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Stephen Foster's Piano

Recently we took a trip to the Stephen Foster Memorial on the University of Pittsburgh campus. The memorial is a rather impressive stone and stained glass building adjacent to the Cathedral of Learning. (It might be even more impressive if the massive cathedral were not there!) Within is a nice collection of Foster artifacts and memorabilia with well-done displays reviewing his life and career. (Admission is free, donations welcome.)

Among the items is Stephen Foster's piano (or so it is labeled.) It is a square piano with seven octaves. It is branded a "Dubois and Stodart, Manufacturers, No. 167 Broadway, New York." Not much more information about the piano was available in the Memorial. Subsequent research tells me that Dubois and Stodart manufactured pianos between about 1822 and 1837. Dubois was the manager, Stodart the craftsman, though they subcontracted work to other piano craftsmen in New York.

Stephen Foster lived from July 4, 1826 to January 13, 1864. He died in New York at the age of 37, nearly penniless. This was not necessarily a reflection of management skills. He kept meticulous records and negotiated deals where he could. However, modern music copyright and royalty structure simply did not exist. Were he writing today, his songs would be earning him millions.

I would have loved to see inside this historic piano, but the best I could manage was a glimpse of the ends of the strings emerging from the cabinetry. What struck me was the splicing, visible in the picture. The splicing looks homespun to my untrained eye. I have no way of knowing the travels of Foster's piano after his death, how much it was used--and repaired--over the years before arriving at its current resting place. But I have to wonder, did the penniless Foster tune and repair his own piano?



Ralph Bowling 11/30/15

I have a mate to this piano. Dubois & Stodart 167. It belonged to my (four greats) grandfather James Garrard. This inside is in good shape. I am looking for a museum location (preferably in Kentucky) where it might be displayed.

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