The Arts in Education
Making Pianos: Historical Perspective
There should be a limit as to how often the relatively unknown General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York is identified as being across from the Harvard Club on 44th Street, but the fact is that this marvelous institution, founded in 1820 for the “general education of the apprentices of NYC,” and filled with unique archival material, especially books and pamphlets on the “useful arts,” still hasn’t made it onto the radar screen, and that is a shame. The six-story Beaux Arts building also contains a collection of 370 locks in its Museum. The Library, the educational arm of the General Society, was the largest free circulating library in the city, before the public library system came into existence, and its 2007-8 Tuesday Lecture series on Labor, Landmarks & Literature is reason enough to come by. The recent presentation shows why.
Titled, “The Piano: Hammer and Hands”—a play on the General Society’s motto, “By Hammer and Hand All Arts Do Stand,” the audience was treated to an unusual educational experience—learning about late 19th century musical culture, seeing the “action” of the General Society’s 1883 Weber piano, and hearing two gifted young musicians, Vita and Ishmael Wallace, brother and sister constituting The Orfeo Duo (violin and piano), play pieces that would typically have been heard in NY in the 1880s, including Schumann and Wagner.
Janet Wells Greene, curator of the lecture series (“bringing musicians to unexpected places”), introduced free spirit, Benjamin Treuhaft, 60, Vice President of the NYC Piano Technicians Guild, and piano tuner extraordinaire. Given his charm, modesty and humor—not to mention appearance—bandana, rolled up work shirt and, as the evening progressed, bare feet—he would particularly delight young people. A self-declared sixties hippie who roamed the country, looking for a profession that would turn him on, he finally found it tuning Steinway pianos, for, among many, Vladimir Horowitz. But, also, in the spirit of his parents, he took his passion to places where he felt he could do good, such as Cuba, where his nonprofit organization gave away over 237 pianos to churches and schools. His mother was Jessica (The American Way of Death) Mitford, his father the well-known trade union lawyer, Robert Treuhaft—both Communists (who left the party in 1958).
In his talk, much of which he said relied on Men, Women and Pianos: A Social History by Arthur Loesser (with prefatory pieces by Edward Rothstein and Jacques Barzun), Ben Treuhaft stressed how competitive piano making was in the late 19th century. The General Society’s Weber belongs to a slightly lesser line than the grand Steinway (whose major competition was Masson and Hamlin), but certainly served the Wallaces well. A bit brighter in sound than most pianists today would like, and no longer showing off its elegant “ice cream” legs, the Weber seemed to strike an affectionate note with Vita Wallace who celebrated its distinct registers and tone. Surprising, perhaps to the lay public, were Treuhaft’s remarks on America’s place in the piano-making industry in the last quarter of the 19th century. In 1893, for example, the U.S. produced over half the pianos in the world, with factories concentrated in the East and Midwest. Everyone fought over endorsements, and virtuosi like Lizst, who loved to love, endorsed everyone. But clearly, Steinway led the field. And then, sadly, by the 1920s, pianos fell into the hands of “unscrupulous dealers,” who took advantage of a growing popular interest in piano playing and forged dates. And mechanical piano players moved in.
It would certainly be instructive for students to know about the culture of piano playing in the late 19th century, in the home and in concert halls. There was time when opera could not succeed in NY, unless it was in German (an open air opera house in Brighton Beach used to put on Wagner for 25 cents). As Vita Wallace also reminded the audience, the 1880s were a wonderful time for music. Amateur choirs and groups were everywhere and piano for four hands especially popular. Serious chamber music was played in the home. It was in the public forums where more accessible works were performed, flashy orchestral and operatic transcriptions. Quite a telling cultural comment.#
For information on the General Society, go to www.generalsociety.org or, better yet, just stop in.