The sad story of the Piano in Britain-How we fell out of tune with the piano.
Thousands of pianos are being sent to the scrap-heap despite having the ability to still tug at our heartstrings, Paul Kendall discovers.
Article in The Telegraph, January, 2013.
Full article here:
The Piano, once held pride of place in many British homes ( and pubs!) from the middle of the 1800s to the 1930s. Bringing people together for a song, family gatherings and celebrations…many an evening the sound of the piano drifted into the night air and warmed hearts and souls with the sounds of those sweet keys. In the days before even radios and recordings, never mind instant digital music, the Piano gave people accessible music- it was interactive, intimate and creative.
If you have a dear old Piano in your home, perhaps you might now think twice about sending it to die:
For a second, the JCB’s claw hangs in the air, a metal vulture waiting to swoop. Then, with a jolt, the giant yellow arm jabs forward and lands on top of the piano. Wood splinters and the instrument tips backwards, hitting the ground with a tuneless clang. Its wooden casing breaks open, exposing its strings, and the claw delves inside to pick out the piano’s soundboard. Metal screeches on metal. One leg flies off, another skids across the yard. Within five minutes, all that’s left is a pile of matchwood, an iron brace and a tangle of rusting strings.This place, a recycling depot on the outskirts of Bristol, is just one site where pianos come to die. Similar scenes are taking place all over Britain as more and more owners send their instruments for scrap.
Can you imagine if this attitude had been adopted shortly after his passing in 1827? His pianos would not have been saved, restored etc. And we would not have the opportunity to see and hear pianists like Melvyn Tan play the Broadwood ( see an earlier post on this blog of Mr Tan playing Beethoven’s Broadwood fortyepiano).
The upright taken apart by the JCB in Bristol was well past its sell-by date. Made in 1882 by John Broadwood & Sons Ltd, which claims to be the world’s oldest surviving piano manufacturer, it was bought in 1987 by a retired nurse, Barbara Jones, to encourage (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) her children to play.
Already 105 years old, the piano was part of a backlog of instruments awaiting renovation at a local piano restorer, and Mrs Jones bought it for just £50.
Until 2pm on Thursday, when it joined the celestial orchestra in the sky, the piano had sat in Mrs Jones’s dining room, gathering dust, save for Christmas time, when it was wheeled out for a rendition of Hark the Herald Angels Sing or O Little Town of Bethlehem. It’s a similar story in thousands of other homes, where the piano has been superseded by other forms of entertainment, from the DVD player to video-game machines, or hi-tech keyboards.
It’s a cruel fate for a family friend; often one that holds many special memories:
It’s an ignominious end for something that — more than any other piece of household furniture — embodies years of family memories.
“Our customers sometimes get quite upset,” says Jon Kelly. “Pianos have often been passed through generations of one family and have great sentimental value. We’ve been on jobs where people cry when the piano’s taken away.”
On one recent occasion, says Mr Kelly, a husband had passed away. He was a musician and, although his piano would have doubled as the perfect monument to his life, his widow was moving to a smaller property and didn’t have the space to take it with her. “She was so upset she couldn’t watch when we took it away,” says Mr Kelly.
As some of you will know who follow my blog- my dear Old Cecil is one such piano, that is now no longer” holding the notes”- I certainly had a few tears at the prospect of this kind of fate for Cecil. I cannot even type it. So Cecil still stands in my lounge, and a digital piano in my bedroom.
Many people would think me a sentimental fool. But no…Cecil has a history- I learnt something off Cecil’s creator, and whose home Cecil once lived in, in the 1920s. A descendent of Cecil’s creator once emailed me. Cecil bridges periods of history- for the early 1900s to now. For someone like myself, who loves real tangible history that can be touched and felt, Cecil is special.
Maybe one day I will have the means to have Cecil totally restored; if not I’ll put a shelf in and my music books can be housed there.
Some people have had some wonderful ways to give old pianos a new life, once their musical life comes to an end:
Today, only about 4,000 acoustic pianos are sold in Britain each year — around 800 grands and 3,000 or so uprights — compared with 14,000 in the late 1960. Hardly any are made in Britain.
Amazingly, the illustrious Broadwood firm is still going, but for how much longer…?
Today, John Broadwood & Sons employs just four people, including Mr Laurence, and makes, on average, one upright piano a month. The company makes 75 per cent of its money through restoration work.
“Fortunately, the Broadwood name generates a lot of repair work,” he says. “But it’s a huge disappointment that we’ve lost our piano industry, by and large, in this country.
“Young people are good at simulating things on a computer. They have very nimble fingers, but they don’t seem to be interested in craft skills any more.
“If a country loses its skills and knowledge, it makes the economy much more vulnerable. And it makes it a much more boring place to live in.”
A sad situation indeed. Of course there is a lot to be said for digital pianos- they do suit modern living; and I am fond of my Privia Piano…but do we really need to throw away memories, history…love?
Pianos are so much more than an instrument- there’s something romantic and heart warming about them. I have found even people who have no interest in classical music and pianos seem to find it interesting if you have a piano in your home- especially instead of a TV ( in my case).
I haven’t got a TV – I’ve got a Piano!
I suspect this sorry situation is the same in other countries; however, I have read that there is a huge passion for pianos in China, in no small part to the success of the pianist Lang Lang. If this is true Lang Lang is a true friend of the Piano!
I will now leave you with the haunting sound of a piano played long ago, captured on a home wax cylinder recording: