The piano that started me on my art journey was a Lyon & Healy upright grand, built in 1906. In addition to studying the parts themselves to figure out what I could do with them, I also wanted to learn all I could about who made this fine musical instrument. While I do not claim to know enough to even call myself an amateur, I will gladly share with you the snippets I have learned.
George W. Lyon and Patrick J. Healy came from Boston to Chicago in 1864 to open a store selling sheet music. Their venture proved to be extremely successful, and within a year they expanded the business and began carrying musical instruments as well. They survived the Great Fire of 1871 because they had excellent insurance coverage. While rebuilding, they acquired the piano business of another firm and became the sole representative in the Chicago area of Steinway & Sons. This was the start of a meaningful relationship with the piano icons from Germany.
Harping on Excellence
Healy noticed that his repair shops were filled with harps that needed a great deal of work, so he set about to design “the finest harp the world has ever seen.” It took years of research, but in 1889, the first Lyon & Healy harp was produced, and it was played daily at Morgan Park High School in Chicago for 90 years, until it was returned to the company to be put on display in the Museo Dell’Arpa Victor Salvi in Italy. Healy’s hard work paid off, and his company became known as the world’s leading manufacturer for concert harps.
In the late 1800s Lyon and Healy further expanded their business. They were already carrying pianos made by other manufacturers, but now they began to produce their own: uprights, players, and grands. They also produced a line of upright pianos under the name of “Washburn” as an affordable alternative to the more elite Lyon & Healy brand.
Pianos and harps were not the only instruments produced by Lyon & Healy. For a while they also built pipe organs for both home and church use, as well as a variety of brass and woodwind instruments. And they did not forget their humble beginnings, for by 1930 they were the largest distributor of sheet music. In fact, they were advertised as being “the world’s largest music house.” New upright pianos sold at that time for $125 to $290. Bear in mind that the average house sold for $4,700, you could buy a car for $1,450, and a loaf of bread cost 4 cents. Many professionals had an annual salary of $1,500 to $4,000.
The Great Pruning
During the Great Depression, the Everett Piano Company bought Lyon & Healy’s piano division, but they continued making pianos under the Lyon & Healy brand until the 1970s, when Steinway & Sons purchased all rights to the name. Steinway closed all Lyon & Healy retail stores and discontinued production of all instruments and sheet music so that the company could focus on the production of harps. It sounds harsh, but sometimes a farmer has to prune branches that are producing fruit so that the remaining branches will produce more and better fruit. After this pruning, Lyon & Healy regained their focus, and their harp industry continues to this day. If not for the hard decision that Steinway made back in the 1970s, Lyon & Healy may well have closed their doors completely by now.
After reading about the humble beginnings, the amazing accomplishments, the harsh pruning, and the incredible longevity of this great company, I have even more respect for the makers of the fine instrument that started me down the path of creating piano art.
Does It Hurt?
At craft shows I have the pleasure of meeting and conversing with a good many folk who stop by my table. Often they ask, “Does it hurt you to take the pianos apart?” My answer has always been: “No. It’s my pleasure because I am keeping them out of the landfill; I’m giving them a new purpose.” But today, after researching to write this article, I must admit that my heart is pained some—okay, more than a little—for this piano in particular. If I had known its history before we started to take it apart, I would have found the $5,000, or whatever it would have taken, to restore it. Because this one would have been worth the cost. And yes, I’m writing this through tears. It’s just a bunch of wood and metal, you say. But that hunk of wood and metal was assembled by a master craftsman, better than most of the others I’ve come across. I can only hope that the people who have purchased items made from the gorgeous tiger oak cabinet and all the action pieces within will appreciate the love that went into creating the piano in the first place, and then the love that went into creating the art.
Here are a few photos of my 1906 Lyon & Healy, as well as some of the works of art I made from it:
Pierce, W. Robert. Pierce Piano Atlas. 12th Edition. Larry E. Ashley Publishing: Albuquerque, NM, 2008
Riverwalk Arts Festival Update