Behold the Fancy Piano at the Met That Connects Parlor Music and Pop

The intricate work of George A. SchasteyEXPAND
The intricate work of George A. Schastey
Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Acting as a backbone for Astoria, Queens, Steinway Street begins where 39th Street meets Northern Boulevard. It stretches Northeast along the length of the neighborhood, crossing under Grand Central Parkway. It eventually ends just before it meets the widening part of the East River that acts as a buffer between Queens, Rikers Island, and mainland Bronx. There, at the end of Steinway Street, is its namesake: the Steinway and Sons piano factory, built in the nineteenth century and still operating today using the same obsessively calculated methods that made Steinway the gold standard in piano-building a century and a half ago. In fact, pianos as we know them today exist in large part because of innovations within the Steinway craft, and there are patents to prove it — 126 of them, in fact, which forever changed the way the instrument plays and sounds.

In the midst of this innovation, circa 1857, Steinway began commissioning artists to create rare, one-of-a-kind art cases. These have included the ridiculously opulent Alma-Tadema grand piano, made of ebony inlaid with ivory and mother of pearl, with a painting on the inside lid by Edward Poynter (Christie's got $1.2 million for it in 1997, making it the priciest piano ever sold at auction), and the two pianos that have lived at the White House — the 100,000th Steinway grand, decorated by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, which was relocated to the Smithsonian and replaced by Steinway’s 300,000th grand, designed by New York architect Eric Gugler, with gold leaf by muralist Dunbar Beck.

Among the designers commissioned to create these art cases was George A. Schastey, a hugely successful cabinetmaker and interior decorator whose works form the basis of current Metropolitan Museum exhibition "Artistic Furniture of the Gilded Age." The exhibit, which opened at the Met on December 15 and runs through May 1, features the ornate dressing-room furniture of Arabella Worsham, mistress and eventual wife of railroad mogul Collis P. Huntington, as well as the piano. But dressing-room furniture, however elaborately embellished, can’t be played in concert; though it was built in 1882, Schastey’s Steinway can, and it will be, thanks to Limor Tomer.

Tomer is the Met’s General Manager of Concerts and Lectures, and she’s responsible for an upcoming series of events that brings the Gilded Age into our Millennial one. Three concerts will place the Schastey piano front and center over the next three months, but don’t expect “Great Balls of Fire” to ring out in Gallery 746. In tandem with the theme of the exhibition, these pianists will focus on music of the Gilded Age. On the lowbrow end of the spectrum, the music from this period was played in the parlors of upper-class citizenry, mostly by unmarried young women interested in attracting husbands; in a highbrow setting, it was shared in salons among artists, musicians, writers, and other intellectuals as they convened to discuss ideas about culture and politics.

Up first, on February 5, pianist Michael Brown will showcase the diverse roles piano can take on, in "Something Strange: The American Parlor Meets the French Avant-Garde,” which he co-curated to include Metropolitan Opera Young Artists program protégé mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb; regular cello collaborator Nicholas Canellakis; and his former Julliard teacher and renowned classical pianist Jerome Lowenthal. The two will play a four-hand piano suite, sitting side by side at the Steinway.

Though Brown had not yet seen Schastey’s Steinway in person as of last week, when he spoke to the Village Voice on the phone, he has an 1884 Steinway in his home. It is certainly not as ornamented as the one he’ll play during “Something Strange,” but should possess some of the same tonal qualities. “Every piano is different, especially from that era, when [piano makers] were still figuring it out,” he says. “That era of Steinway pianos is incredibly special; the piano technician guru junkies call that the ‘Golden Age’ for Steinway, with pianos that had a particularly beautiful sound. I can’t tell you why, technically speaking, but that’s sort of the word on the street.”

Brown says he’s played fortepianos that date back to 1703, though never in concert. Of the Schastey, which has only 85 keys (as opposed to modern pianos, which feature 88), Brown says, “It’s the type of piano that Fauré and Debussy and the composers that I’m playing would have played on, so that’s kind of cool, that these instruments are still around and thriving and are still being able to be preserved and played in public.”

Next month, on March 4, John Davis brings his "Songs and Stories from the American Parlor" to the gallery, highlighting the forgotten African American piano pioneers of the same era, including Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Blind Tom, Blind Boone, and Jelly Roll Morton, alongside the European classical music that was part of those performers’ repertoire. Davis has spent much of his life combing rare book shows for sheet music of the era, with particular attention to the roots music of the Deep South. He's also resurrected music that would otherwise be lost forever, hoping to “draw attention to a forgotten end of American music that really had an important influence on the development of popular music of the 20th century — jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, and rock 'n' roll and things like that,” he explains. He’s amassed a collection of early African American printed material, including books, posters, playbills and other memorabilia from “all kinds of musical and theatrical endeavors” that have become visual elements of his shows; during some performances, he’ll project an image of, say, the cover of some sheet music that he’s playing or some other image that relates to it.

One of Davis’s main interests lies in the dichotomy between parlor music’s cultural importance and the stigma attached to it. Much of this music was ignored because it was seen as “schlocky, over-sentimentalized European music, and also simple,” he says. “I think it has been sort of unfairly dismissed because of the stigma attached to [it]. And the point, in fact, is that there is a lot of great music and because of [programs like the Met’s], a little more attention is being given to parlor music today than it originally was.”

If the arguments against parlor music, then, are the same ones that rage on music blogs about the merits of Taylor Swift, then perhaps the takeaway is that music snobbery doesn’t seem to have the same staying power as the supposedly lowbrow culture it rails against. The parallels between parlor and pop don’t seem so hard to draw, if you know where to listen, and like the fancy Steinways of the Gilded Age, all of it is essentially built from the same sounds, repackaged over and over again in ever more ostentatious trappings.

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