Local music lovers bring 19th-century piano back to life

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How a piano built in Paris in the 1880s wound up in a horse barn in Longmont in 2011 remains a mystery to Dan Fahrlander. But he does knows that the 8-foot-long Erard concert grand now takes up a good portion of his family room in northwest Fort Collins, looking and sounding as good as new.

“We know it didn’t come across the plains in a covered wagon,” Fahrlander said. “Someone with a lot of money had it shipped from France; maybe it was played in a saloon or a fancy restaurant in Denver.”

However it came to Colorado, the piano found a new life in the intersection of equestrians and musicians in northern Larimer County. Norm Brown, a Wellington rancher, knew Fahrlander, retired director of the Larimer County VoTech Center, loves pianos. He also knew a rancher in Longmont hadn’t been able to sell the piano at a going-out-of-business auction, so he asked Fahrlander to take a look.

“I didn’t need another piano,” Fahrlander said. “But the third time he asked me, I said I’d take a look.”

At first glance, his reluctance was justified.

“When they popped the barn door open, I saw the piano was totally black – you couldn’t even see the brand name,” Fahrlander said. “I had no idea what kind of condition it was really in.”

But the price was right: The rancher gave him the piano for hauling it away. That may have been the deal of the century.

Once Fahrlander cleaned it up a bit he saw that what he had was the type of piano favored by 19th-century composers such as Franz Lizst, Maurice Revel and Claude Debussy. He also uncovered the serial number – 61428 – that allowed him to trace the history of the piano built by the legendary Sebastian Erard back a little farther online.

“We found out it was sold at an auction house in Niwot about 10 years ago, but the trail dies there,” Fahrlander said.

He set the instrument up in his garage and in September enlisted LaPorte piano technician and tuner Dick Frederick to help him restore it. Over the next nine months, the pair of octogenarians took the Erard apart then painstakingly put it back together. They were happily surprised that all the parts were there, if not necessarily intact.

“It was in remarkably good shape for having been in storage for so long,” Frederick said.

While some replacement parts were available in Europe – Frederick had the hammers refelted in Germany, for example – others had to be fabricated. So did some of the tools needed to rebuild it.

“This is from a time when everything was built by hand, including tools, and nothing was standard,” Fahrlander said. “And, of course, there was no repair manual to follow.”

Learned a lot
Both Fahrlander and Frederick said they learned a lot in the process. Some of Erard’s innovations are still used in concert grands today, and some are no longer seen. Fahrlander also deduced that a previous owner played a lot of sharps, since the G, D, A and E keys were worn the most.

In the end, they reconstructed a number of damaged parts, including a new soundboard out of Sitka spruce, and replaced the worn ivories with ones from Frederick’s collection. The Erard also has new strings – the bass strings were hand-wound with copper – new tuning pins, new bushings on the keys, and refelting on the keyboard as well as the hammers. The magnificent rosewood case was stripped and refinished with multiple coats of polyurethane resin by Raven Enterprises in Ault.

The result? Fahrlander said he has received an appraisal of $40,000 on the Erard, but he’s more interested in the sound and having people experience it.

Pat Burge, who taught piano composition and improvisation at Colorado State University for 25 years, said she first heard about the Erard from a horse person. She said it very easy to play, with lots of depth and a warm, bell-like tone. The action of the keys is different than those on a modern grand piano, she added, that allows you to play very fast.

“Playing it, I felt like I fell through a time warp,” she said. “This is what it must have been like in the days of Lizst. It sounded wonderful with the lid down, and just as wonderful but different with the lid up.”

Since 2011 was the 200th anniversary of Liszt’s birth, Janet Landreth, chair of the CSU piano department, has played the Erard for her students to experience the authentic 19th-century sound. Burge would like to see the piano travel outside Fahrlander’s family room so more people can hear it.

For now, Fahrlander is inviting interested players to contact him at danfahrhome@hotmail.com. Frederick will make sure it’s in tune.