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© RIA Novosti. Kirill Kallinikov

The old piano home

When composer Pyotr Aidu rescued his first grand piano, he had a friendly clown to thank. With the clown’s help, he was able to get a hydraulic platform, normally used to lift circus elephants up and down, to transport the piano.

The rescue began when a woman called him and said she was going to throw out a grand piano made by Eberg, a 19th-century Moscow piano company. “I won’t even check it out. I’ll take it,”

Aidu said on the phone – and so began his collection of unwanted antique grand pianos, and the creation of an old piano home. Aidu’s piano refuge is in the concert hall of the state-owned diamond company Almazny Mir, which occupies the former Kristall vodka factory near Vodny Stadion metro station. Thirty dusty pianos stand in the hall under the continuous buzzing of the lights above. A black grand, varnished and covered in gold decoration, stands nearby, keys gone yellow. One is on blocks instead of legs; another lies on its side. They are all silent.

“In our country, people are quite able to pave roads with grand pianos,” said Aidu. There are plenty of stories of repairmen taking grand pianos apart to use as spare parts, he said, including one taking an axe to an 18th-century English square piano to make a kitchen shelf.

“I always thought this was unbelievable, and decided to do as much as I could to save a few, of these instruments, at least,” he said.

The instruments come from a century when foreign and Russian piano companies thrived.

There are no quality restorers in Russia to fix up the pianos

© RIA Novosti. / Kirill Kallinikov

There are no quality restorers in Russia to fix up the pianos

Then the revolution came. In Russian, grand pianos are called “royal,” a name taken from the French that was like a red rag to a bull to the Bolsheviks.

Within a year or two of the Bolshevik rise to power, the numerous piano factories were either closed down or nationalized. One ardent communist even tried to persuade Anatoly Lunacharsky, the commissar in charge of culture, to set fire to all of the country’s “royals.”

“Every one of them individually is a ref lection of its place and time,” said Aidu of his residents. “The pianos were made in the best workshops in London, Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg and Moscow, over the course of a century from 1819 to 1916. It was the time of the establishment of a musical epoch that became the cultural foundation of modern civilization.”

He doesn’t look for the pianos, he says – they find him. Most recently, he was sent a grand piano from the German company Sturzwage, minus the legs, from Nizhny Novgorod.

Another grand piano, from Sturzwage, was picked up from a house opposite the Hermitage Gardens that was due for demolition. The piano had been in the house since before the revolution, but had been neglected since the owner died 20 years ago. When the ceiling fell after a leak, the piano was used with various things piled on top to keep it in place.

“Of course, water trickled down into the grand,” Aidu said.

A 130-year-old grand piano from the English firm Collard & Collard that stands on porcelain wheels is the gem of the collection, as it is the only one that remains playable. Aidu bought it for $250 (7,900 rubles) from a piano shop in Moscow, and regularly plays it at various concert venues.

Grand pianos are of no interest to antique dealers and are almost all beyond repair for pianists. But Aidu says they’re priceless nevertheless.

Old instruments will always be important for studying the work of music masters, he said, but he has had difficulty convincing even his own musical colleagues.

Aidu says he doesn’t search out the grand pianos – they find him

© RIA Novosti. / Kirill Kallinikov

Aidu says he doesn’t search out the grand pianos – they find him

“The thing is not that nobody could help me, but that nobody could understand why.” Another problem is that there are no skilled restorers of old grand pianos in Russia.

“You need to deal with foreign experts who have reached great heights in this [area],” Aidu said. “It is all possible, but people need to appear who will take this [restoration] up seriously. People who play on old instruments exist and are growing in number.”

Aidu found one expert who was eager to restore one of the refuge pianos, but antique musical instruments cannot be exported that easily. “You can dump a grand and set fire to it, which happens in catastrophic numbers, but you can’t take it abroad.”

Fire and a lucky escape brought the grands to their current refuge. Seventeen of the pianos were on show at Artplay in 2012 as part of the Moscow Art Biennale, when a fire broke out. They survived, but were left covered in soot. When Almazny Mir head Sergei Ulin visited Artplay, he saw the pianos and offered them a roof.

Nevertheless, the destruction of the remains of the piano industry continues, Aidu writes on his website dedicated to the instruments, oldpiano.ru.

He compares it to the dying out of rare animals: “In a few years, there will be nothing left of what was an important part of the makeup of the Golden and Silver Age of Russia.”

If you see a dumped grand piano, write to Aidu via his website, oldpianos.ru

 

Pyotr Aidu

As well as composing and performing, Aidu teaches piano at the Moscow State Conservatory. In 2009, he resurrected Persimfans, an orchestra set up in the 1920s to work without a conductor. It was closed in the 1930s, as cultural freedoms were squeezed out under Stalin.

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