Traveling with Ken Wayand

Discover Vintage America - MAY 2018

The harp-piano: oddball of music history

Visitors to the Clay County Museum on the west side of the Liberty, MO town square can see an unusual musical instrument: a harp piano. A forerunner of the modern piano, it is displayed with period furnishings on the second floor, not far from the restored doctor's office.

One of the few remaining Dolcettes, owned by the Kansas Historical Society Museum in Topeka (photo courtesy Kansas Historical Society)

Chery Holtman, president of the Clay County Historical Society, said their harp piano, made in Louisville, KY, was donated to the museum about 1969 by William Jewell College. It was built by Frank Teupe, a Prussian born in 1837 who immigrated to Louisville and built pianos most of his life. His estate sold the piano shortly after his death in 1901.

Teupe patented a number of improvements during his career. His pianos were relatively lightweight and could easily be disassembled for shipping. His earlier, more elaborate models, called "giraffe pianos," are quite rare.

An older "square grand piano" is part of the museum's collection. The Grow & Christopher model was made in New York and brought to Clay County by steamboat. Built before the Civil War, it was owned by Col. John Thornton, and donated to the museum by his descendants.
For hours and other details, call 816-792-1849.

Chery Holtman, Clay County Historical Society president, examines the museum's Teupe harp piano. (photo by Ken Weyand)


Some piano history

Historians say the harp may have been the first stringed musical instrument, as harps depicted in hieroglyphics date back some 5,000 years. But it wasn't until the Middle Ages that musicians considered combining the harp with the keyboard of the church organ.

Another century passed before an instrument for plucking the keys – the harpsichord – would be invented. Its popularity peaked during the Renaissance when the instrument was manufactured in Italy. During the baroque period (early 1600s to late 1700s) it became important to many classical composers and musicians. Using a wooden "wing-shaped" frame, the harpsichord resembled grand pianos still in use today.

A simpler design, the clavichord, featured a keyboard akin to a modern piano. Unlike the harpsichord, it was more compact and designed for home use. Because of its smaller size many Easterners transported clavichords in covered wagons as they settled the West.
In the early 1700s, a harpsichord maker in Italy invented the "pianoforte" using the basic frame of the harpsichord, but adding a series of hammers to strike the strings. Although the original model was not successful, the idea caught on, eventually becoming the piano that is popular today.

Over the years, the bulky "pianoforte" was produced in many forms. Heavier gauge strings produced a richer sound, felt coverings allowed pianists to produced sustained notes, and compact designs allowed the instrument to be more affordable. By the early 1900s, "spinets" and other upright pianos were in common use. In the 1960s, the invention of the electronic keyboard brought the traditional piano into the digital age, and helped expand its use into jazz and other musical genres.

The harp piano at the museum in Liberty, MO, was acquired from William Jewell College, along with other period furniture pieces. (photo by Ken Weyand)

 

The Dolcette: work of genius or a scam?

In 1925, the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka purchased a unique harp piano from a local second-hand store. Peter Bissing, the son of an Austrian organ maker who had immigrated to western Kansas from the Russian Volga region, designed the Dolcette, a dulcimer-like instrument with a piano keyboard. The elder Bissing had helped found Catharine, a village northwest of Hays, KS.

Peter, something of a musical prodigy, composed music and played various instruments at a young age, including organs made by his father. In the early 1900s, he designed three keyboard instruments, but the Dolcette, a harp-piano, was the only one he tried to market and sell. Bissing formed a syndicate and hired his brother, Justus, to build the Dolcette, which could produce the sounds of a mandolin, Italian harp or chimes using the keyboard or by depressing one of the foot pedals. The Dolcette measured six feet in height and four feet in width.

Numerous Kansas residents, including several musicians and local businessmen, invested in Bissing's syndicate, which produced a total of 50 instruments. Although Bissing boasted of his plans to sell the Dolcette in every county of the U.S., he was the syndicate's only sales agent, and buyers resisted the instrument's $125 price tag. In 1913, after only a year in business and few sales, Bissing lost interest in his invention and the company folded, leaving 40 Dolcettes in a Topeka warehouse. Eventually the instruments were sold at a sheriff's sale to pay for the storage bill.

Grow & Christopher square grand piano was brought to Missouri in the mid-1800s on a steamboat for Col. John Thornton. (photo by Ken Weyand)

 

Tracking the remaining Dolcettes

Bobbie Athon, information officer at Kansas Museum of History in Topeka, said that only five Dolcettes are known to exist, including the one at the museum, acquired in 1925. She said their Dolcette was once featured in an exhibit of period furniture, but is not currently on display.

My research uncovered two other Dolcettes in other Kansas museums, and both are on public display. One can be seen in the Lincoln County Historical Museum in Lincoln. According to the museum's website, their Dolcette was purchased by the Kadel family in the late 1930s and used in family gatherings before it was donated to the museum.

Another Dolcette can be seen at the Ellis County Historical Society Museum in Hays. Lee Dobratz at the museum said she thought their Dolcette was originally owned by Washburn University in Topeka. It is currently on display in their main gallery.
Can their Dolcette be played? "No, our Dolcette is exhibited as a historical artifact," she said.


Ken Weyand can be contacted at kweyand1@kc.rr.com Ken is self-publishing a series of non-fiction E-books. Go to www.smashwords.com and enter Ken Weyand in the search box.