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From Silence to Splendor: The Square Piano Returns

September 14, 2016

If the mention of a pianoforte conjures up images from works by Jane Austen and the Brontës, you’re not alone. While today we typically view pianos as a luxury item, in the 19th century they were vitally important as sources of entertainment as well as status symbols. The square piano, differentiated from the pianoforte principally in size and shape, first appeared in the late 18th century as a smaller alternative to the larger pianos then available. Many museums, the CMA among them, now have square pianos in their collections, not only because of their cultural significance but for their incredible craftsmanship and lavish decorations. The William Geib square piano in the CMA’s collection is a beautiful example of early 19th-century American decorative arts, combining elements of both regency and neoclassical design in its gilt-stenciled ornament and elaborate carvings.

This piece, which dates to about 1830, would be languishing in the museum’s storage were it not for the generosity and vision of Pat Beckler, a great friend to the CMA. Thanks to her passion for both art and music, the piano is now on view in our galleries and will be used for both educational and musical programs at the museum. After hearing of the existence of the museum’s square piano Mrs. Beckler took it upon herself to ensure that the piano be restored to its former glory, with the ultimate goal of rekindling, in her words, “renewed interest in the historical importance of these lovely instruments.”

When Mrs. Beckler became aware of the CMA’s piano, it was in poor condition due to years of exposure to humidity and required extensive restoration. Fortunately, Thomas Strange, a highly regarded restorer of period instruments, was up for the challenge. When he received the piano, it was so swollen that the keys were completely immobile. Over a series of months he painstakingly replaced and repaired individual components of the piano, always taking care to ensure the result was an instrument that reflected the period during which it was created. 

Upon completion of the restoration the piano was returned to the museum and soon put on display for visitors to admire, alongside other examples of American art and craftsmanship. But what is an instrument without sound? In the words of Thomas Strange, “Audiences have now got their brain wired for big sound and rarely get to hear the more subtle music of an early piano.” In celebration of the return of this glorious instrument, and with the generous support of Pat Beckler, the CMA organized a concert highlighting the square piano. The concert featured a performance by world-renowned pianist Andrew Willis, a professor of music at UNC Greensboro, whose many accolades include playing on the first complete recording of Beethoven piano sonatas on period instruments. Willis delighted more than 80 audience members with works by Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, and other composers from the early 19th century, all in the shadow of our Portrait of the Misses de Balleroy painting of the same era.

We at the CMA are always delighted to see an object revived and given new life. In the words of Columbia Baroque’s Jean Hein, “An instrument which was waiting in silence has been transformed into a living piece of visual art capable of bringing historical music to life now and in the future.” Thanks to all those involved in this project, the dulcet tones of this extraordinary piano will surely play on.

Photo above: Andrew Willis, Pat Beckler, and Tom Strange celebrate the square piano’s return after its inaugural concert.

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