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Piana Forty

Early Trans-Appalachian Pianos

Documentation by Dwight Newton, organologist.


In 2004, Nikos Pappas, my colleague at the University of Kentucky, approached me with a proposal for a research project relating to early pianofortes in the Ohio Valley. Nikos's research interest is in the music of Colonial and Federalist America. I have to admit that my knowledge of Regency era pianofortes was fairly slim at the time, but I have learned a great deal about them since.

One of the most interesting aspects of our study has been the revelation that central Kentucky was a center for pianoforte manufacturing from as early as 1805 a fact that vividly illustrates the station of Lexington as the "Athens of the West," with a vibrant cultural scene on a par with Philadelphia or Baltimore. (The third performance in America of a Beethoven symphony was in Lexington in 1817 -- before New York or Boston.)

"Joseph Green has opened a piano forte manufacturing at his shop on Main Street." — Notice in [Lexington] Kentucky Gazette, October 10, 1805

In the Ohio Valley there are many extant instruments from this era, albeit few in even remotely playable condition. The trade in pianos in this early period consisted primarily of the English style square pianofortes that evolved from the design of the clavichord. From the simple systems of Zumpe, the classic English double action is prominent among the examples we have seen. The most common among the extant instruments we have found thus far are English instruments by George Astor & Company or Astor & Horwood, Clementi, and Broadwood; and American instruments by Geib of New York and Babcock of Boston. John Geib had a son named George who was a piano dealer in Lexington.

Cat by J. Mason, ca. 1830There were as many as eight or more piano makers advertising in central Kentucky newspapers from as early as 1805 and into the 1840s. Of these, we have so far documented two extant instruments: one by William Thompson of Lexington and one by John Goodman of Frankfort. We believe there are others in storage at the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort. We have also discovered a unique hand-made single-action instrument (which Nikos has acquired) that appears to have been made in Winchester, east of Lexington, around 1824.

It is surprising how often these old pianos turn up. We find them for sale in antique stores and elsewhere for sale here in Kentucky. The director of the University of Kentucky Symphony recently bought a very early piano by Jacob Ball, ca. 1790, at a furniture auction here. Many of the antebellum historic houses in Kentucky have early pianos in them, though they are often not original or appropriate to the particular house. Few instruments we have seen are in good condition and records of provenance are usually very sketchy at best.

These pages present the preliminary documentation in an ongoing research project.
© 2001-2008 D.Newton/

Updated 06/27/2008