High Strung and Keyed Up

This article by Jeffrey Chappell appeared in Piano & Keyboard Magazine, November/December 2001 issue.

Would you like to see a purple giraffe? Then come to Washington, D.C. for the exhibit at the Smithsonian called Piano 300: Celebrating 300 Years of People and Pianos. A giraffe is a type of grand piano, placed vertically on end with a keyboard on the front like an upright. Piano makers in the early 1800s designed it to save floor space, and to them the silhouette of the instrument resembled the long-necked beast. The one on display at Piano 300 is upholstered in purple cloth.

Giraffe piano. Austria, Vienna. 19 century. Is isolated on the white

I was given a tour of Piano 300 by one of its curators, Patrick Rucker. “Henry Steinway was here on opening day,” said Rucker, “and although he is around 85 years old, he was like a kid in a candy shop.” I can see why. Piano 300 is a treasure trove of vintage models including grand, upright, and square by historic makers such as Broadwood, Erard, and Zumpe. Here you will find a player piano, a miniature piano, and a piano built into a sewing table, complete with scissors and thimble. There are also pianos that were owned by Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, and Liberace, the last being a Baldwin concert grand encased in glittering rhinestones. It is only one of many knockouts in the exhibit. There is a Weber upright from 1876 with exquisite carving and inlaid woodwork. There is an art deco Steinway from the 1939 World’s Fair. And the purple giraffe is an eye-catcher.

But the first piano that you come to in the exhibit is small and unassuming. Its unpolished wooden case has a few patchy spots. It looks aged and worn and almost dusty. It was built by Bartolomeo Cristofori (“cris-TOFF-or-ee”), who invented the piano 300 years ago, hence the name of this exhibit. It is one of three pianofortes by Cristofori known to remain in existence. Having made its maiden voyage from the Museum of Musical Instruments in Rome, it is accorded the honor of having a room all to itself. On display with it is a score of the first composition written specifically for the new invention, a sonata by Giustini dating from 1732. The juxtaposition is poignant: that was the year of Cristofori’s death, and the ball had already started rolling toward a future of global pianistic influence that Cristofori could not have imagined.

Piano 300 traces the musical, technological, historical, and sociological developments of the piano from the time of its invention to the present day. It shows the piano’s evolution from a luxury item for the nobility to an everyday item found in households all over the world. It demonstrates how changes in design led to changes in the music written for the piano, and how the spread of piano-playing led to offshoot industries such as music stores, publishing houses, and the professions of tuning, teaching, and performing.

Piano 300 is not huge, with only twenty-five instruments on display, but each one of them answers some crucial question about the history of the piano. Every keyboard is displayed with a placard describing who made it, the date and place of manufacture, and specifications such as the number of keys, the building materials, and the price of the piano when it was built. Most are from the Smithsonian’s own collection, and some have never been publicly displayed before, including the giraffe and the sewing table piano. “I hope one day to return to practicing,” Rucker said after leading me through the exhibit, without any trace of irony. That is the least that such a collection might inspire.

In fact, the sight of all those intriguing keyboards made me want to play them. This need was anticipated by the curators. There is a listening station in the main hall where the touch of a button activates music recorded on a selection of 8 of the pianos in view, including the Cristofori. Among the performers are Rucker, who sounds quite well-practiced, and another one of the curators, Edwin M. Good.

In addition, throughout the year-long run there are Performance Tours on Thursdays and Saturdays at noon. Professional pianists from the Washington area perform on some of the pianos, lecturing about some special area of music repertoire. There are also several models of keyboard mechanisms in the exhibit. The first is a giant-sized grand piano action in the entrance hallway to the exhibit. It is there to be touched, and so are the models of seven other keyboard actions elsewhere in the exhibit. A grand piano has also been taken apart, with the components labeled and explained, including frame, strings, sound board, keys, and dampers.

But as fascinating as this inside look at the piano mechanism is, the gripping part of the story is the spirit of the individuals and the culture that drove the evolution of the instrument. Segments of the exhibit are given labels such as “The Golden Age of Piano”, “Americans Take The Lead”, “The Romantic Superstar”, “The African-American Legacy”, and “Piano Making As Craft”. After an hour-long tour, I could see my own musical life in the context of three centuries of human enterprise. Piano 300 made me feel proud to be a pianist.

Particularly enlightening are the many parts of the exhibit that point out the importance and contribution of women to the survival of the piano. Once it migrated from the parlors of the aristocracy, piano playing was mostly the province of wealthy female amateurs. Young ladies typically took dance lessons and piano lessons three times a week, and otherwise occupied themselves with letter-writing and needlework. The sewing table piano, which also has a mirror and an inkwell, says it all: here are the accepted feminine virtues combined into one object. As Piano 300 points out, talented individuals such as Marie Moke Pleyel and Clara Schumann had to grapple with society’s disapproval of professional women in order to build their careers.

For me, the most awe-inspiring feature of Piano 300 is the numerous original manuscripts on display.

Keyboards are only one portion of Piano 300’s spectacular stockpile. The pianos are displayed against mural backdrops which illustrate scenes from relevant time periods, such as Vienna in Mozart’s day. Portraits of pianists and piano-makers abound. There is a showpiece technician’s tool chest made from ebony and ivory piano scraps. One collection of photographs shows pianos throughout the United States with their owners. There is an exhibit of classic teaching materials by Hanon, Schaum, and John Thompson.

For me, the most awe-inspiring feature of Piano 300 is the numerous original manuscripts on display. Among them, a Mozart concerto reveals the composer’s famously faultless calligraphy. The Chopin Gb Impromptu, Opus 5, is notated in elegant handwriting so small that one sheet of paper accommodates the whole piece. Gershwin’s solo piano version of “I Got Rhythm” is drawn in brisk, efficient-dare I say jazzy?-pencil strokes. This is the same paper that the composers touched, breathed on, and sweated over.

For an even closer encounter with the DNA of geniuses, there is a double-compartment locket containing locks of hair from Franz Liszt and Anton Rubinstein. Piano 300 even takes you inside the thoughts of famous performers with excerpts from their diaries. Amy Fay makes telling observations during her studies in Berlin, 1870: “Rubinstein doesn’t care how many notes he misses provided he can bring out his conception and make it vivid enough. Tausig strikes every note with rigid exactness, and perhaps his very perfection makes him at times a little cold.” Teresa Carreno gives a dumbfounding description of being asked by President Lincoln to play “Listen To The Mockingbird” as an encore to her White House recital.

Piano 300 culminates with a vastly entertaining 12-minute documentary film which has footage of Paderewski, Horowitz, Serkin, Arrau, Arthur Rubinstein, Myra Hess, and Van Cliburn. This goes alongside film clips of a Busby Berkely production number and appearances by Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, and various cartoon characters. The grand finale is a hilariously irreverent splicing of the Rachmaninoff C# Minor Prelude performed alternately by Josef Hoffman and Harpo Marx.

And why is all this presided over by the National Museum of American History? This is partly due to the American slant to the exhibit. Apart from those illustrious Americans already mentioned, Piano 300 devotes space to Nelly Custis, the step-granddaughter of George Washington; James Hewitt, prominent teacher and composer of the first American piano music; and, among others, Louis-Moreau Gottschalk, “Blind Tom” Bethune, Scott Joplin, Eubie Blake, Mary Lou Williams, and Henry Cowell.

More to the point, it was the contribution of an American manufacturer that made possible the modern piano as we know it. “If there is one name I would like people to take away with them from this exhibit,” said Rucker, “it would be Alpheus Babcock.” In 1825, Babcock patented his one-piece metal piano frame in Boston. The frame opened the way for several developments: strings could be stretched tighter; the size of the piano could increase; tuning could last longer; and humidity would no longer create major structural problems. Thanks to Babcock’s advancement, by the mid-1800s America had become the international leader in production and standards of piano manufacturing.

After my tour, Rucker left me alone to roam Piano 300. In spite of the dazzling attractions in the main hall, I always found myself orbiting back to the Cristofori pianoforte. It is the least imposing piano in Piano 300, but its very existence made everything else in the exhibit possible. It has a presence. It’s so quiet sitting there. And so loud.