Before the Second World War the only people who travelled were either rich or in the Armed Forces. The likes of Scarborough or Clacton were as exotic as it got for most people. Travel overseas was mainly “virtual” or vicarious and achieved through the pages of writers who had been there for us. However anyone born since the 1960s has “travelled”, or at least holidayed, frequently and often gone far away to do so. Travel writers have had to adjust, to take us off by now heavily beaten tracks or devise novel ways to lend renewed enchantment to the familiar.
At their best – think Paul Theroux or Sarah Wheeler or Philip Marsden – the new guides have enabled us to “accompany” them on their own travels and made those of us who have personally only got to Majorca or the Greek Islands, feel we are “travellers”, too. And since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, the very best can help us to stay on the sofa as prescribed and to dream of future journeys once we are all able to go out again. From being able to go everywhere we can no longer go anywhere, but travel writers can take us beyond our front doors.
Sophy Roberts’ new book, The Lost Pianos of Siberia, is perfect for these times and, to be fair, probably for any time. It is all at once wonderfully engaging and intelligent and mind-expanding in so many ways (with, incidentally, some resonant photos). And despite its title – seductive as it is in itself – the “lost” pianos become something of an excuse for the journey and for the encounters across the vast spaces of Siberia. The search for the pianos is always on Roberts’ agenda, but the reader is entranced and captivated by so much more, not least by the adventurousness and often the fearlessness of our guide. Most of the journey is conducted in the winter, often across deep or wind-driven snow and ice-covered waterways and estuaries; and a key reason on Roberts’ part for doing so is to escape the dreaded Siberian mosquitos which congregate in swarms over the warmed and watery tundra in the spring and summer months (and which in the late nineteenth century sucked the blood of pack-horses to the point of collapse).
Roberts was spurred into her journey by an exotic encounter with a rich German and a poor but talented young pianist in a tented settlement in Mongolia. Challenged by her German acquaintance she undertakes to seek out an antique piano for the Mongolian pianist from among those said to have been transported from St. Petersburg and Moscow to the eastern lands of the Russian and the Soviet empires. It became a journey not just through a landscape of surpassing strangeness and majesty, but through Russian history and through decaying remnants of a Soviet Union which built communities at the extremes of human endurance and sometimes beyond.
A whole strand of narrative draws us into the story of Tsarist territorial expansion in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As administrative structures staked out the emerging empire, it was the appointed Governors (and most of all their wives seeking distraction and solace in the back of beyond) and other agents of the Tsars who carried with them on their journeys eastwards the artefacts of western civilisation and most especially of Orthodox religion and of music and pianos. Roberts’ insistent detective work in search of the – often German-built – pianos is often frustrated by seeming phantoms or of genuine loss, but en route she encounters some marvellous characters, many stranded by history and circumstances beyond their control. Most conspicuous are the many piano-tuners who become agents in her search and who are usually flattered and intrigued by her interest in them.
Tragedy or rather the recollection of tragedy, stalks Roberts’ explorations at almost every turn. From the ghastly end of the Romanovs (and of their piano) in the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg (subsequently destroyed in the late 1970s as a deterrent to renewed interest in the Tsar and his family) to the unendingly horrifying suffering of those transported into exile by the Tsars and later and on a scale difficult to comprehend, by Stalin. Even, however, in the most dire circumstances, communities in the Far East adjacent to the Pacific Ocean and composed of forced and free labour (Siberia’s population expanded by 300% in the 1930s), showed Russians’ love of music was not exhausted and Roberts’ encounters with the few survivors or their descendants, attests to this; and the fugitive pianos of Soviet or earlier design were part of that survival.
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But what a journey Roberts takes us on as serendipitously she sniffs out “her” pianos. Traveling alongside her we encounter or learn of men who saved and repaired musical and other instruments and works of art from Nazi confiscation or destruction in Leningrad and Moscow and who took them by train (some items packed only in piles of grass) to rest quietly and beyond the reach of German bombs in the only partly constructed new Opera House in Novosibirsk. Tenaciously Roberts seeks out early pianos in the Far East as far as the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Kuril Islands north of Japan. She stretches her investigation further into Harbin in China, formerly a Russian and Soviet outpost where jazz music flourished as nowhere in the Soviet Union.
The Lost Pianos of Siberia is a charming book; but it is much more than that. It takes us on a journey which also inspires through the dignity of the people encountered in the history of the territory as well as of those still living today and who Roberts meets and describes with great warmth. It is a journey about so much more than pianos. And Roberts’ skilful depiction of the vast spaces through which she travelled and her eye for the natural world together make her descriptions deeply evocative. And she does eventually achieve with the help of her rich German friend her original objective: an early piano stranded and neglected in Novosibirsk was brought to her pianist in Mongolia and she played it there.