What to Do With the Old Piano?

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Érard piano, Paris, 1868, Cornell Center for Historical Keyboards.

The National Association of Piano Dealers reported 364,545 sales of new instruments in the United States in 1909. That was four times the number of automobiles manufactured in the country that same year. This output of pianos is an astounding figure, especially when measured against America’s population of 80 million.

The majority of these instruments were uprights, but even these could have lavish cases, besides the ivory and ebony keys that were deemed essential for any and all pianos, from basic models for the home to concert grands for the stage whose keyboard color scheme mirrored the black tailcoats and white ties of the great virtuosos. Touring celebrity pianists fired sales with their endorsements of leading brands (Steinway, Chickering, Bechstein) and their evermore extravagant feats of technical mastery.

Europe was also cranking out instruments with Japan and even China entering the globalized market by the end of the end of the nineteenth century. Pianos were not simply musical instruments but also vital to capitalism’s cultural and economic reach.

Before the advent of phonographs and then radio, the piano was the most multi-faceted medium for home entertainment, serving for sing-alongs, for transcriptions that brought the great symphonies and operas into the living room, for cozy duets, and for kiddies to learn the classics and maybe a bit of boogie-woogie too.

An Italian invention of around 1700, the piano was initially called gravicembalo col piano e forte (harpsichord with soft and) and began quickly displacing its namesake as the eighteenth century drew to a close. Production ramped up after 1800 and continued to expand rapidly across the globe well into the twentieth century.

For the last half-century, Cornell University has been a center for performance on old pianos from the age of Mozart through Beethoven and into the twentieth. Five years ago the Cornell Center for Historical Keyboards was (CCHK) established with important gifts of antique pianos and copies of old ones and with financial support from the university and outside donors. These assets complement the diverse holdings of harpsichords, clavichords, synthesizers and a substantial collection of the oldest of all keyboard instruments—the organ. These range from a Neapolitan antique from the mid-eighteenth century to a reconstruction of a large German baroque organ of the age of Bach, to an eclectic American instrument from 1940.

A piano or organ made in 1909 rightly counts as an antique. The subsequent attrition rate in those hundreds of thousands of instruments sold that year is as staggering as the rate of production. Just over 20,000 “acoustic pianos” (as opposed to digital ones) were sold in the United States in 2021. Demand will continue to slacken. A hundred years on, the Jazz Age has become the Junk Age as pianos from that era get trashed more often than they get preserved. Likewise, organs are increasingly tossed out as more and more churches close. The actuarial tables for keyboards large and small don’t look auspicious.

Nonetheless, Cornell remains for the moment committed to excellent and playable instruments that encompass at least three hundred years of keyboard history.

As academics, professional musicians, amateurs and others learn about the CCHK’s mission the number of email and phone call overtures increases as owners try to get that inherited antique into better hands, secure the tax deduction, clear the deck and the conscience. One early nineteenth-century upright from the famous firm of Broadwood had been sitting on a covered porch in Baltimore for decades; it had to be off the premises within a week. It is now at Cornell. The CCHK is becoming ever more selective in its acquistions.

Universities seem a logical place for such cultural objects, the Ivory Tower a refuge for ivory-keyed musical instruments.

With these sometime treasures, like the rest of the planet, facing an uncertain future, the CCHK hosted a symposium and concert festival in the middle of September called “Sustaining Keyboards.” I was one of the organizers but refrained—with some difficulty—from reading aloud Alexander’s Cockburn dismantling of “sustainability” made in Guillotined more than a decade ago. The term has long been evacuated of any real meaning, now mostly a hypocritical marketing ploy and moral bludgeon.

As many conferees noted, the ecological devastation wrought by the fabrication of keyboard instruments was immense: ivory, ebony and rosewood from Africa; mahogany from the Caribbean; Sitka spruce from Alaska and British Columbia for the soundboards; and teak from south Asia for those Chinese pianos.

Many presenters took aim at pianos and organs as sonic weapons of colonial power. One lecture traced how the dictates of the French King in Paris resounded in the Kings of Instruments in the French Caribbean. The efforts of manufacturers to send their products to every corner of the globe led to persistent dreams of climate-resistant pianos and organs. Those dreams evaporated in desert climates and decayed in tropical ones.

Yet the pianos kept coming, using up resources in the service not just of musical culture but of the culture of consumption. A look at Cornell’s own collection of organs shows that disasters and neglect laid waste to a mighty concert hall organ brought to campus in 1914 under the watchful eye of the university’s first president, Andrew Dickson White. Now a center for keyboard preservation, Cornell’s own historical record in sustainability is far from unblemished.

Builders and restorers of pianos and organs also contributed to the weekend’s vigorous exchanges with miraculous tales of early American instruments moved and mishandled and ultimately spared the wrecking ball. Not unlike cars, some instruments given to the university are deemed worthy of the investment to restore them. In some cases, a companion junker (or two) of the same make and vintage must be found and parted out to preserve the pick of the remaining litter. Sustainability becomes a form of distillation. The message may be: fewer instruments, fewer players, but all of them better than before, more resilient but also more sensitive and revealing of us and the world.

Keyboard caché remains strong in some quarters. A dwindling segment of the wealthy still wants a gleaming antique piano in their drawing room. At Mar-a-Lago Donald Trump has a 1927 Steinway grand painted white with garlands like an ancien régime harpsichord. It’s a gauche piece of furniture for a gauche man. He also has an enormous ebony-veneered Steinway in the Trump Tower penthouse. But as several conference attendees noted, the much more graceful, tasteful veneers of precious, now nearly vanished woods have too frequently been bungled by incompetent and opportunistic restorers abetting the desires of the rich for high gloss antiques. These glitzy interventions meant ruin for the musical and visual properties prized when these instruments were first built.

The weekend was not just talk but music too. The concerts captured the keyboard’s penchant for depicting nature: the call of birds, the beautiful, troubling irony of boxes of wood evoking the majesty of living trees and their sounds.

Culture requires bacteria, what’s good for the gut should be good for the spirit. The weekend’s final speaker suggested that it is now time not to compose but to compost. Let the ferment of culture in the age of environmental collapse metabolize the relics of the past—decorous concert hall culture, the obsession with musical classics, regimes of discipline and obedience. Why sustain the stain of exploitation and empire? Instead, use and cherish old things for new ways of playing and thinking, keeping and curating, meditating and musicking.

After these bio-dynamic ruminations, we walked gently downhill in the glowing early fall evening to hear three of the many musical Bs: Bach, Buxtehude, Byrd and the B-Minor Sonata, manic and mighty, of Franz Liszt. This last work from the mid-nineteenth century was sublimely extracted from an organ from the mid-twentieth, Liszt’s vision of transfiguration glimmering in evening light filtering and fading through the university chapel’s rose window surrounded by the organ’s gilded pipes. Liszt music pushed fingers and feet and instrument to their collective limits, yet the medium of this supposed otherworldliness was as down to earth as it had been all weekend: wood and wire, tusks and trees. Many living things had to die for the weekend’s music to live.

But that doesn’t mean you should give away Grandma’s piano just yet.

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Photo credit: Hayley aka Glowninja on Flickr, 2010.


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