AMIS 2022: An Ancient American Piano with Clues About Piano Origins

The American Musical Instrument Society (AMIS) promotes better understanding of all aspects of the history, design, construction, restoration, and usage of musical instruments in all cultures and from all periods. In June 2022, their annual meeting was held at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.

An Ancient American Piano with Clues About Piano Origins
John Watson

John Watson is a conservator and maker of early keyboard instruments. He retired in 2016 from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, where he served as conservator and curator of musical instruments. His research on issues in musical instrument conservation and keyboard history have resulted in several books and articles. He is currently working on Boalch-Mould Online, a free research database of makers of the harpsichord and clavichord.

A small and remarkably early American upright piano with a long history among the Moravians of Pennsylvania is the subject of significant new research and a new playable reproduction made by the presenter with Tom and Michele Winter. Our hypothesis is that the instrument is an unrecognized product of John Clemm, who established his career in early eighteenth-century Saxony and later became America’s first professional maker of keyboard instruments. Peculiar details of the instrument’s design can be explained by Clemm’s early work in Dresden and link the piano to the origins of a northern European, pantalon-inspired piano lineage that began independently of Cristofori’s invention. Even in Europe, few examples survive from that less familiar ancestral line in piano history. Sometimes the earliest specimen of a long extinct insect is perfectly preserved in amber. Could the Dresden “invention” of the piano have made the crossing to America in the mind of John Clemm, resulting in an instrument some years later that was preserved ever since in the Moravian enclave of Nazareth? This paper lays out the evidence. The presentation will include an audio recording of the reproduction. What kind of impression would it have made to its first Pennsylvania German listeners, for whom the harpsichord, spinet, and clavichord would have been the norms? For us, it has a mix of all those characteristic sounds yet is something quite unique.

Watch more videos from the 2022 AMIS Conference here.