Monday, 9 April 2012

Maintaining Titanic's shipboard pianos

Titanic’s string musicians traveled with their own instruments and tuned them anew for each performance. Every time the band gathered, passengers would have heard the string players tuning up prior to the performance.

However, the pianist had to play the instruments provided by the White Star Line. Lucky for Titanic’s pianist, the steamer had only Steinway performance pianos. But even the most gorgeous instruments are at the mercy of the environment in which they stand. This post is devoted to musing on the technical aspects of installing and maintaining Titanic’s pianos, including the impact of environmental conditions like temperature and humidity on them.

Were the pianos bolted to the floor?
Based on Steinway upright models K and R, Titanic’s upright pianos would have weighed 600-700 pounds (272-318 kilos), the Model B grand, 760 pounds (345 kilos). Now imagine installing pianos of this weight on a ship designed to handle high seas on the North Atlantic.

Most large performance pianos are made with rolling casters to make it easier to move them. However, on Titanic, this feature would have been utterly impractical. It is most likely that Titanic’s pianos were bolted to the deck floors to prevent them from moving on rolling seas. This idea would quell any notion that a piano was causally moved out onto the outer Boat Deck as the band played during the sinking.

The idea of anchoring the pianos comes primarily from the reality that a loose piano on a seagoing ship had the potential of being a destructive force. Not only could it have been a danger to passengers and crew, a piano in motion could have damaged the ship and its furniture, not to mention the piano, itself. It would be conceivable that on rough seas, given the right conditions, an upright piano might have even listed and toppled over. Considering all these factors, it only makes sense that Titanic's builders would have bolted her pianos to the floor.

This photo shows how the Steinway grand was anchored to the deck floor
with three metal rods to keep the piano from moving on rolling seas.
Notice brass footings in the place of casters.
Taken aboard Olympic early in her career.

How would temperature and humidity have affected the pianos?
Today many professional pianos are kept at an even temperature and humidity with a system known as Dampp-Chaser. This is an integrated system installed inside a piano that humidifies or dehumidifies the piano should the room get too dry or damp, and heats the piano should the room get too cold. When the temperature and humidity within the piano are kept constant the wood is stabilized and the piano stays in tune. No such thing existed in 1912.

Constant flux in temperature and humidity is very hard on any instrument, much more so a piano because it requires such an intensive process to be tuned. The pianos on Titanic that were exposed to the outside air, located in entrances or rooms with outside access, were most vulnerable. These included the Steinway upright located in the First Class Boat Deck Entranceway (at the top of the Grand Staircase), the Steinway upright located in the Second Class Entrance Foyer (C Deck) and the upright in the Third Class General Room (C Deck). Each time a passenger opened one of these deck doors, cold, humid air would have had an impact on the nearby piano.

In the Second Class Entrance Foyer the piano could be exposed to North Atlantic air
from several deck doors, one visible in this photo (taken on Olympic).

Three of Titanic’s pianos were located in rooms with more controlled conditions: the Steinway grand located in the First Class Reception Room and the Steinway uprights in both the First and Second Class Dining Saloons (all D Deck). Yet, even in these more protected areas of the ship it seems the heating system on board was unable to keep a constant temperature.

Several passengers mentioned how draughty Titanic was, especially on Sunday, April 14, when the temperature dropped. That evening even the most stylish ladies refrained from wearing their fashionable frocks and donned warm coats for dinner to stave off the cold that permeated the ship.

It is uncertain whether it is possible to answer the questions that arise concerning White Star Line pianos and their response to environmental exposure. How often were they tuned? (With each crossing?) Was Titanic’s pianist capable of performing rudimentary maintenance to tune the pianos en route in the case of a badly out-of-tune string? It would have been unthinkable to perform for a classy clientele on an instrument that had slipped, and such was a likely occurrence on ocean-going vessels like Olympic and Titanic.

If any readers have light to shed on this subject, or questions regarding the complex, fragile relationship of piano vis-à-vis ship, please share!
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Related Posts
Titanic's First Class pianos
Titanic's Second Class pianos
Titanic's Third Class piano

Links
How does a piano go out of tune?
Dampp-Chaser A system to protect your piano
Entrance image from TITANIC The Ship Magnificent, Beveridge, Klistorner, Hall, Andrews. All rights reserved. Many thanks to the authors for permission.




7 comments:

  1. It is sure that pianos was attached to the floor. Even chairs in First class dining room were catched to the stick in the floor, which was provided to prevent chairs from excessive moving.

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    1. It is also interesting to note the absence of casters from the grand. When I wrote the text of this blog post I was really only guessing about the bolts and casters, because shame on me, I had seen but not studied the photo above.

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  2. Where did you get information about weights from?

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    1. At the time, in April 2012, I was in contact with Steinway New York and I believe I researched the weights, and then confirmed with employees at Steinway. The model R, for example, is no longer being manufactured, and I likely confirmed that with their old records.

      Go to this page on the Steinway & Sons website and you can see the specifications on the Model B grand:
      http://www.steinway.com/pianos/steinway/grand/model-b/

      I hope this is helpful, and please let me know if you have further questions. - R

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    2. Please see information from Steinway & Sons, posted below:

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  3. Martin,
    this statement comes today from Steinway & Sons employee Anthony Gilroy:

    My educated guess is that a Model B grand from 1912 would be very close in weight to the 760 pounds a modern Model B weighs. This is because the piano, and our technical specifications, change very little over time – there is a slow and constant evolution, but in the last 100 years there have not been very dramatic changes (the period from 1853-1912 would be another story).

    While the foundry for the cast-iron plate has changed in the past 100 years, and some engineering technology may have allowed for less metal to provide the same strength/durability, I’m guessing that any difference would still be small, in the realm of tens of pounds, not hundreds of pounds, and that a 1912 Model B would likely be in the same 750-800 pound range as a modern instrument.

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  4. Martin,
    Steinway & Sons employee David Kirkland concurs:

    The New York Model B was listed as weighing 755 lbs in 1911 when the Titanic’s Hamburg Model B Grand was made. I agree with Anthony’s statements on this subject. Variations in the weight of the cast-iron plate over the decades are in the range of 20 lbs or less. An elaborate art case applied after manufacture could add a few pounds, as was the case of the Titanic Model B Grand. The finished Titanic Model B Grand may have weighed as much as 800 lbs, but not more.

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