23 Feb 2020

Sophy Roberts: The Lost Pianos of Siberia

From Sunday Morning, 10:04 am on 23 February 2020

For more than two years, Sophy Roberts travelled the Siberian hinterland, the far North and the Russian far East in search of an instrument worthy of a brilliant Mongolian pianist.

Author Sophy Roberts' new book is titled The Lost Pianos of Siberia.

Author Sophy Roberts' new book is titled The Lost Pianos of Siberia. Photo: Supplied

Born in Scotland, Roberts had a wild and rural childhood on her father’s trout farm but as soon as she could afford it she booked a flight out of there to find something of the world herself.

Having spent quite a lot of time in Mongolia as a journalist she got to know one family in the Orkhon valley; a German man married to a Mongolian woman and their three children.

“The daughter was a keen amateur pianist and they had a young woman in their lives who was teaching their daughter piano, she is a remarkable pianist in her own right... I heard her play on this Yamaha in a tent…beside a silver river, snaking through this huge vast steppe country, I mean it’s magical, you see the stars above, no lights, nothing and you hear a piano playing and I was transported…”

The German man leaned over to Roberts as the woman played and said; “Ah, the sound is not quite right, if only she had one of the lost pianos of Siberia”.

“You can’t throw a phrase out like that to someone like me and not pique some kind of interest.”  

Roberts started to look at what was behind the throwaway phrase.

The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts

The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts Photo: Michael Turek / Doubleday

It turned out that at the time when European Russia was effectively beginning to colonise Asiatic Siberia, the piano was moving from St Petersburg and Moscow, where it was becoming an incredibly fashionable instrument, to Siberia.

 “They’d be carried on sledges; these huge unwieldy instruments and I loved both the absurdity and poetry of that.”

There was surely going to be great adventure in her quest, Roberts thought.

Siberia is both a place and an idea, she says. “It’s an almost a country but it’s not quite.”

There’s a deep spirit of hospitality in Siberia, which perhaps evolved out of Siberia’s history. Many people were exiled there, marched in chains to the place in which they were going to die, she says.

“The suffering and the untold, never-to-be-known stories are far larger than the ones that have reached us today.”

But, she says, a lot of people also moved to Siberia from Russia wanting to get far from the reach of the Tzar and the strictures of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Wilderness can be something you run towards, not away from, she says.

Roberts begins The Lost Pianos of Siberia with a piano Catherine the Great commissioned from London in 1774. It’s a square piano that looks nothing like those we know today.

“She was a great Anglophile…she was of enormous wealth and she wanted to be the most sophisticated country in the world and so she bought not only pianos but wonderful musicians, composers…she started something.”

People around her were convinced that the Royal Court needed such things.

Pianos, among other things, were sent to Siberia during World War Two, in an attempt to preserve some of the most precious parts of Russia’s culture.

Catherine the Great’s piano was among those objects. It's one of the many pianos Roberts attempts to track down in The Lost Pianos of Siberia.

Roberts’ quest gave her a different appreciate of time and space. Knocking on the door of a remote home with her interpreter, she would ask if the person had a piano.

“Piano was like a passport, it was like this incredible connector. The door would open and I didn’t know if I’d be there for one hour or three days and that was so magical.”

Sophy collaborated with Mongolian pianist, Odgerel Sampilnorov, you can hear the outcome here on Soundcloud.