The eloquent silence of an old piano

One of Sydney Living Museums’ pianos is almost 200 years old and has not been played since at least the 1960s. We ask Bronwen Griffin, musical instrument conservator, and Professor Neal Peres Da Costa, historical keyboardist, for their thoughts on the piano’s future care.

A rare instrument

In December 1929, the Vaucluse House trustees purchased from Thomas Tunstall of Leichhardt a square piano made in the early 19th century. They paid £7 7s for the historical instrument, and a further £10 was spent on its restoration. The piano was seen as a useful way to engage visitors:

[Y]ou might … be able to get some of the residents of the Eastern suburbs to give an exhibition of old time dancing in appropriate dresses of the period of 100 years ago … which would carry us back to the early days of Australian history.1

Now located in the breakfast room at Elizabeth Bay House, the piano is in a state of disrepair and unplayable. This raises questions about how such an instrument should be cared for and conserved.

The choice of conservation approach often depends on the instrument’s rarity and history. This piano was made in London in around 1826–30 by the firm Litchfield Binckes, and its ownership can possibly be dated back to the mid-19th century. Brought to NSW by Thomas and Rose Tunstall when they emigrated in the 1880s, the piano had belonged to Rose’s grandmother Ann Taylor of Enfield, Middlesex. According to family stories, Ann owned the piano well before the 1850s.

The conservator

The conservation care and interpretative approach to such an instrument is now more sophisticated than when it was first acquired, as Bronwen Griffin describes:

What an exciting provenance this piano has. If we can identify a direct line of ownership from the present day to the piano’s manufacture in the 1820s, this is rare. The biggest challenge now is to decide on a treatment approach which preserves as much of the physical evidence of that story as possible – from the maker’s original work and any evidence of use, to the repairs carried out for Vaucluse House in the 1930s and 60s.

Working with early keyboards specialist repairer Colin van der Lecq, Bronwen has photographed and documented the current condition of the instrument. To restore the piano to playing condition ‘will require replacement of original or early components, such as the leather hinges for the hammers, and some hammer coverings’. Any changes would need to be documented and any components removed be retained for future reference. Where possible, examples of original material should be left on the instrument.

The performer

Like any professional performer, Neal Peres Da Costa expects his historical instruments to be of the highest quality:

All the notes must be playing as if the instrument were brand new and regulated so that all notes feel very similar in terms of tone and volume. A badly or unevenly regulated piano can be akin to stuttering or stammering in speech.

Here then lies a dilemma – if Bronwen advises SLM that the greatest value lies in the story told by the surviving components as they are currently arranged, then Neal’s requirement for an instrument of the highest quality to make our historic houses ‘sound’ is undeliverable. Neal suggests that one solution might be to have the original copied:

To date, grand pianos from the 18th and 19th centuries have been meticulously copied by very fine luthiers, although square pianos have received little or no attention in this respect.

For both Neal and Bronwen, this piano marks only the beginning of their multidimensional approaches. Bronwen will use her understanding of the history of the use of materials and their decay to document a record of almost 200 years of music making before advising us further on the piano’s care, while Neal, if the instrument is ever returned to playing condition, will apply his deep awareness of the performing practices of the era to truly bring this piano back to life.


 

  • 1. Frank Passmore to M O’Keefe, Secretary, Vaucluse Park Trust, 7 April 1930, Vaucluse Park Trust correspondence files, 2B: Furniture & Ornaments, 1928–33, Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.

 

About ...

Neal Peres Da Costa

Neal Peres Da Costa is Professor of Historical Performance and Program Leader of Postgraduate Research at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney. His monograph Off the record: performing practices in romantic piano playing (Oxford University Press, New York, 2012) is lauded as a book that ‘no serious pianist should be without’ (Limelight, 2012) and honoured as ‘a notable book’ on Alex Ross’s 2012 Apex List. He has co-edited and contributed to the groundbreaking Bärenreiter edition (2015/16) of Brahms’s sonatas for a single instrument and piano.

An ARIA-winning artist, Neal has regularly performed and recorded with many ensembles, including Ironwood, with whom he undertakes cutting-edge research in the field of late-19th-century performance.

In 2016, Neal collaborated with Sydney Living Museums on the Dowling Songbook Project at Elizabeth Bay House, where he led students from the Historical Performance Unit in their interpretation and performance of the Dowling Songbook, an early collection of sheet music from Rouse Hill House & Farm. 

Neal Peres Da Costa (piano) with Nyssa Milligan (singer), Elizabeth Bay House. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

Bronwen Griffin

Bronwen Griffin is a Mixed Media Conservator, specialising in musical instruments conservation.

Bronwen graduated from the University of Canberra in 1990 and worked with the furniture and musical instruments collections at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences from 1990 to 2014.

She has worked with a wide range of instruments in various states of repair, including keyboards, stringed instruments, woodwinds, pneumatic and clockwork instruments. Through this, she has worked with volunteer and professional groups, including CIMCIM, the International Council of Museums working group for Musical Instruments.

Bronwen is now in private practice and has been working with Sydney Living Museums to assess the condition and playability of instruments at Elizabeth Bay House.

Bronwen Griffin at Elizabeth Bay House. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

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