May 27, 2020
The 100-year-old Pleyel Duoclave Grand Piano. Photo credit: Don Kennedy.
By Jesse Moffatt
Musical instrument restorers, at some point in their careers, are likely to be confronted with an instrument that teaches a valuable (and sometimes hard) lesson. It may be an instrument that is damaged beyond repair. It could require obsolete parts or rare parts that are no longer available. Or past restorative efforts may have made it impossible to regain the instrument’s full potential.
The instrument that has taught me many lessons is the Pleyel Duoclave Grand Piano. Pleyel Duoclave is an extremely unique instrument that can be described as two pianos housed in a single rectangular case. The piano has two sets of strings, two keyboard actions, two sets of dampers, two pedal lyres, all sharing a single soundboard and cast-iron plate. The Pleyel Duoclave was manufactured in very limited numbers between 1890 and the 1920s. No one knows for certain, but we suspect less than 100 were made and very few have survived. Players have described it as “the perfect dueling piano.” In my case, the duel was two years long, between me and the instrument.
The formidable opponent I speak of was manufactured in 1913 and had an unfortunate past. Little is known about the piano’s life before the 1970s when it was acquired by the Peabody Conservatory in Massachusetts. During that time, the piano survived through not one but two floods while in storage. Although the piano was damaged, NMC acquired the Pleyel in 1998 along with 50 other unique instruments from piano historian, educator, and expert technician, William “Bill” Garlic. Bill was an early contributor to our predecessor organization and my mentor.
The Pleyel Duoclave after some heavy duty mouse carcass removals. Photo credit: Jesse Moffatt.
In 2001, we began the Pleyel restoration. It took the better part of two years, with a total of six technicians having their hands on the project. The first day we brought the instrument into the workshop, I removed over a dozen mouse carcasses from inside the piano, which may have been used as a rodent hotel for a few decades. The felt was repurposed for nesting material, the cast iron plate (which holds 80,000 lbs. of string tension) was cracked in three places, and the beautiful Brazilian rosewood veneer was missing from the entire bottom half of the instrument.
Despite its sad state, the lure of bringing a rare instrument back to life for artists to use for the creation of new music was enough to ready us for the battle. By the end of the restorative efforts, we spent over 2,000 hours replacing the missing rosewood veneer, developing a new technique to repair the cast iron plate, repairing the soundboard, and made countless concessions to keep as much of the piano’s originality intact as possible.
The restoration process was both frustrating and rewarding, often taking one step forward and two steps back. Flood-damaged instruments are the most difficult and challenging musical instruments to repair, largely because the hide glue used to construct the instrument becomes compromised when exposed to excessive water. Among the lessons learned: every action has a corresponding reaction, even with respect to an instrument; no matter how good an original plan seems to be, recognize that changing direction is not necessarily a bad thing; and most importantly, you have to manage expectations (or try to). NMC gave the Pleyel a second chance to be enjoyed by artists and visitors. As the home for music in Canada, it is stories like this that make our collections and how we use it so unique.
Stay tuned for the next edition of Collections Pick, where we’ll apply lessons learned from the the Pleyel to the 2013 Alberta Floods.