Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Chickering Upright

This venerable Chickering upright was built in Boston around 1895, a year before George Chickering died.  George had dragged his heels on making the effort to modernize his production, but this upright seems on a par with its contemporaries.  This is a classic cabinet grand, big, handsome, and still going strong.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Cool Console #4 - Wurlitzer #2

Either you will think this is very cool, or you won't.  You can't knock Wurlitzer for not trying different styles!  This spinet was built in 1939 in DeKalb, Illinois, a mere four years after the console revolution, and it shows just how quickly some manufacturers caught on to that spirit of revolution.

The parts of the case where wood can be seen are made of cherry, stained brown rather than the usual red.  The rest of the case is covered in cream-colored vinyl, lightly stippled, which has darkened over time.  The keybed emerges like an appendage from the dominant vertical box, making the legs almost unnecessary.  The angled front, which serves as a music desk, is actually part of the lid, which is not hinged - after unscrewing, one simply lifts it off.  My favorite parts are the roll-top fallboard, the faux lyre, and the decorative brass-plated ferrules at the top of the legs.

Compare this Wurlitzer to the one I wrote about earlier.

Related website:
A short history of the Wurlitzer Company.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

1878 Chickering Grand

This Chickering concert grand (8' 8") from 1878 belongs to a church that was built in 1852.  I first saw the piano on its side, stored in a dark alcove with other forgotten items.  It had once been the main piano in the sanctuary, but it was considered too old to maintain.  At some point, the small space it occupied was needed, and the church was prepared to "get rid" of the piano.  A member of the congregation campaigned single-handedly to save the piano, and even bring it back to life.  That turned out to be my job, and it was a delight.  The piano was actually in very good condition, and did not require rebuilding, just repair and reconditioning.  It was moved to its current room on the ground floor, and is now getting regular use.

The main feature of this piano is that it is straight-strung.  That is, the bass strings do not cross over the treble strings, but run parallel to them instead.  The bass strings are iron-wound, and sit on their own bridge.  The hammers are also original, as are the ivories and ebonies on the 88 keys.  The case veneer is rosewood, pieced together in four sections.  The piano's tone is lovely, but clearly not modern.  It has little power, but plenty of sustain, except in the upper treble, which is typical for pianos of this age.  I suspect it had much more power back when the soundboard was newer.  It's very rewarding to play.

A 440

This poem is from Jane Shore's most recent book, A Yes-or-No Answer: Poems, published in 2008 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

A squatter in my parents' house,
their Baldwin Acrosonic spinet
didn't leave home until my father died,
and having nowhere else to go,
was shipped here to my living room.

After ten years' sitting, it's out of tune,
the A mute, the damper pedal broken,
the B above middle C sunken in,
the battered walnut veneer embossed
like a notary's raised stamp.

The piano tuner unpacks the tools
stored in his rolling suitcase.
Sweeping generations of photos
from the dusty lid – Russian relatives,
my daughter's school portraits –

he stacks sheet music on the coffee table,
pulls out a silvery tuning fork
from his left breast pocket, bangs it
against his balding skull, holds it
to his good right ear, and listens hard,

refreshing his ear to the sound of A
above middle C, the piano's axis mundi.
I should leave, but mesmerized,
I watch his hairy arm and left hand
disappear inside the piano's innards,

cranking the tuning hammer this way
and that, moving the rubber mutes
along the strings, a little sharp,
a little flat, up and down the scale
while his right hand strikes the keys.

Two hours later, when he's gone,
on the piano bench lies a bill
twice higher than his estimate;
the lid wiped clean, the photos
approximate to where they were,

and also, fished out of the piano,
there's a three of clubs from a deck
I threw out years ago,
five pennies turned pewter gray,
a condolence card, the envelope

sealed with crackled yellow glue.
Its sender, now, has passed on, too.
It's been decades since I practiced
Für Elise or banged out torch songs
from 1000 Standard Tunes,

fakebook my father finagled from
his old musician buddies,
the boys he used to play with
in the big bands.
When I lost my father, I lost music.

When my daughter took lessons,
I'd sit beside her on the bench
just as my father once sat with me,
encouraging, correcting, wincing,
but I wouldn't play a single note.

The church bells across the street
begin to toll the quarter hour –
dividing my day, every day,
into bite-size intervals,
from seven in the morning

until seven at night, another
axis mundi.  I find the key
and, instrument in tune, peck out
the melody to the first
Duet for Church Bells and Piano, opus 1.
- Jane Shore

Related website:
The Music Lovers Poetry Anthology

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Cool Console #3 - Wurlitzer

This is one of my all-time favorite spinet designs.  The Wurlitzer company, originally based in Cincinnati, Ohio, made a zillion different console models, many of them quite imaginative.  Wurlitzer was one of the handful of companies that immediately embraced the new console design concept when it was introduced in the United States in 1935.  This piano was built in DeKalb, Illinois, in about 1943, just as Wurlitzer stopped production during World War II.

As with the Krakauer spinet I wrote about earlier, this design emphasizes the square grand shape, but in a more stylized way.  The vertical box holding the plate and strings is given some shape rather than being hidden, and the fake lyre is just a decorative gesture.  The fallboard is a Wurlitzer classic - it slides out flat over the keys, with the knobs facing up, and then the hinged front swings down to complete the closure.

The veneer is basic mahogany, and I love that light horizontal band of veneer above the keyboard.  It is also mahogany, the veneer quarter-cut to emphasize the vertical grain, and lightly stained to contrast with the case.  All the furniture details are delightful - the band of beading around the keybed, the filigree on the music desk, and, oh, those legs!

Related website:
A short history of the Wurlitzer Company.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Never Did That Before!

One thing I love about my appointment book is that I don't have to remember what I'm doing next.  I just look in the book to see what's next.  My wife is always asking me, "So where are you going tomorrow?"  I always cheerfully reply, "I have no idea, it's written in the book."

One morning, after consulting my book, I prepared myself for the day and headed off.  I was going to be tuning first at the home of a loyal and regular customer with a somewhat common name - let's just call him Smith.  I arrived at Smith's house and rang the bell.  A man answered the door, and I recognized him as a neighbor I had once met.  I explained that I was there to tune the piano, and he explained that he was babysitting until Mr Smith came home.  Smith hadn't said anything about my arrival, but the sitter let me in, and I started work.

About halfway throught the tuning, Mr Smith came home.  He was happy to see me, but confused.  "Not that it's a problem, but I thought you were coming tomorrow," he said.  I assured him that the appointment was for today - it was in my book, after all.  I checked the book just to be sure, and to my horror I saw that my customer was right.  So where was I supposed to be? At the home of a different Smith!

I also write the town next to the customer's name in my book, and I had failed to register the difference between today's Smith and tomorrow's.  I had seen the name, I knew where he lived, and had driven there.  Mr Smith was quite gracious - if I had to leave and come back tomorrow, that would be fine.  I called Mrs Smith, who had been waiting patiently for me in the other town, and apologized.  I explained what had happened, and she thought it was pretty funny.  Not to worry, it was OK with her that I come tomorrow, she said.  I thanked her, hung up, and finished Mr Smith's piano.  Writing information down is one thing, remembering to read it carefully is another!