Whatever Happened to the Old House Piano

In our present digital age many once-beloved pianos are junked rather than sold, as a trying NY Times video of a couple years ago unsparingly dramatizes. Yet in spite of its declining status, the piano clings to the nostalgic affections of many with romantic notions of hearth and home.

Especially in nineteenth-century Europe, but also in a disappearing middle-class America, the piano was the primary tool of domestic entertainment. Arthur Loesser demonstrated this brilliantly in his Men, Women and Pianos, first published in 1954 but still available as Dover reprint; it remains the best social history of an instrument that, as Loesser shows, was a vessel of conviviality, sentiment, joyous song and tearful reverie. While the vast acreage of modern television screens has replaced the piano as the focal point of domestic diversion and devotion, the piano clings to appeal among some, even if the idea of ownership is often more alluring than actually having one.

My parent’s house had four pianos: in the living room were two Steinway grands, one in ebony deeded to me by my first piano teacher on her deathbed and the other a walnut model that had belonged to my maternal grandmother; in both sides of the divided basement were uprights. The first of these was an Estey from around 1900 that had come from my father’s family. (Imagine now inheriting your grandparent’s television.)

The last of the household pianos was acquired in the mid 1970s by my mother—a talented garage sale commando—when the local Odd Fellows’ Hall was selling off the club’s building and possessions.  Among these holdings was an upright piano, also from around 1900, built by Ludwig & Company in New York. The piano must have played hundreds of dances and sing-alongs over many decades of service, and it showed.  The ivory key tops were either chipped or missing completely, and the accidentals were worn, the black sheen weathered to a forlorn grey. The bleached accidentals must have felt the pressure of the Odd Fellows own charter, which only a couple of years before my mother bought the piano had removed its “whites only” membership clause.

The Odd Fellows were asking fifty bucks for the piano.  My mother got it for twenty-five.  It was never a great instrument, but she poured a few hundred into its renewal. She had the keys re-covered and the hammers re-felted. These and other renovations made the piano into a serviceable practice instrument, steadfastly holding its tune down in the cool and sometimes dank basement.

On a few occasions growing up, I can remember all the house’s pianos in use simultaneously: my brother and I doing something for two piano-four hands upstairs and my younger sisters down in the Nibelungen depths of the basement hammering away at the trusty uprights.  My brother and I would sometimes duel on the uprights over J. S. Bach’s Prelude in C Minor from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. We’d set the Franz metronome to a challenging tempo and then see if we could keep up with it and each other over the ninety-second obstacle course of that demonic, perpetual motion exercise. If we both made it through unscathed, then we would turn the metronome a notch faster, until eventually one of us stumbled. Ah, the joys of multi-player gaming before Play Station and Call of Duty!

Ludwig uprights were known—and indeed marketed during their heyday in the first decades of the twentieth century—for their decorative carvings. Like many pianos, they were furniture first, musical instruments second. The 1901 Ludwig catalog calls the model picked up by my mother the “Rococo.” Framing the busy array of garlands and vignettes in impressively deep relief were two pilasters that bowed out abundantly halfway up their length. Similarly distended columns supported the keyboard protruding from the body of the piano.  While this version of Rococo would hardly have been recognized by Balthasar Neumann, the name did capture the essence of the instrument’s decorative approach: a riot of detail accomplished through impressive artisanal skill.

Some of these fully restored Ludwig pianos, their facades polished and keyboards gleaming, are known to sell these days for upwards of $10,000, though on both musical and decorative grounds I think this price far too high.  But we all have our weaknesses, and I can hardly begrudge others a taste for post-Biedermeier heft and folly.

The pianos left my mother’s house in stages.  I sold my Steinway and took the money and bought a rosewood grand from 1875 with a lavish, scrolled key desk and candleholders by the Schweighofer firm of Vienna. It was poorly restored and never held its tune.  The instrument now sits silently in a climate-controlled mausoleum that doubles as my office. The cost of fixing this concert grand’s problems approaches the entire value of the instrument (about $15,000), but the backstory of trading in my boyhood Steinway for a lemon makes it too psychologically complicated for me to junk the Schweighofer. Perhaps one day I can be buried inside the thing and at last extract some of the value from the trade.

My brother still has—and plays—the walnut Steinway. My two sisters were never so interested in the piano or at least in practicing, though they weren’t thrilled that the boys made off with the grands. My elder sister got the Estey and it soldiered on in her living room for some years before recently being sold off (not junked, at least not by her!) and replaced with a gleaming Korean model.

Only the Ludwig remained with my mother until a couple of years ago when she sold her house. She gave away as much as she could to her various children, but the Ludwig found no takers.

The Ludwig was auctioned with the remaining contents of the house. It went for $250, a ten-fold increase in hammer price over the forty years since it had last changed hands, though a net loss given the money my mother had put into the instrument’s refurbishment.

On a recent trip California’s Lost Coast I passed through the picturesque town of Ferndale in Humboldt County. In the back of an antique shop on the touristy main street, I came upon a Ludwig Rococo. It was a dead ringer for our old Odd Fellows piano just as it had come through our door four decades ago, chipped keys and all.  Catching sight of the instrument was an uncanny experience, like approaching a ghost of an old relative among the ladies Edwardian dresses, wooden tools and old farm signs for sale in that far corner of the antique shop.

The piano’s price tag of $2,650 suggested a fantastic arbitrariness. Maybe some fool would fall in love with the upright’s look even if the musical substance inside probably had far less to offer than the ornate façade.

I sat down and played the Bach C Minor prelude. As my gaze drifted across the Ludwig’s familiar woodwork, the feeling of the piano under my fingers did not so much bring to life a tableau of the family romance, but rather set off an avalanche of memories across the senses: my brother on the other side of the partition outpacing me through the Bachian sprint; the trunks of huge Douglass Firs looming outside the basement window; yes, even the smell of bread baking up in the kitchen.

After the prelude’s final Picardy third had echoed through the shop, I disentangled myself from the piano’s embrace and headed for the exit.  As I passed the cashier I thought about offering her $25 for the Ludwig just for old time’s sake.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com