If the American journalist Harry Edward Freund had had his way, this rosewood square piano from America’s best-known piano manufacturing company would have been reduced to ashes in a ceremonial burning.
In 1903 Freund started a campaign in his journal The Musical Age, the self-proclaimed organ of the National Association of Piano Dealers in America, to obliterate the square piano.
Square pianos, which had dominated piano sales in America in the 1800s, were by the end of the century being increasingly replaced in popularity by new upright pianos.
Steinway, one of the American market leaders, made their last square piano in 1888. By 1903 Freund was claiming that the old square pianos damaged profits because dealers often had to take them in part exchange.
So Freund sent out a rallying cry to the dealers to burn their old squares. This led to one of the most notorious episodes in the history of the piano: The Bonfire of the Square Pianos in Atlanta City on 24 May 1904.
The bonfire took place at the annual convention of the Association. Of the square pianos offered for sacrifice, one particularly ornate, veneered 1876 instrument was mocked as ‘The White Elephant’: it was covered with white paint and daubed with poetic doggerel that ended with the line, ‘I’ll feed the flames by the salt sea air.’
Freund later claimed that 1,000 square pianos ‘in the form of a pyramid fully fifty feet in height’ were burnt on the pyre – it seems, from other reports at the time, that this number was exaggerated.
Regardless, the publicity stunt broadcast the end of a mass market for the square piano in America. Having survived the Bonfire, this Steinway ended up on the other side of the world in Tasmania.
It was later bought by the Sydney antiques dealer William Bradshaw, and eventually found its way into the Stewart Symonds Collection. Unlike many of the pianos in the Collection, once restored this Steinway grand could be played immediately as a concert instrument – when compared with a modern Steinway, the sound is slightly different and the ‘feel’ similar.