France's Pleyel -- the world's oldest piano maker -- recently announced that it would cease production after 200 years of making superb instruments. Favored by Chopin, Liszt, Ravel, and Stravinsky, Pleyels are known for quality and innovation. Many French citizens lament the loss of the workshop as an affront to French artistry and history.
According to an exhibition mounted in the Royal Academy of Music Museum in London, Chopin once confided to a student, "When I feel out of sorts I play an Érard piano and I easily find a ready-made sound. When I'm feeling energetic and strong enough to find my own sound, I must have a Pleyel." According to Joseph Bamat, journalist at the international news channel France24, Chopin's appreciation for Pleyel pianos was so strong "he struck a sponsorship deal similar to those between sports stars and apparel companies today; when in France he exclusively played Pleyel ... In return, the composer always had free instruments at his disposal." His Pleyel pianos were the tools with which he shaped pieces rich in subtlety.
A decade ago Pleyel produced 1,700 pianos a year; last year its master artisans made only 20. Stiff competition from Asia, coupled with declining demand in the West, has shifted the market. More than half the pianos sold in the world last year were purchased in China. According to Tom Hundley of the Chicago Tribune, of the 480,000 pianos produced in 2008, a whopping 430,000 were made in Asia. Although most piano aficionados agree that Asian-produced pianos do not yet have the comparable sound and quality of venerable brands such as Steinway, Érard and Pleyel, they are decent instruments at a quarter of the price. Quel dommage!
Pleyel has doggedly resisted abandoning nuance and subtlety for discounted, straightforward tones. When speaking with the Tribune's Hundley, Pleyel master builder Sylvan Charles, explained what it takes to produce Pleyel's "round, warm, sensual sound": an additional 30 to 40 hours of fine tuning in a "voicing room" with arcane tools and an exacting ear. "When it arrives in here, it is not yet a Pleyel. See, that's a Yamaha sound -- very sharp and metallic. But when it leaves this room, it will be a Pleyel," he boasted. This final tuning comes after 5,000 separate parts have been assembled by 20 expert artisans over 1,000-plus working hours. Is the resulting sound luscious? Oui! Is the public willing to pay for it? Non!
The French have unabashed and deserved pride in their history of fine piano-making. For 200 years French piano makers have tinkered with the best ideas from Britain, Austria, and Germany to produce incomparable instruments. Pleyel artisans assert that their pianos' superior tone is due, in part, to the red spruce used for the soundboard. Not just any red-spruce -- north-facing trees of a particular age, thickness, and grain from the Fiemme Valley of South Tyrol in Italy.
Although quality has been a constant for Pleyel, so has financial trouble. "There has not been a large-scale factory for years, but the sadness comes from the death of a symbol," says Jean-Jacques Trinques, author of "Le piano Pleyel" in a recent interview with Bamat. He notes that Pleyel took a real hit in the stock market crash of 1929, and although the brand survived, it passed through several hands -- even moving production to Germany for over 20 years. Pleyel did not return to Saint-Denis until 2000.
This is not really a story about the loss of French business, but more about the fear of lost identity. Anne Midavaine of the French Confederate of Art Professions, explained to The Telegraph, "(D)on't we sum up everyone's dream of France's grandeur, its non-exportable knowhow?" Pleyel represents a deep, cultural appreciation for craftsmanship, deliberative art, and the hope that substance will triumph over cut-rate substitutions.
As Pleyel's Saint-Denis factory ceases production, another very different manufacturer on the other side of the world is going gangbusters. The New York Times reported last November that Venezuelan Eliezer Álvarez, in an effort to boost sagging sales, redesigned his mannequins to -- in his opinion -- more accurately reflect the Venezuelan beauty aesthetic. They now have enormous, gravity-defying breasts and waists so narrow they abandon the laws of physics and biology. Nuance and subtlety have been jettisoned entirely; these plastic forms are a celebration of artifice and the artificial -- a brazen declaration that ersatz breasts trump unpresumptuous (natural) ones.
Slate editor Katy Waldman rightly argues that these "va-va-voom" dummies are really no worse than the unnaturally scrawny ones preferred in the West. But they do signal an in-your-face rejection of the loveliness found in the understated.
As Pleyel pianos represent France's once great self-identity as a cultural powerhouse -- one that exports grandeur and craftsmanship, Venezuelan mannequins assert an increasingly widespread cultural belief that "perfection" can and should be purchased through plastic surgery. Lauren Gulbas, an anthropologist at Dartmouth College, maintains that breast augmentations are popular in Venezuela because of a strong cultural belief that they convey perfection and "buena presencia" ("good presence"). Who needs to actually cultivate charisma when you can just buy double "D" saline implants to captivate a crowd? There is absolutely nothing subtle about gigantic fake breasts.
Sophie Heawood, writer for The Guardian, muses that our movement away from embracing nuance might be nested in a growing social media culture that could encourage binary thinking: "It goads us into pretending not to have nuance; to taking a stand on one side or the other of things." This trend has a tendency to suppress important questions about self, identity, and worldview. She concludes, "It's the nuances that keep us sane." And I would add it's the subtleties that truly captivate.