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First Fleet piano's new home in WA

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Tags: Homepage; Research; Faculty of Education and Arts; Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA); Homepage featured

Australia’s first piano, which arrived on board the Sirius as part of the First Fleet in 1788, has found a new home at ECU’s Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).

The First Fleet piano is among a multi-million dollar collection of 130 historically-significant pianos to be very generously gifted to WAAPA by Mr Stewart Symonds.  The First Fleet piano has now arrived in Western Australia and the remainder of the collection will make its way from Ermington in Western Sydney, to WAAPA, later this year.

The procurement of the First Fleet piano and the Stewart Symonds Collection was facilitated by WAAPA Professor Geoffrey Lancaster after working closely with Mr Symonds to research his book The First Fleet piano: a musician’s view.

“This is an extraordinary gift to WAAPA and one that we are very excited about,” Professor Lancaster said.

“The acquisition of the First Fleet piano, let alone the acquisition of one of the world’s most significant historical keyboard collections, is a major boon for the cultural and academic life of WAAPA and ECU.  

“But most importantly it’s something that the people of Western Australia can happily own. This is a wonderful thing for WA to have.”

Mr Symonds said he is delighted WAAPA will become the new custodians of his collection.

 “The collection I’ve put together has taken on its own identity that is more important than I am,” Mr Symonds said.

“WAAPA fully appreciates what the collection is and recognises its world importance.

 “By giving these pianos to WAAPA, they will be there for all who come for hundreds of years. Students, observers, and people of all sorts of interests will find it a wonderful resource,” he said.

Cultural significance 

The First Fleet piano is an English square piano, an instrument invented in the 1760s. Professor Lancaster said it is probably the most important piano in Australia.

“It’s the piano that was brought out on the flagship of the first fleet, the Sirius, by George Worgan, the surgeon on board that ship,” Professor Lancaster said.

“After his three year tour of duty George Worgan gave the piano to Elizabeth McArthur, a woman to whom he’d given a few piano lessons,”

“Therefore, this is the first piano in Australia and the first piano upon which piano lessons were given, by the first piano teacher in Australia. There’s a whole cloud of cultural significance associated with this particular instrument,” he said.

Making the journey

The age and manufacture of the piano meant that instead of being shipped by rail it had to come from Sydney to Perth by air.

“The piano was very carefully packed protectively in wooden boxes, and trucked to Mascot airport to be flown here to Perth,” Professor Lancaster said.

“That’s unusual because normally pianos might be taken across the Nullabor by train, but the First Fleet piano is made with animal glue from the 18th century.

“If it sits inside a container to get hot basting in its own juices, the glue might begin to melt. If that occurs, the whole instrument shifts,” Professor Lancaster said.

Giving history new life 

WAAPA plans to restore the First Fleet piano and other instruments from the Stewart Symonds Collection so that their music can be enjoyed once again.

“Many of the instruments are not in playing order because Mr Symonds put the collection together not for performance, but as a collection that celebrates the design and innovation of the piano as it progresses through time,” Professor Lancaster said.

“That means that we have quite a task in front of us when it comes to restoration.

“Thankfully there are experts in the world who have devoted their life’s work to understanding how best to restore important keyboard instruments from the past.

“We are hoping that we will be able to make links with these people, and that ultimately we will be able to offer courses at WAAPA in instrument restoration so that we can lead Australia in this regard,” he said.


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