Of course, all of these companies employ expert workers. One particular Steinway restorer, brags Bill Youse, can make anything seem new again: he once repaired a mummy that had lost a leg in transit. Another, he claims, "can duplicate any painting you show him." That comes in handy when the piano to be worked on is an "art case" instrument: one of those exquisitely designed models, often decorated with paintings or built with rare woods, that emerged in the 19th century—a piano-building tradition recently resurrected at Steinway. These pianos, with their highly artistic cabinetry, can be extraordinarily attractive—and valuable.

That touches on a third reason to seek historic instruments: their monetary value. Older instruments may be of a rare vintage, or possess an unusual pedigree. In any case, as remnants of a more genteel age, when pianos held a prominent place in nearly every home, they nearly always carry an aura of romance.

Source: NW Ayers Advertising Agency Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian InstitutionIn fact, good Victorian families set aside a formal area for piano entertaining, which was once the best way to demonstrate a flair for stylish living. The evidence can still be found in the preserved dwellings of important figures from the past, including Mark Twain, whose home in Hartford, Connecticut, featured a Steinway & Sons baby grand used for recitals organized by his wife, Livy; and Louisa May Alcott, who, when not walking to Walden Pond for boat rides with Henry David Thoreau, played a Chickering square piano in her parlor. Emily Dickinson kept a Wilkinson piano in her Amherst house, and Edna St. Vincent Millay had two Steinways. Eugene O'Neill loved his player piano—a coin-operated instrument with stained-glass panels—and named it "Rosie."

Surprisingly, the piano wasn't instantly popular. Though its official birth date is generally agreed to be 1700, in many ways the piano was still in its infancy at the end of the 18th century. In London, the instrument's public debut as a solo instrument didn't take place until 1768 (Johann Christian Bach had the honor). Leading craftsmen in the decades that followed produced no more than 30 to 50 instruments a year. But a great wave was coming. By 1798, English piano maker James Shudi Broadwood could not keep up with demand. "Would to God we could make them like muffins!" he wrote to a wholesaler. Five decades later, the desire for pianos had exploded: England was suddenly the center of the piano world, with some 200 manufacturers. And, with increased production, large segments of the population could now afford to purchase one.

No wonder George Bernard Shaw wrote that, in the late 19th century, piano playing had become a "religion." The instrument served every musical and social need, making it possible to learn and perform great works, strengthen family ties, and impress the neighbors.

Keyboards have enjoyed a long history as symbols of prosperity. The piano art case, in fact, had its origins in the 16th and 17th centuries, when harpsichords were adorned with paintings, often of Orpheus charming the animals or battles on horseback. Sometimes they were also inscribed with mottos: "I was once an ordinary tree," read one, "although living I was silent; now, though dead, if I am well played I sound sweetly."

The instruments then were intended primarily for the women of the household, and the piano boom was similarly helped along by young ladies of a certain social status who were taught that developing their musical skills would increase their chances of a good marriage. As late as 1847, critic Henri Blanchard, in France, reported that "Cultivating the piano is something that has become as essential, as necessary, to social harmony as the cultivation of the potato is to the existence of the people. . . .The piano provokes meetings between people, hospitality, gentle contacts, associations of all kinds, even matrimonial ones . . . and if our young men so full of assurance tell their friends that they have married twelve or fifteen thousand francs of income, they at least add as a corrective: 'My dear, my wife plays piano like an angel.'"


SPRING 2010 -- page 70

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