Carolina Music Museum Brings History to Life in an Instrumental Way

Jan 31, 2020

An 1863 Erard grand piano, part of the museum's collection.
Credit Bradley Fuller, South Carolina Public Radio

It’s not the harpsichord just inside the entryway of the Carolina Music Museum that comes as such a surprise, but the sign on top of it. “Play Me,” it reads—two words seldom seen on keyboards in public spaces unless preceded by “Please Do Not.”

Dr. Thomas Strange, Artistic Director and Curator of the museum located on Greenville’s Heritage Green, considers such interaction an important part of a visitor’s experience.

“It’s a bit of an experiential museum, so there are things that you can actually play. And we encourage people to explore a little bit,” Strange says.

With an exhibit like Seven Centuries of Keyboard Instruments, scheduled to run through mid-April, that exploration reveals both strong similarities and striking differences throughout the history of keyboard design.

The basic layout of the keys on a keyboard has remained largely consistent, Strange says. “The arrangement of black and white keys—or naturals and accidentals as we normally see on the keyboard—was actually fairly well-established by the middle of the 1300s. That long ago. It’s a design that is many, many centuries old, and it hasn’t changed. It’s near perfect because it was designed to work with the human hand and that’s still what’s making the music.”

But other aspects of keyboard-instrument design offer much more in the way of variety.

“In 1830, the idea of piano was many, many different sorts of instruments. It wasn’t one thing,” Strange says. “Today, when you go to the music store and you ask to look at a piano, they’re going to show you a bunch of pianos that all sound alike and all look alike with very, very minor differences.”

The exterior of the museum, located on Heritage Green in Greenville.

While each item in the museum’s collection contributes to a general understanding of changes to instrument design over time, some can be linked to specific events and performances. One piano, an 1845 Broadwood, is believed to have been played by Frédéric Chopin on a visit to England late in his life.

“I had bought the piano because it was the exact same model that [Chopin] toured with when he had come to England, without knowing at the time that he had actually played this piano,” Strange says.  “But, once we bought it and were able to do the research through the Broadwood records, I got back to the family that originally had owned it and they were able to confirm the story—that they had never told the auction house—that, in fact, Chopin had played this for a morning concert. The only thing the family remembered of the concert was that the father was upset that they paid 20 pounds for a morning concert.”

The 1845 Broadwood is not the museum’s only instrument connected to a famous keyboard-playing composer. A harpsichord, set to be exhibited in May and donated as part of a collection of instruments owned by the late Marlowe Sigal, of Boston, was once played by another famous musician.

“This is over 100 keyboards, over 400 woodwinds,” Strange says of the Sigal collection, “and among that group is the harpsichord that was owned by the young Queen Charlotte—her wedding present from King George III—on which the nine-year-old Mozart played for the court.”

According to Strange, the museum’s collection fosters a deeper understanding of music history.

“It begins to bring the composers a little closer to life—and that’s what we’re trying to do here. It’s the story of the instrument. The story of the composer. The story of the builder,” Strange says.

Dr. Thomas Strange, artistic director and curator of the museum.
Credit Bradley Fuller, South Carolina Public Radio

“It’s a lot of fun.”

In this interview that aired Thursday, January 30th, SCPR’s Bradley Fuller speaks with Strange about how he developed an interest in historic instruments, and finds out about the museum’s beginnings, mission, collection, and future.

More information about the Carolina Music Museum, soon to be the Sigal Music Museum, can be found here.