The White Key’s Burden

A close-up of a piano Description automatically generated

Chickering square piano, c. 1850, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

White is the color of evil in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The horror is ivory. The coveted material fires the greed and stokes the chaos of the entire sprawling colonial project depicted in the novella. The lust for tusks has overtaken the Africans and their European colonizers.

The tale’s narrator, Charles Marlow, is hired on as a steamboat captain by a Belgian ivory trading company. At the farthest upriver outpost, he will encounter Kurtz, gone rogue but still claimed by company executives and agents in the field to be their most successful ivory producer.

On the journey inland, Marlow’s boat stops at the company’s central station. There he sees “men strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard. … They wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence. The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse.”

Kurtz dies on the way back downriver and at the close of the book, Marlow attends his funeral back in Europe. There he meets the dead man’s cousin, an organist who tells Marlow that the multi-talented Kurtz had been “essentially a great musician” and could have had a triumphant career. Marlow doesn’t doubt these claims.

In his tale’s closing scene, Marlow visits the dead man’s fiancée, curious to meet the woman loved by the mad genius of the jungle. Marlow has with him Kurtz’s letters and a photograph of the woman and gives these effects to her at her mansion in the “sepulchral city”:

“The dusk was falling. I had to wait in a lofty drawing-room with three long windows from floor to ceiling that were like three luminous and bedraped columns. The bent gilt legs and backs of the furniture shone in indistinct curves. The tall marble fireplace had a cold and monumental whiteness. A grand piano stood massively in a corner, with dark gleams on the flat surfaces like a somber and polished sarcophagus.”

Kurtz must have been a pianist.

His piano described by Marlow would have been veneered either in ebony or rosewood, both colonial commodities plundered from Africa. Looming in this darkened fortress of wealth and “civilization” is a musical coffin, as silent as the grave. Like Kurtz, the tusks are now in their final resting place.

Marlow doesn’t mention the white ivory keys of the piano he spies; probably he can’t see the keyboard since the instrument appears to be closed up. But the visitor knows the ivory is there and so do we, corruption and exploitation transformed into a furnishing, a piano—that domestic symbol of European culture and refinement.

The ivory must be touched if the piano is to sing. Conrad makes no acknowledgment in Heart of Darkness that the precious material comes from living beings. Ivory might as well be gold dug from the earth. The word elephant appears only once in the novella, when Marlow, gazes at an African woman, describing her in offensively exoticizing terms, concluding that the “barbarous ornaments” she wears “must have had the value of several elephant tusks.” Yet she wears no ivory. Yet the art and culture represented by her jewelry are reduced to this world’s most coveted and quantifiable commodity, as if both costume and wearer can be weighed and sold.

Elephants scream when they are shot, the survivors cry when they mourn.

As young pianists playing old pianos, we are taught that ivory is warm and welcoming to the touch, not just durable and hard, but retaining a welcoming, seemingly paradoxical softness. The player’s skin does sense that the white key tops came from living things, but that truth isn’t allowed to penetrate into the psyche, to travel from the hand to the conscience. We learn that piano keyboards are beautiful to behold, made from a rewarding substance to work with, to carve, to cut— and to caress with the fingertips. But what if musicians young and old were played recordings of the horrifying distress of elephants when beset by poachers, or shown the documentary film Elephant Path by Todd McGrain with its nocturnal massacre? Who would get pleasure out of playing Chopin on keys made of human bones?

Steinway began using plastic keys on their instruments in 1958. With an international ban on the ivory trade in effect since 1989, various other materials are now used as a substitute.

Conrad published Heart of Darkness in 1899, fourteen years after Belgium had established the cynically named Congo Free State in 1885, annexing the territory as a colony in 1908. This vicious regime coincided with the high point of global trade in ivory used for combs, doorknobs, billiard balls, and pianos—all luxury items.

Ivory legislation has become stricter in recent years. Britain passed a total ban on its sale in 2018 and it into effect last year. Though unnamed, the piano makes for the first of the law’s exceptions: “musical instruments made before 1975 with less than 20% ivory by volume.” A dozen American states have similar bans, though that in New Jersey is absolute: no sale of ivory whatever. Heirs can inherit an old piano, but they can’t sell it.

Clearly many will skirt the law by making their deals under the table. Even so, the legislation will have a downward effect on prices of old pianos, making them worthless for re-sale within the borders of the Garden State.

Pianos are no longer the entertainment center of the middle-class home. Americans are less interested in this form of musical culture and are evermore mobile, not wanting to be shackled to the ball-and-chain that is the family piano. Many are unable to afford houses with room for these sizable instruments. That spot against the wall is where the big screen goes.

A New York Times video made two years before the New Jersey laws were enacted in 2014 shows the O’Mara Meehan piano firm based in that state trashing a grand piano. The company increasingly concentrates not on moving instruments, but on their removal and disposal. This trend results from larger societal forces, not least the flight from the “analog” to the “virtual.” But the New Jersey ivory ban hastens the destruction.

It is fittingly ironic that New Jersey should have passed the strictest of the ivory laws, since Atlantic City had hosted the notorious Bonfire of Square Pianos of May 24th, 1904. Attendees of that year’s National Association of Piano Dealers convention made a mountain out of square pianos—by one exaggerated tally, 1,000 of them. In the home, these instruments took up more room and had shorter, less resonant bass strings than the new uprights. Leading figures in the industry saw the old “squares” as bad for business since dealers often had to take these bulkier models back in exchange for uprights. According to the association’s figures, 261,197 new pianos were sold in the United States in 1904. Five years later annual sales had climbed to 364,545.

On that spring evening on the Jersey shore, the conventioneers danced around the blaze waving red lights. The event was reported around the world.

One luxuriously appointed square piano was painted pale with darker letters delivering a mocking epitaph: “I’ll feed the flames by the salt sea air.” It was dubbed “The White Elephant.”

More on pianos, organs, colonialism, and curation in next week’s look at the symposium and concert festival Sustaining Keyboards just held at Cornell University.

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