions of jazz there, transcribing from imported gramophone records, before the music developed more fully further south with the arrival of American musicians in Shanghai. Read our coverage.

Of individual pianos in Harbin, "Who had played that instrument, whose fingers had expressed the love or pain of their Harbin exile?," Roberts wondered. "An object can lose its way when it has lost its owner's story, like a body detached from its soul, or a refugee from its homeland." A piano was somewhere in need of asylum to reunite its heritage with that of Oldgerel Sampilnorov.

"The word 'Siberia' alone makes everything it touches vibrate at a different pitch," Roberts experienced. Siberia had become the most feared prison destination on earth, from the czars through the Soviets. Criminals, dissidents, and others simply caught up on the wrong side of history were sent to its icy wilderness. Millions perished. Yet Roberts saw great beauty in a landscape that offers wild strawberries in summer like Scandinavia, and the hush of silver birch trees and the billowing of winter snows reflected in Russian music. As a travel writer, great descriptive sweeps of geography and destinations adorn her narrative.

She finds a former Aeroflot jet engineer who retired to the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia bordering Mongolia. He found cheap pianos for sale in Moscow and brought them to the Altai, distributing 41 of the instruments to children in the belief that humanity will only thrive through culture distributed beyond the elite of urban cities.

He described the Altai as a universe beyond perception. It is the world that is remote, he asserts, not Siberia. For him, Siberia is at the center. Yet Siberia is so huge, 11 per cent of the total planetary land mass, that its capitol Novosibirsk sits north of the Altai but still below a region that spans more thousands of miles west from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific and north to the Arctic Ocean.

Far to the east, in Khabarovsk near the Chinese border and the Sea of Japan, Roberts seeks records of the original owner of a Russian-made Stürzwage grand that had been built before the Russian Revolution. She finds the piano itself and an 86-year-old woman for whom that instrument, owned by her aunt, had provided the sound of her childhood. That woman had experienced Siberia as a place of passionate intensity, not darkness. Roberts realizes that Siberia could not simply be dismissed as gruesome history from the back of beyond.

Deep within the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theater where it had been safeguarded since World War II, Roberts finds a 1936 German upright that its tuner explained "had seen a great deal. I can hear it in the way it plays." It was made by Grotrian-Steinweg, model 120, serial number 63216. The tuner's apprentice son wept at Roberts' appreciation upon discovery of their devoted restoration and preservation work. The instrument itself told a history of relationships between the Grotrian family, which manufactured pianos in Moscow and Germany, and the German Steinweg family, another branch of which became known under the Americanized name Steinway.

That piano was the one selected for transport back across 2,000 miles to Odgerel Sampilnorov in Mongolia, who named it "Cantabile," in notation of its singing voice. Roberts heard it as tender, smooth, vulnerable and full of feeling, with a rich, warm bass and a silvery treble, the hammers delivering keen, precise blows to achieve a perfect clarity. Of Sampilnorov, Roberts wrote, "It was as if she were revealing the singing heart of the instrument." The piano had found a new life, and its story from having been formerly lost continued.

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