Story of a Medford piano.

by Moses W. Mann.
WERE we to enumerate those of today it would appear like wholesale business. The one under present consideration was in Medford in 1800-04, and possibly the first of its kind in our old town. At that time it was comparatively new. It is still not far away (as will be shown) but is voiceless, and ‘in age and feebleness extreme.’ It is only recently that the writer learned of it and of its present resting place, and set about tracing its history.

In Vol. VII, No. 2, may be found the excellent story of Susanna Rowson and her famous school for young ladies, prepared by the late Mary Sargent, and read by her before the Historical Society, October, 1903. To that the reader is referred for the setting and location of this piano while in Medford (though no allusion is there made to it), the present writer only remarking that Mrs. Rowson's school was housed in a building on High street, removed just prior to the erection of Grace Church and the Tufts residence.

Mrs. Rowson's biographer (Rev. Elias Nason) states ‘Mrs. Rowson introduced a piano into her schoolroom in the spring of 1799, and young ladies from different parts of the country availed themselves of the opportunity of learning to play this instrument that had taken the place of the spinet and harpsichord.’

Mr. Nason, however, tells nothing of its history. Our interest in it was aroused by the following, very recently [p. 2] published (‘History of Haverhill, N. H.,’ W. F. Whitcher, p. 378);—

First piano.

The first piano in Haverhill was owned by Gen. John Montgomery and was brought to Haverhill some time prior to 1820. This instrument had an interesting history. It was made in London by Christopher Gaverand and had been the property of Princess Amelia, daughter of George III. She gave it to a chaplain of the royal family, whose daughter married an American by the name of Odionne. They brought it to Boston, later it was taken to Medford and used in a school kept by Miss Susan Ranson. It was later still purchased by General Montgomery and brought to Haverhill, where it was in use for some years, and was then taken to New Ipswich, where its real historical importance was seen in the life work of Jonas Chickering, who was at the age of twenty a cabinet maker in that town.

The piano was out of repair and he was given the task of placing it in condition, and though he had never seen such an instrument before, he made a careful study and successfully accomplished his task, and determined to become a piano manufacturer. He went to Boston in 1818, and entered the employ of John Osborne the only piano maker in that city. He mastered every detail of the work, made many improvements, and in 1823 began business for himself in April, and in June of that year finished and sold his first piano. This is now in the collection of early musical instruments of various types belonging to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

John Montgomery had three daughters in Mrs. Rowson's school. He was not ‘General’ till the war of 1812. Recalling the interesting episode in Medford's old meeting-house (related by Miss Sargent) when Mr. Rowson and Mr. Montgomery sang ‘a powerful duo’ in the absence of Medford's recalcitrant choir during a visit to the school, we looked into the genealogies in the Haverhill history and find them given as—

1 Mary. b Mar 5, 1790

2 Ann or Nancy b Apr 8. 1792

3 Mary1 b. Oct 1, 1794d. Apr 14. 1817 [p. 3]

The above first-mentioned Mary would have been twelve years of age at her father's visit to Medford in 1802, and was under Mrs. Rowson's tuition in 1805 after the removal of the school to Newton (1804). She married, August 26, 1810, Samuel Bachelder (who was six years her senior, and who outlived her ten years). He came to New Ipswich, N. H., in 1808, and was engaged in cotton manufacture there several years.

Having digressed a little to show connection with the above, let us return to our piano subject again. For information we visited the Medford Public Library and were shown the beautiful little portrait of Mrs. Rowson, from which those in the Register and ‘Medford Past and Present’ are reproduced. This was given to Miss Sargent by a granddaughter of Mrs. Bachelder, the Mary Montgomery who attended Mrs. Rowson's school and there (and in her early married life in New Ipswich) used this old piano.

We also took from the library, for a careful reading, the ‘Memoir of Mrs. Rowson,’ above alluded to. It was with some surprise that we found that though written by a Medford author, and published in 1870, it was not acquired by our library until March, 1901, and in the twenty years since then had been taken out but once (March, 1914).

Attached to page 99 is the following typewritten statement:—

In 1884 there was given to the New England Conservatory of Music an old piano—made in London in 1782. This instrument originally belonged to the Princess Amelia, the youngest daughter of George III, and she gave it to the Chaplain of the royal family, whose daughter married a Mr. Odiorne, an American. She brought the piano to Boston. It was bought by General John Montgomery and taken to Medford, where it was used, by his daughter, at the school for young ladies kept by Mrs. Susanna Rowson.

This was probably inserted by Miss Sargent (then the librarian) at about the time of her preparation of the [p. 4] article for the Historical Register. Its opening sentence confirmed our thought, that possibly the last sentence of the Haverhill history extract might be ambiguous. A visit to the Conservatory was next in order. We were there shown an upright piano, diminutive in size as compared with present styles. It was enclosed in a case of inlaid wood of most elaborate workmanship. It is said to be the first ‘upright’ made, and the most valuable in the collection. We thought we had succeeded in our quest, but a second visit revealed that we had more to learn. By the courtesy of the manager's office we were shown the real instrument in question and presented with an elaborate Catalogue of the Exhibition, Horticultural Hall, January 11-26, 1902. This exhibition was under the auspices of Chickering & Sons, and totalled 1,346 distinct enumerations, mainly of musical instruments, ancient and modern. The catalogue filled seventy-eight pages, and among its illustrations (facing page 18) is a view of the piano of which we write, and which was numbered I (one) in the exhibit and catalogue from which we quote:—

I. Square piano.

Made in London by Christopher Ganer for Princess Amelia, youngest daughter of George III. She gave it to the chaplain of the royal family, whose daughter married a Mr. Odiorne, an American, and he brought it to Boston. It was sold in this city to Gen. John Montgomery and taken to Medford, Mass., where it was used at the school for young ladies kept by Mrs. Susan Rawson, author of ‘Charlotte Temple.’ The piano some time afterward was sent to Haverhill, N. H., where it was in use many years. Later it was taken to New Ipswich, N. H., where its real historic importance in connection with the firm of Chickering and Sons begins. Mr. Jonas Chickering, founder of the house, was in the last year of his apprenticeship, at the age of nineteen, with a cabinet-maker named John Gould, when this old instrument was brought to them to be tuned and repaired. The young apprentice, though he had never seen a piano, and, of course, was wholly unacquainted with its complicated structure, successfully undertook the task of restoring it to usefulness. The piano is five octaves, the keyboard extending two-thirds the length of the instrument. [p. 5] At a later date organ pipes and bellows were added to the piano and placed in the body of the instrument under the strings.

There at last, after one hundred and forty years, is the piano of Princess Amelia which was in Medford in the closing year of the eighteenth and three opening years of the nineteenth centuries. Could it but talk, what a story it might tell of its first home, the royal palace of England. It might also tell that in the very year of its making, King George was reluctantly acknowledging the independence of his rebellious subjects overseas, some of them on old High street in Medford.

It might tell how the royal chaplain's daughter joined the erstwhile rebels, becoming an American citizen by her marriage; and of its journey across the Atlantic with her. We may not know of her fortunes, or how the piano came to be sold. John Montgomery was a Scotch-Irish farmer and leading citizen of that new town in the north county of Cowass, or Coos, called from the Massachusetts town on the Merrimack, Haverhill, and probably its wealthiest man. George III had fifteen children, Montgomery had thirteen, but it was his eldest, instead of the king's youngest, who was to be at last the mistress of the London piano. That she was such, after her school days at Medford and Newton and in her early married life, is shown by its northern journey to Haverhill and its southern to New Ipswich. No wonder that, with its use in school and family, and its various cartings about, it needed ‘tuning and repair’ in 1817, when it fell into the hands of Jonas Chickering. Referring to the history of New Ipswich we find of him—

When about nineteen years of age, a piano-forte, (the only one in town) became useless for want of some person to tune it and make some slight repairs; and although it was the first instrument of the kind he had ever seen, yet, prompted by curiosity and his interest in musical instruments he undertook the task and after much labor succeeded in restoring it to usefulness.

This apparently trifling matter, no doubt, had an important bearing on [his] after life, and he soon after, unaided and alone, [p. 6] commenced the building of a small organ without any instruction, drawings, or hardly any idea of what such an instrument should be. He persevered for a while, but could hardly be said to have succeeded, and it is only now referred to, to show his bent of mind.

In reading this latter paragraph (written in 1852) we are led to compare it with the preceding extract quoted, and query if both refer to one and the same thing.

A brief description may be in order. The piano itself, i.e., the frame, strings and keyboard, is enclosed in a rectangular box about twenty-one by sixty inches, about eight inches deep. The cover is in two parts, with a flap in front, hinged to it, i.e., a two-third section along the keyboard. This box has metallic drop handles at each end, such as are used on tool-boxes for carrying. This box or case of veneered wood rests upon a frame slightly larger. This frame consists of four boards about ten inches wide tenoned into the square legs at each corner, the front faces of which are fluted. From these flutings downward to the brass casters they are elaborately turned, and the principal member of the pattern reeded. The front-board of this frame is cut in the form of an elliptic arch, and behind it is placed another, plain and straight, and back of this is the bellows above referred to.

This frame is evidently no part of the original construction by Christopher Ganer, but must have been the work of some American artisan of later years.

The reader will note that it is now twenty years since its exhibition by the Chickerings, since which time it has been in a class-room at the Conservatory of Music. In some other rooms there, are other of those exhibits, and the managers regret the lack of a suitable hall for their grouping in general display for examination. Our inspection of this old instrument was with some disadvantage, as the rooms are almost continuously in use by students, but here is what, by lying on our backs on the floor and gazing upward, we found:—

Occupying about one-third the space enclosed in the newer construction, is the bellows, and the remaining [p. 7] space is closely packed with three tiers of ‘stopped’ organ pipes, all of wood, one for each key, and in some way connected therewith. Some of these pipes are made at right angles (instead of straight) because of the limited space, and all are placed horizontally, instead of the usual vertical position. Four of these are gone from their place, but with the disjointed blow-pedal are stored away in the old piano case, under the cover. Two of them are broken apart at the angle; the other two are intact and responded to our breath. One of the music teachers expressed his surprise thus, ‘Why, this isn't a piano at all, it's an organ!’ But the exhibit card of 1902 still lies inside the old case, Princess Amelia piano. Here the query arises,—when did it cease to be a piano? as it certainly did when the strings were removed. So, in search of information, we went to the Chickerings.

We were there shown an excellent photograph of a Christopher Ganer piano (cover raised showing interior), such as this must have originally been, with six legs and one pedal. Endorsed on its back was this legend:—

First Piano-forte ever seen by Jonas Chickering, once the property of Princess Amelia, daughter of George III., now owned by Miss Ellen Day Hale, daughter of Dr. Edward Everett Hale, Feb., 1916.

We began to think of the tomb of Columbus, and to wonder, ‘What next?’

The next was, that we were also there furnished with the following, from the editorial page of the Boston Evening Transcript of August 30, 1867:—

An Historical piano.

We are indebted to a correspondent for the following account of an Organized Piano, being the first Pianoforte which the late Mr. Jonas Chickering ever saw, which is now in the possession of Mrs. Samuel Batchelder of Old Cambridge.

This instrument is remarkable, aside from the circumstances above stated, as having belonged to the Princess Amelia, daughter of George III. She presented it to her Chaplain. George Odiorne [p. 8] of Boston married the Chaplain's daughter in London. The Chaplain gave the instrument to his daughter when she left her native land for her home in America.

The late General J. Montgomery purchased the Piano of Mr. Odiorne for his daughter, then a young girl in Mrs. Rawson's school in Boston, and afterwards gave it to her when she went to reside in New Ipswich, New Hampshire.

There, accidentally, the cover was broken. A Cabinetmaker was sent for to make a new lid, and Jonas Chickering, then an apprentice, was sent to examine the Piano for a removal to the shop. His look of astonishment and wonder at this revelation of a hitherto unknown (to him) musical instrument, can be better imagined than described. He seemed utterly unconscious of observation while he peered about it, removing and displacing to examine the construction, and in it he first saw an Organ, with its various pipes and bellows. The Pianoforte and Organ could be used together, and were tuned in unison, or they could be played separately.

Mr. Chickering, a few years since, advised the owner to have a new and larger bellows put in, and play the organ by itself, as the tones were very sweet and suited to a chamber. His advice was followed. Mr. Chickering expressed much pleasure from time to time in selecting his best instruments for the lady to whom he was indebted for his first study of a Pianoforte.

This true account will correct the statements of the writer in the July number of The Atlantic Monthly on ‘The Piano in the United States,’ in which he states that the first Piano Jonas Chickering ever saw was in a battered condition, and that he put it in good repair, whereas, the one he first saw was in constant use and is a handsome instrument at the present moment, inlaid with satinwood and wreaths of colored wood surrounding the name of

Christopher Ganer
Londoni Fecit
Broad Street

On reading the above (typed copy kindly furnished us, and from which our compositor sets it) we were more at sea than ever. We were reminded of the saying of some eminent writer, ‘Language is given us to conceal our thoughts.’ Evidently its first paragraph is editorially written, the remainder by the ‘correspondent’ therein mentioned. But who was he? Does the word [p. 9] ‘writer’ (in the closing paragraph) refer to James Parton, author of the Atlantic Monthly article, or to the writer of the above Transcript article, or were both one and the same? The ‘Mrs. Samuel Batchelder of Old Cambridge’ was the Mary Montgomery of Mrs. Rowson's Medford school. This Transcript story tallies with others till we read the fourth paragraph, which makes it appear that the piano of Princess Amelia had been ‘organized’ prior to Jonas Chickering's first sight of it, 1817, in New Ipswich. How correct it may be we cannot say. It was written fifty years after Chickering's first sight. No other writer mentions the organizing save the brief mention in the Chickering catalogue of 1902, which assigns a later date than 1817.

Neither Dr. Hale nor Louis Elson, who were speakers at the eightieth anniversary exercises of the Chickering Company, alluded to anything of the kind as existing at that early time. We are inclined to the idea that the ‘look of astonishment and wonder’ attributed to the young apprentice is purely an embellishment by the newspaper writer. As to the next paragraph and Mr. Chickering's advice, we will say this: From several examinations we have made, we conclude that at some time subsequent to its organizing ‘his advice was followed,’ and ‘a larger bellows put in.’ But in so doing the original piano was utterly disorganized. We found a section of the bottom of the original instrument had been cut out to make room into which the ‘larger bellows’ could rise when inflated, and which cut shows the peculiar composition of a thickness of two and a half inches. That action must have ruined the piano as such. Perhaps the strings were then removed, or later when found useless. How long the owners continued to ‘play the organ by itself’ as recommended we cannot say, nor yet whether it was thus usable when exhibited in 1902. It certainly is not at this present writing, as the keys are almost immovable.

Regarding the other piano, said to have been Princess [p. 10] Amelia's, the following communication is self-explanatory:

Chickering & Sons, Div. American piano Company, Boston, Mass.

Boston, December 13, 1921.
my Dear Mr. Mann:—
At last I have heard from my ‘authorities’ with the result that the pretty little story about the Princess Amelia's Piano being in the possession of Miss Hale appears to be completely disproved. I am rather sorry for our part, but am pleased for your sake, for this simplifies your problems in connection with the Christopher Ganer Piano at the Conservatory.

I wrote to the man who had charge of the Historical Musical Exhibition, held in Horticultural Hall in 1902, under the auspices of Chickering & Sons, and all that he could tell me of the previous history of the Christopher Ganer Piano, supposed to have been the property of Princess Amelia, is contained in the little catalogue, copy of which you have.

I also communicated with another one of our former officials, and he, too, is of the opinion that the Piano of the Princess Amelia is either in the Conservatory or in the Art Museum, and feels quite sure that no credence should be placed in the statement made to me (and passed on to you) that Miss Hale had anything to do with the instrument in question. He did, however, say that we restored an antique Piano of foreign make for Miss Hale, but there was no connection between it and the Piano of the Princess.

In regard to the somewhat ambiguous statement in the Transcript article, copy of which you have, I am as much at sea as you, for we have nothing other than a copy of the article, exactly like the one which I gave to you. I am sorry that the information I am able to give you is so meagre, but I feel somewhat relieved to be in position to set you right on the question of Miss Hale's ownership of the Princess' Piano.

Wishing you success with your work, I am,

Very truly yours,

At the Centennial Celebration at New Ipswich (1850) the orator said:—

Thirty years ago, few ears had been delighted with the sound even of the tinkling pianos of that day. . . A great and happy change has been wrought in social life. And to whom is it owing? [p. 11] Is it not to one of our own citizens? Do we not remember him as he quietly plied the saw, the plane and the lathe by yonder hill? It is Chickering.

Mr. Chickering was there present, having then constructed eleven thousand pianos since his restoration in 1817 of this London-made piano, which was the incentive to his life's work.

And here we leave the old instrument that was once a Medford piano, with the suggestion that some one follow up our investigation and get from this old ‘organized piano’ more of its history, which is really something unique and of remarkable interest.

1 Evidently an error, as Montgomery had a daughter Myra at the school with Mary.

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