Friday, November 4, 2011

Piano Mann

The return of the Martin family piano to the Martin House living room has inspired renewed curiosity about the instrument and about Wright's unexecuted design for a custom piano case, part of his 1905 "tout ensemble" furnishings plan.

Dorothy Martin at piano, 1912
To be clear:  the "family piano" is a 1909 Steinway grand with quartersawn oak veneer.  It appears in the 1912 photo of Dorothy Martin at the piano, with Aunt Polly (Cora Herrick) at her side.  In later years, Dorothy donated the piano to the Elmwood Franklin School, where it was used for decades before the school graciously re-gifted it to the Martin House.  in 2006, Illos Piano Rebuilders restored the piano with funding from the Western New York Foundation.  It was put through its paces during an unforgettable performance by BPO soloist Claudia Hoca in 2007, and has been on hiatus at the home of MHRC board member Donna DeCarolis for safekeeping since the beginning of Phase 5 of restoration.

Detail, "tout ensemble" drawing
But what of Wright's more unusual piano design?  It exists only in two drawings:  the "tout ensemble" plan, and a perspective drawing held by the Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Frankfurt.  The tout ensemble indicates that the piano was intended for the northeast corner of the living room (whereas the family's Steinway settled in the southeast corner).  Both plan and perspective drawings suggest that the design is a curious hybrid of baby grand and upright, with pier-like front legs that sport ovular planters.  Overall, the design is an altar-like, Jugendstil-inspired piece that would have harmonized (no pun intended) with various other components of the Martin tout ensemble.

Wright's design for the Martin piano

Wright's design for the Shaw piano (background)
Wright's rare piano design for the Martins has at least one other relative:  a similar instrument proposed for the living room of the C. Thaxter Shaw house, Montreal (also unbuilt).  The Shaw piano is similar to the Martin design, with heavy piers supporting the front of the instrument.  But here, Wright incorporates cantilevered lamps rather than planters (surely a more practical option), and book storage in the pier/leg cavities.  The latter would have been right at home in the Martin House tout ensemble, with its extensive accommodations for book storage (e.g. the living room sofa arms).

The Shaw living room drawing is an exquisite example of the draftsmanship of Wright's collaborator, George Mann Neidecken; the Martin drawing, though unsigned, has a quality of line that suggests it may have been by Neidecken as well.  But, as with many of Wright's unexecuted designs, the Martin piano remains a tantalizing vision of what might have been, with nearly as many unresolved questions as it has keys.


Jim/ArtofGardening said...

He designed a piano too? With plants? I may have to lift some of this for my gardening blog -- that's one elaborate planter!

Mike Scfhalk said...

I wonder how an experienced piano builder would react to the ultimate tonal quality if this unusual case? Perhaps someone ought to build a model over an existing piano to determine...

gbiondini said...

Hi Eric,
The design is certainly unusual, but from what I see I think the piano was definitely thought of as a baby grand (as is the one in FLW's home and studio). It was not unusual at the time for Steinway and other piano makers to make a few pianos with very peculiar casings. Some of these pianos are still extant, and there are also several pictures. (And apparently these casings don't affect the sound very much.)

I obviously don't know whether the idea for the Martins' piano went any further nor whether any construction plans were made, but I think it would have been much easier for the piano to be built by Steinway like that from the beginning rather than modifying a regular piano. But I would guess that having Steinway make it like that would have been very expensive, which might have been a deterrent. (After all, we know that after a while the Martins didn't want any more expenses.) Do you know what year the drawing was made?

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