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Freak pianos


One of the more amusing books in the Music Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is a volume bluntly titled Freak Pianos (call number: Mus. Res. *MKDCC). Its author is C. Van Noorden, about whom I could find little, other than he or she flourished in England as a music and dance critic in the early decades of the 20th century.

Articles by this person appearing in the Dancing Times can be found in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, and it is probable that the author is related to a few other Van Noordens who were active as musicians at the turn of the 20th century in England. Freak Pianos consists of a brief text, followed by 18 leaves containing 20 images illustrating a variety of piano designs mentioned in the text. These images are a combination of drawings and lithographs - the latter apparently culled from 19th century journals or advertisements. It’s possible that Van Noorden kept these illustrations over the years as a curiosity. Although I’ve known about this book for decades, only recently did I confirm that it’s a typescript for a published article with the same title that appeared in the English Illustrated Magazine (January 1905, p. 334-39). Happily, Google Books has it available in digitized form. A comparison of text between typescript and magazine shows only minor changes. But this comparison shows that nearly half the illustrations were eliminated from the article. (Two of the illustrations in the article–the piano against the wall, and the piano combined with dresser–appear to have been excised from the book before NYPL acquired the typescript.) In addition, the published magazine (and its digitized form) is small, resulting a loss of detail.

In one case, the published article refers to two illustrations: “Mr. Hallett’s 1857 grand piano with a circular sounding board, over which radiate two, three or four sets of strings, so that the instrument might have two or more keyboards available for quartettes, etc. The illustration shows only two keyboards.” The single illustration in the published article shows an upright piano (complete with candle holders). The illustration that begins this blog entry was also intended to show Mr. Hallett’s invention. To my eyes, it suggests a conjoined twin. The article has a somewhat primitive drawing of a woman in profile playing a “piano with perpendicular keyboard.” That was supposed to be the first of two illustrations; finally, here is the other:

Near the beginning of the article, Van Noorden speak of inventors’ “flights of fancy” in attempts to innovate and elaborate the design and construction of pianos, often combining it with other instruments and mediums. Here is John Day’s 1816 instrument with glass bells (although they look like glass rods to me): 

Mr. Netwon’s piano of 1860 uses metal gongs instead of strings:

Though we may often think of typescripts as being little more than a draft for a published work, it often pays to examine them thoroughly. In the case of this article, examination reveals a gem of unusual illustrations that would be difficult to find elsewhere.


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