Everyone suspected the truth about the elegant old piano. At 7 feet 8 inches, the imposing Chickering semi-concert grand was taking up space in a practice room in Sage Hall. With a damaged pin block and soundboard, it seemed unlikely the old girl would ever see a stage again. Still, the story went, the piano had once belonged to Sophia Smith. Finally, it was decided, the piano was unplayable and in the way.
That was how an 1867 Chickering—once one of the most celebrated instruments in America—came to rest about eight years ago in a third-floor warehouse used by a two-man piano restoration company in nearby Holyoke, Mass. In fact, it was the second time that Hampshire Piano had taken custody of the instrument. “The first time was back in 1981, when a guy called me from out of the blue saying he needed to move a piano out of his house in Easthampton and could I store it for him? That was the last I heard from him,” said Richard Blais, co-owner of Hampshire Piano. All Blais knew was that “the guy” had taught piano at Smith. When Blais examined the Chickering, he found, on the underside of the keyboard, an inch-long piece of fabric tape that read “Sophia Smith.” “If that hadn’t been there we would never have made the connection,” Blais said.
A few years later, Blais sold the piano for $400 to Kenneth Fearn of the Smith music department and moved it to Sage Hall. Monica Jakuc Leverett, Elsie Irwin Sweeney Professor Emeritus of Music, recalls admiring the instrument and advocating for having it repaired. “Restored Chickerings of that era are wonderful instruments,” she said. “It would be great to bring that piano back to its former glory, but very costly, because it has a warped pin block, among other serious problems.” So, after being moved around to various locations in Sage Hall, the coffin-backed Chickering—so called because of its squared-off shape—was returned to Hampshire Piano.
Many assumed the rosewood piano—with the serial number 35235—did indeed belong to Sophia Smith, but there was no proof. That changed earlier this year. A Chickering piano enthusiast had traveled to the Smithsonian and photocopied a Chickering logbook, in which every piano made by the now-defunct Boston company was recorded. And there it was in the handwritten ledger: “Feb. 6. 35235.… Miss Sophia Smith, Hatfield, Mass.”
“The only reason her name is there is because she picked it up herself,” said Craig Hair of Hampshire Piano. “For us, it was the answer to a 30-year mystery.”
The old piano shares warehouse space with other formerly distinguished instruments—like an 1871 Blüthner and another Chickering that had be-longed to a music critic for the New York Post. Still, even with its pedigree confirmed, Sophia’s once-grand piano remains—at least for now—silent and unplayable. “It should be restored and returned to the college, I think,” Blais said.
A large piano with a distinguished pedigree leaves a paper trail. When the owners of Hampshire Piano showed up at the College Archives with questions about the 1867 Chickering piano that kept coming back to them, archivist Nanci Young pointed them to a folder of correspondence, summarized below:
February 6, 1867—Sophia Smith, age 71 and deaf, travels to Chickering & Sons of Boston to select and sign for a piano. She didn’t play piano, but purchased it for her cousin, Miss Lyman, to play when she visited, according to Helen Greene, daughter of Sophia Smith’s adviser John M. Greene. In a 1920 letter Helen Greene wrote: “This piano, which was, I think, considered ‘super fine’ in its day, was … chiefly designed, so my father has said, for the pleasure of Miss Lyman and as an inducement to prolong her visits which Miss Smith so much enjoyed.”
March 1, 1920—The piano, no longer in Hatfield, is now owned by H. H. Graves (a cousin of Sophia Smith’s) of Springfield, who offers to sell it to the Alumnae Association of Smith College. The price is set at $171.67.
January 28, 1941—Florence Snow, general secretary of the Alumnae Association, requests that the Sophia Smith piano be moved from the music department, “where it is not often seen,” to the Sophia Smith room in the Alumnae House.
February 13, 1941—A final piece of correspondence is from Chickering & Sons in response to a request for a history of the piano. Records specific to piano 35235 did not exist, but according to the company, a similar instrument was shipped in 1867 to the Paris Exposition, where it received a gold medal, and Charles Chickering was awarded the Imperial Cross of the Legion of Honor by Emperor Napoleon III. Shortly thereafter composer and pianist Franz Liszt tried it out, reportedly exclaiming, “It is imperial. I never thought a piano could possess such qualities.”