Ghosts of Old Pianos

Score title

Ghosts of Old Pianos


Libby Larsen

More about the composer




Program note

Travelling about the country as I do in connection with my music, I spend time all kinds of concert venues while rehearsals are going on. I don't know quite when, but several years ago I began noticing veteran keyboard instruments—old pianos, organs, electric keyboards—all of which had years of service on them, and like old pets, were now resting in nooks and crannies, out of the way of traffic. Something about the patina of dust, the surfaces distressed from years of service to performers, the pedals, burnished and often worn through, the keys often worn down in the octaves around middle C, made me fall in love with them so much that I've been collecting them in my mind for over 20 years.

In this new piece, Ghosts of Old Pianos, I drew on four of these beloved old pals to compose four pieces for four hands piano. Each has a story.

I. The Haunting of May Yohe (Steinway Grand, Bethlehem Hotel, Bethlehem, PA, 1897)
Mary “May” Yohe was the daughter of the managers of the Bethlehem Hotel. As a girl, in the mid-1800s, she often danced and sang for the hotel guests in the lobby. This led her to a stage and operatic career in Paris, where her fame propelled her to social heights. She married Lord Francis Clinton Hope, owner of the Hope Diamond which May displayed around her neck. She left Lord Hope for an American Soldier which caused her professional downfall.

It is said that May still sings in the lounge of the Bethlehem Hotel, and makes appearances in the lobby. I've spent many lovely afternoon and evenings in this lobby, and have perhaps caught wind of her. In this piece “The Haunting of May Yohe,” I imagined her wafting about the lobby, her spirit carried on the melody of “Ah, Je Veux Vivre” from La Traviata.

II. the Jenny Lind Theater (Emerson square pianoforte, San Francisco, CA, 1851)
When Swedish soprano Jenny Lind toured America in 1850, she took the country by storm, becoming an overnight celebrity phenomenon and sparking the American invention of celebrity product endorsements. A myriad of items from thimbles to umbrellas to furniture bore her name and sold like hotcakes. Many pieces of music were written for her. Towns changed their names to hers. In San Francisco, a Mr. Tom Maguire saw financial opportunity and opened the Jenny Lind Theatre in 1850 at the site of Montgomery and Kearney Street. A popular place, full of music, good company, and good accommodation, the hotel burned to the ground in the great fire of 1851.

I imagine that Jenny Lind's favorite polka, Anton Wallerstein's “Jenny Lind Polka,” (1850) was performed several times a day on the beautiful and prestigious Emerson square pianoforte in the hotel lobby. This piano was lost to fire, but its legacy lives on. This movement is an arrangement of the Jenny Lind polka, set in fire.

III. ...the Whole World (1907/08 Cable upright piano, church basement, Chicago, IL)
“He's Got the Whole World in His Hands” is a traditional American spiritual with no known date of origin. I wonder how many pianos in how many churches have carried this song into the air and into the hearts of people gathered there?

I found an image of this 1907/1908 Cable piano on line and imagine it, some keys missing, some keys barely working, still playing “He's Got the Whole World in His Hands” long after the church has closed its doors and the congregation has dissolved.

IV. ...Forgotten (BH Janssen upright, North Hudson, NY, 1915)
In the Last Chance Saloon of Frontier Town, North Hudson, NY, lived a 1915 BH Janssen upright. I discovered it through photographer Gabe Oram's haunting portrait of this old beauty. How many popular songs, campaign songs, drinking songs, military, glee club and children's songs —songs for any and every occasion—has this piano played in its nearly 100 years?

Surely, when Eugene Cowles' hugely popular song “Forgotten” was in its heyday, this Janssen upright played it dozens of times. It is a beautiful song with these lyrics:

Forgotten you?
Well, if forgetting be thinking all the day
How the long hours drag since you left me
(Days seem like years with you away)
Or hearing through all the strange babble of Voices,
now grave, now gay, only your voice:
Can this be forgetting?
Yet I have forgotten, you say.
Or the counting each moment with longing,
'til the one when I'll see you again.
If this be forgetting, you're right dear,
And I'll have forgotten you then.

Frontier Town no longer exists, and the whereabouts of the BH Janssen is unknown. But it is not forgotten.

— Libby Larsen