When Kristine Schmidt saw the Steinway grand piano in the sanctuary of the Bethany Presbyterian Church in Trenton, it was love at first sight. It was the kind of love that only a true aficionado can experience.
“It’s kind of like the nerdy kid who finds a classic Superman comic in mint condition, or the car collector who finds a dream car driving down the street, or someone finding a Picasso in an attic,” she said. “The craftsmanship that goes into a Steinway is incredible. It takes over a year to build one.”
Schmidt, the accompanist for the First Presbyterian Church of Titusville, was at the church with the other members of the congregation who were making Christmas dinner for people who had previously benefited from Bethany’s food pantry.
The Titusville church got involved with Bethany in 2010 after the death of Bethany’s pastor, Rev. Alice Bijjani. Titusville pastor Rev. Will Shurley said the congregation was helping Bethany with some of the programs Bijani had led. Although Titusville did not have the manpower to continue operating the food pantry Bijani had started, they could at least make sure the people who used it got a nice dinner on Christmas. So on Christmas day, Shurley, Schmidt and some other volunteers headed to Bethany’s vaulted 1885 sanctuary. That’s when Schmidt saw it: a black grand piano. It was old and slightly dinged up, but amazingly, it was still in tune. She lifted a lid and saw that it was a Steinway, the best piano made in America.
“People who know Steinway know that when you see classical music performed in concert halls, it’s typically a Steinway your artist is playing on,” she said.
Schmidt’s first thought was that the piano could be sold and the funds used to help the struggling Bethany church, which was down to less than two dozen worshipers each Sunday. Old Steinways can go for as much as $75,000. But that was not to be. In mid 2011, the Presbyter of New Jersey decided to close down Bethany church and liquidate its assets. They decided to sell most of what was in the church along with the building, with one major exception: Titusville would get the Steinway.
“I think because of our work with Bethany and the desire to keep as much of Bethany’s legacy within the Presbyter as possible, that’s how we ended up with the piano,” Shurley said. “When Bethany was still alive and active, this piano was being used to the glory of God there. We’re grateful that the piano is here and is still being used for that purpose.”
The Steinway was delivered in November, and Titusville had a technician give it a thorough tune-up. Shurley said they found a few quirks in the process. The piano was made in 1883, when Steinway was still making grand pianos with 85 keys instead of the now-standard 88. The una corda pedal, which on most pianos shifts the hammers to the right to hit fewer strings, instead shifts to the left. The soundboard has a minor crack in it, which could spell doom for a piano, but which hasn’t seemed to affect its sound. Aside from that, Schmidt said the piano is in remarkably good shape. It replaces a spinet, a small upright piano made for playing inside homes. Shurley said the old spinet was always overpowered by the voices of the congregation in song.
“It sounded like you were hitting tin cans,” Schmidt said. “The Steinway has such a warm, rich sound in it.”
The church now had a first-class piano with a mysterious history. Shurley and Schmidt knew almost nothing about the piano, so they set out to research it. They started off with the Steinway company itself, but they would not provide detailed information on who bought it. Shurley found copies of old Steinway records at the Smithsonian, and discovered its original owner and some other information. Schmidt found an organization called the Period Piano Center in California, and its owner, Bill Shull, provided as much detailed information as he could on it.From this, they were able to piece together an incomplete history:
The piano was made in 1883 and sold to Mrs. John Field of Washington D.C. Schmidt doesn’t know much about Field except that her household must have been a wealthy one: pianos like this were luxury items for the extremely rich. In 1892, the piano made its way back to Steinway, where it was refurbished and resold. At some point, possibly at this time, the ornate Victorian legs, which were beautiful but fragile, were replaced with sturdy, blocky legs. By January 1904, the piano had been repossessed from its owner and made its way to the HL Brothers piano store in New York City.
The paper trail ended there. The piano technician found the next clue when he was working on the instrument. The person who tuned the piano at Bethany had written the tuning dates in pencil on the inside of the keyboard cover. The first was in 1938. More notes, going up to 1980, were written on the metal frame on the inside of the piano.
From examining records made by Bethany Church, Schmidt believes the piano may have been acquired in 1938 when they renovated the sanctuary to have electricity.
Shurley said the next step is to look at Bethany’s records to see if there is any more information. The records were transferred to the Trentoniana Room at the Trenton Public Library when the church was closed.
Schmidt said she is fascinated by uncovering the history of the instrument because there are so many human stories attached to it.
“Who stood around this piano and sang Christmas songs at a family gathering? It was part of somebody’s family,” she said. “And then it went to Bethany and it participated in so many things. At Bethany it saw WWII, the Korean War and the riots of Trenton. How many people gathered in that church as somebody played on the keys? Perhaps a child’s first piano recital was given on it. It’s somebody’s life.”
Shurley said the piano would be put to good use in Titusville.
“There are folk who would say, ‘You ought to take this and trade it in and with the money you can get for it, you could get a bigger piano.’ Well, if we had enough money to buy a new grand piano, that’s not where we would use it first. This is as much about the piano’s story and about it’s history and about Bethany. We are pleased that we are able to to use it, and anticipate its being with us for a while.”
To celebrate the arrival of the piano, which happens to coincide with Titusville’s 175th year, the church is scheduled to hold a rededication concert March 9 at 6 p.m. Pianist Alexander Cap, a College of New Jersey piano performance graduate who served as Titusville’s organist between 2009 and 2011, will play a free concert with pieces by Bach, Gerschwin, Chopin and Beethoven. Cap, an accomplished teacher, performer and composer, said he has tested the piano several times, and loves its sound.
Most pianos do not get better with age. The parts wear out, and if the sound board breaks, the piano is nothing more than scrap wood and metal. But the one in Titusville has held up nicely over the years, Cap said, and is the perfect size for the room.
“It’s really special to me that Rev. Shurley should specifically ask me to give this concert,” he said. “There are other members of the church who have played there for longer. I haven’t been there that long, so it means a lot to me that he would ask me to play this recital on a special occasion.”
The March 9 concert is free and open to the public and will be followed by a reception. The concert will also be streamed online via webcam. Limited parking is available at the church; there is more parking at the Titusville Academy, located at 86 River Drive. More information can be found by visiting titusvillechurch.org or calling (609) 737-1385.