Burning Issues

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Although rather tame in nature, Saturday’s “Let It Shine” (a BBC UK talent show) featured a “piano burning”, and apparently raised a few eyebrows in the world of social media.

During the programme, Nightfall, a band put together as part of the show, performed Coldplay’s “The Scientist”, and to add visual interest, the piano was set on fire. Actually it wasn’t, there were just gas flames coming from around the rim of the instrument to give the impression of a piano inferno. Nevertheless, some people were apparently concerned for both the piano and for the safety of the pianist.

In this instance, the “burning” was just a TV gimmick, but there is a history to the piano burning phenomenon.

There was of course the “Square Piano Pyre”. Production of square pianos had effectively ceased in the 1880s, and in 1904 the Society of American Piano Manufacturers asked its members to bring any of these pianos they might have to that year’s Atlantic City convention. The 200-plus pianos were stacked in a large pyramid shape and ceremonially burned to simultaneously proclaim the end of the square piano. The event also served as a way to jettison redundant stock (a more likely reason). Some dispute the scale of this event, and others that it ever happened, but it has gone down in piano folk history.

Every year, however, pianos are ceremonially burnt at several US and UK airforce bases. The history behind this is somewhat disputed.

It is said that between the Wars (I and II) the powers-that-be thought it a good idea to make RAF pilots learn how to play the piano. Lessons were arranged with a view to both improve the airmen’s appreciation of the arts, and their manual dexterity. The pilots hated these lessons and fires unexplainably broke out in the music rooms of several airbases destroying the pianos. The act became a sign of triumph defiance and celebration. The tradition continues to this day to honour their wartime predecessors, and to mark the loss of any current member of the squadron.

Every year, patrons of the Roxbury Tavern in Wisconsin (USA) observe the summer solstice by burning a piano.

Pianos are often immolated as part of visual arts installations. And occasionally a burning piano is used in an advertising campaign to create impact.

Australian film, “The Burning Piano”, released in 1993, celebrates the life of Nobel Prize winning author/dramatist Patrick White.

Various musicians have played, or composed for, an actual burning piano. These include Japanese jazz pianist Yosuke Yamashita, New Zealand composer Annea Lockwood, US composer Michael Hannan, and the late rock keyboardist Keith Emerson.

As far as I am aware, there have been no reports of injuries sustained whilst playing a burning piano.



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