If This Piano Could Talk…

Along with Jeff Brownrigg, I reckon that the one enduring symbol of the colonial period is not the billycan, but the piano. As a rock is shaped by external forces, pianos have come to appropriate different meanings according to the reshaping of history. This is the fascinating element that is the starting point of my story. It involves the creation of 16 new works by composers around the world, inspired by the narrative surrounding the colonial piano. My sincere thanks to Jon Rose and Ross Bolleter for sharing their vast knowledge on this subject.


The piano took on a cult-like status in colonial Australia. Settlers revered it as a genteel symbol of their heritage, because it represented the best aspects of their forsaken culture. While other physical necessities such as furniture and housing could be improvised, the piano’s complex structure made replication impossible under harsh Australian conditions. Pianos were transported by camel, bullock and horse to all known areas of the Australian terrain. It was been estimated that around 700,000 pianos were imported to Australia by 1888, an extraordinary statistic even by prevailing European and Anglo-Irish standards.

Pianos from colonial Australia still exist in varying states of decay: Individually in remote parts of Australia; as collections in un-airconditioned warehouses in Nowra (NSW) and Sorrel (Victoria); in Ruined Piano Sanctuaries in rural Western Australia; and in museums. They are a remarkable and fundamental part of Australian history that is fading away, largely undocumented, with the weathered demise of each ruin.

The history of those pianos that exist today remain sketchy, to say the least. Take the case of the Bechstein piano recently acquired by the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. It was a showpiece created specifically for the Sydney International Exhibition in 1879, where it won first prize. After the Exhibition closed in 1880, the piano’s whereabouts disappeared. It is reputed to have been owned by Geoffrey Tozer. The exact model was also owned by Liszt, and presides in his house in Weimar.

The existence of serial numbers and brand make it relatively easy to trace the origins of the maker. In the case of some (such as the piano residing in the Governor’s House in Pt Arthur Penitentiary Museum and the piano that once belonged to Robert Louis Stevenson), it’s relatively easy to trace their history for given periods of time.

Myths have coalesced around these pianos’ existence. The first piano to arrive in Alice Springs still exists in the Telegraph Station, and was reputed to have arrived on camel back. Apparently aboriginals abhorred the piano, perceiving it as a symbol of white man’s ‘bad fella stuff’. This is hardly surprising, given it was deified as a symbol of white cultural supremacy in colonial Australia (and its associated cruelty through ethnic cleansing). Ironically, Ross Bolleter says that it may have been aboriginals who were among the first people to play the early pianos, citing the example of Fremantle, which was such a treacherous landing point that many of the early pianos were simply dumped at the foreshore, leaving them exposed to the curiosity of the locals.