Paul Cézanne, Girl at the Piano (The Overture to Tannhäuser). Oil on canvas. 57.8x92.5 cm. Circa 1868. Inv. no GE-9166. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photograph copyright The State Hermitage Museum. Photo by Vladimir Terebenin, Leonard Kheifets, Yuri Molodkovets.

Listening to the Domestic Music Machine: The Keyboard Arrangement in the Nineteenth Century

The keyboard arrangement – an adaptation of a large musical work for performance at the home piano – was central to both the performing and listening habits of the nineteenth-century amateur musician.  Not only did it respond to the desperate need for a cheap technology of musical circulation in age without records and compact discs, its immense popularity helped create a commercial musical publishing machinery of an unprecedented scale, and the profound impact which the arrangement had on popular listening practices and habits of musical consumption is only now beginning to be fully understood.  Despite these factors, the keyboard arrangement as a nineteenth-century technology for the mass-distribution and circulation of popular musical works remains underexplored.  This is most likely a result of the continuing dominance of the argument made in the early-twentieth century that keyboard arrangements were merely commercial – and not properly musical – objects, ones which were published in a mercenary attempt to capitalise on an ill-educated musical public’s interest in the empty babblings of the fashionable.  Drawing on a background of renewed scholarly interest in the aesthetics of copying, reproduction and transformation, this project starts from the contention that because the keyboard arrangement was a very real part of lived musical experience in the nineteenth century, it deserves far more academic interest that it has thus far received.


This project reconstructs the multiple faces of the keyboard arrangement by analysing it as an object moving within a number of different musical, practical, and written discourses. As musical objects, arrangement is shown to be a collection of diverse practices that impacted in various ways on a number of different genres.  As products moving in a marketplace, the arrangement is analysed from both commercial and legal perspectives, with consideration given to purely material considerations – where they were published, how much they cost and, through statistical analysis, in what volumes – as well as the meanings and implications of statements made about it in the many copyright cases which this culture of copying was almost certain to lead to.  Considerable attention is given to an attempt to reconstruct the critical discourses by which arrangements were assessed in contemporary written sources: musical dictionaries, private letters, personal diaries, music reviews, opinion pieces, instruction manuals and advertisements are all used to show that the variety of practices which fall under the single rubric of ‘arrangement’ produced a complex weave of critical responses previously unconsidered in contemporary accounts.  Finally, emphasis is placed on the extent to which the kinds of listening experience that the arrangement engendered show similarity with those offered by popular musical styles of today, and suggest the existence of a longer-scale history of popular listening which has its roots in the market for the nineteenth-century keyboard arrangement.  This in turn helps explain the progeny of today’s dominant listening styles: fractured, disjointed, and arranged.