The Blüthner

It was there, waiting for me, when I got back from Vancouver. Black, lustrous and imposing, it now occupied the space I’d left for it against the far wall between the two cabinets. Possessing a certain presence and grace, it sat there patiently, as if expecting me. My new roommate had arrived – the Blüthner was here.

The movers had obviously found the “secret key” and managed to access my Gallery and wrestle its awkward bulk into place, without my assistance. For this I was grateful as pianos are notoriously difficult to move. Three-men with a truck, a special dolly and straps is still no guarantee of safety – for the piano or the movers. This is why you’ll find many pianos being offered for “free”…if you pick up the moving fees.

In fact, the piano was not mine – a friend had received it, for free, when the local Community Centre on Mayne Island decided to divest themselves of their two pianos. His impulsive agreement to take the piano was short-lived though, when he realized that he didn’t have space for it. Pianos are beautiful instruments and have an intrinsic allure, even if you don’t know how to play them – like myself. When offered a chance to “store it indefinitely” in my Gallery Café, I readily accepted, and now, it was here…what to do?

It looked lovely in its new home, fitting perfectly between the two cabinets, allowing for stylish art displays on the wall in the alcove above, and on top of the piano too. But what of the piano itself? What is a Blüthner? A name I’d never heard, before one showed up in my Gallery. I was curious.

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It all starts with a little Wikipedia…

Julius Blüthner Pianofortefabrik  manufactures pianos in Leipzig Germany. Along with Bechstein, Bösendorfer, and Steinway, Blüthner is frequently referred to as one of the “Big Four” piano manufacturers. Established in 1853, Julius Blüthner, a deeply religious man, spoke the defining words that would allow his company to survive and flourish for the next 167 years, “May God Prevail”. The age of any particular Blüthner piano can be determined by matching its serial number to the age table freely available on the Blüthner website”

Blüthner pianos have won international awards consistently since their inception, and have been prized by pianists all over the world, including Rachmaninoff who said, “There are only two things which I took with me on my way to America…my wife and my precious Blüthner”.

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“Hmm…impressive pedigree…and I can determine the age of my Blüthner?,” That’s cool I thought…I had to look. Lifting up the lid, and exposing the Hammer Action I saw the Serial number stencilled on the metal frame, “92989” Returning to the computer and the Blüthner website I was able to determine that my Blüthner was built in 1914 – exactly 100 years earlier (I was doing all this sleuthing in March 2014).

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100 years. I paused to reflect for a moment on this significant date. I think we naturally accredit a special respect for anything that is celebrating a century of life on this earth. If the Blüthner was not technically alive, it had experienced a lot of life at the hands of its various owners. And, significantly, it was born in Leipzig Germany at the start of World War 1 which began on July 28th of that year. Where did it go? How did it get here?

My curiosity about the Blüthner’s journey was piqued and I wanted to know all I could about her…but all I had was the piano sitting before me – and she wasn’t speaking. I grabbed a flashlight and a screwdriver and started to explore.

Removing the bottom panel just above the piano pedals I peered in with my flashlight and saw the Serial number again, handwritten in pencil along with what appeared to be a signature. My first thought was of a young German piano maker leaving his mark for posterity – a little Saxon graffiti – and immediately wondered what might have happened to him with the advent of War.

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Without knowing for certain though, I sent a photo to my German friend Rainer Schroeder (Valhalla Tours ), for translation. Rainer said that although “it’s definitely a word…the font is in Old German “Suetterlin” …but I’m not sure”. Undaunted, I went online and found Katherine Shober of SK Translations who works in this field to see if she could help. (Chasing this one word translation becomes a story in itself: Katherine was too busy but directed me to Geneologist Dr. Ellen Yutzy Glebe. She too was busy but gave me three Facebook Translation Groups – which I joined – and within hours had a viable translation from Georg Patrzek – “Tschempel” which is a family name…God I love the internet)

I was glad that the word I’d discovered was a family name and didn’t mean “right piano leg” in Sütterlinschrift . Knowing that M. Tschempel decided to sign this instrument upon which he (or she) worked creates, for me at least, a whole thread of historic inquiry to ponder or pursue. Was he young, old, married with family? What happened to Tschempel? World War 1? 2?…in a last grasp at trying to understand, and complete this circle, I found one Tschempel reference online – again on Facebook, a Marie Lea Tschempel whom I have messaged…I await her reply.

 

The next and most obvious clue in the Blüthner’s journey was a small metal plaque attached to the keyboard lid which read: “Bowran & Co. Ltd – Newcastle on Tyne”

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I knew that Newcastle on Tyne was in England, so the Blüthner had to have made it’s way safely between two warring countries, but I had no way of knowing when it made that perilous trip. Mr. Google was there to help and gave me a little tidbit from the Newcastle Journal August 4th, 1916…a small classified ad indicating that E. O. Bowran was indeed engaged in piano sales, representing several makes & models of new & used pianos. Bowran survived the war but not the great Depression, and had to be “wound up due to liabilities”, as published in the London Gazette, February 5, 1935

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So, somewhere between 1914 and 1935, the Blüthner made it’s way to England, sat in a Piano Shop in Newcastle upon Tyne and was sold either new, used or as part of a bankruptcy liquidation.

Sometime during it’s long life, an aspiring pianist, or perhaps a child who didn’t know better, sat down at the piano with a pen and piece of paper, and forever scarred the keyboard cover while writing out the notes and lyrics to a song:

“Bridge…Bb…Crazy…on…After…Em…Let’s…on…Bill…Dean…Eb…F#m…D”

 Their scribbling moved around too much for me to identify the song, or tell what era it’s from. I visualize a young student or budding musician from the 60’s or 70’s copying or creating a piece for personal enjoyment or to entertain family and friends. I find these words add a human element to the Blüthner’s almost indecipherable journey.

The trail goes cold here until August 10, 1986 (or perhaps October 8) when the Blüthner was tuned up by Cliff Brownlee of Penticton, BC.

 

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I’ve attempted to fill in some gaps with the Blüthner’s history but have been unable to do so beyond the plaques, stickers, and graffiti that were left attached to the piano. The 50 year gap between Newcastle & Penticton is long so I decided to take a chance and call Cliff Brownlee in Penticton to see if he could remember anything about the piano – 28 years after his tuning job. It was a long shot.

Much to my surprise, there he was in the directory, no longer listed as a piano tuner and living at a different address but I felt compelled to call him. What possible harm could it do? Again, surprisingly, Cliff picked up the phone after a couple of rings. I could tell by his voice that I was not dealing with a young man. I explained who I was and why I was calling, that I was on a crazy mission to try and understand the life of a piano. How did it get to Pentiction?…and then to Mayne Island?

Cliff was friendly but admitted that – after this length of time – he really had little memory of working on my Blüthner, but – again with the surprises – he would look into his files, and call me back. He did just that. Two days later I received a call from him, unfortunately, he wasn’t able to elaborate much more on my pianos journey. He did recall coming to Mayne to tune David Hodges Grand Piano back when he was still in business, so we speculated that perhaps the Blüthner was here at that time, and not in Penticton, and that Cliff had picked up some additional tuning jobs.

I had one more lead to try – call the Community Centre and see where they got the piano and talk to whomever donated it. A chat with Lauren led to me Lise who gave me the final word on my quest. A couple named Don and Nina Thompson had made the donation to the Community Centre but they were now both in a seniors care facility in Victoria and should really not be disturbed. The thought being that perhaps they would be dismayed to know that their “donation” had changed hands and was now in a Gallery Café.

After all my sleuthing I certainly wanted to call them, or their family members but I honoured the suggestion. If Don and Nina’s intent when they made their donation was for the Blüthner to be cared for and played lovingly, I’m sure this little video that I made: “Eleven Pieces for the Blüthner” would warm their hearts and assuage any concerns they may have…