New colony's first piano
If the First Fleet piano could talk, it might tell you about its eight-month adventure across the seas from England to Australia, where it arrived as the then-new colony's first piano in 1788. The finely crafted instrument then might go on about the pair of fires it survived, or about how it became the first piano used in lessons in Australia.
Our talking piano could undoubtedly tell you about the pains of aging as well. Historical instruments contain moving parts, ornate inlays, and ivory keys that can disintegrate over the centuries, and are often very hard to replace. Wood rots. Delicate mechanisms can rust or splinter. Sometimes, instruments suffer neglect to the point where they cannot be saved.
So, when Stewart Symonds, a Sydney collector, began looking for a long-term home for the First Fleet piano and 139 other vintage keyboard specimens he owned, he was lucky enough to encounter a kindred spirit — one who is not only an international-award winning fortepianist and educator, but also has an abiding interest in the conservation of historic keyboard instruments.
That kindred spirit, Professor Geoffrey Lancaster, happened to be a research professor at Edith Cowan University. Shortly after joining the university in 2015, he alerted ECU to the cultural heritage value of Symonds's collection and suggested the university acquire it.
"Several of the instruments are unique to the world, often by virtue of the fact that they are the only remaining examples of the work of particular makers," Professor Lancaster said. "Or they are rare, or of Australian cultural significance."
Lancaster's interest transcended merely curating the vintage keyboards. Indeed, he wanted the university to exhibit the collection — now part of a larger group of donated keyboards called "Founding Pianos." But he also wanted it to spearhead a program devoted to conserving and/or restoring much of what Symonds spent half a century amassing. What's more, Professor Lancaster saw the opportunity to train a new generation in how to do the work.
Playing on such instruments is akin to travelling in time
A threatened species
As fortepianos (the precursors to the pianoforte — or what are simply called "pianos" today) and other keyboards of the era most often linked to composers such as Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, and Schubert continue to grow older, their maintenance has become a pressing issue. Because many are deteriorating from time, disuse, and neglect, the sounds they make are threatened with extinction.
According to Lancaster, who has recorded more than 50 commercially released CDs and is known as one of the world's most accomplished performers on late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century fortepianos, this is a potential tragedy.
"Playing on such instruments is akin to travelling in time," he said.
Nearly 50 years ago as an undergraduate piano student, Professor Lancaster became enchanted by an early nineteenth-century fortepiano he spotted in a Sydney antiques shop. The shop owner had a passion for the dozens of old instruments he displayed there — something Professor Lancaster intuitively understood.
"Within a very short space of time, that antiques dealer changed my musical life," he said. "I knew in my spirit that this is what I should devote my life to."
In 2016, after several major Australian institutions had turned down Mr Symonds's offer to donate his collection, Edith Cowan University bought into Professor Lancaster's passion and trucked the collection across the continent to Perth.
Now on campus, the Founding Pianos collection features instruments made from 1736 to 1874, among them the Frederick Beck square piano that came across the oceans on the Sirius with Australia's original settlers on the First Fleet. The collection has been recognised as one of the world's most significant, rivaling those found in Austria, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
What distinguishes the collection is its importance to Australian musical history — and the role ECU plays in keeping many of the collection's instruments in working condition.
"The Symonds Collection is the only such collection at a public institution that has made many of the collection's instruments available for applied research and training in the techniques of conservation, restoration, and maintenance," Professor Lancaster said.