By Bonnie Neely
When our son, TV and film composer Blake Neely, was in Greenville, SC, during holidays recently, we had the privilege of a private tour of the Sigal Music Museum, guided by the Artistic Director and Chief Curator, Tom Strange. Mr. Strange, who spent years in engineering and worked in making pacemakers, collected historic music instruments and learned, from study through the Internet connections with experts, how to repair and restore these, especially keyboards. His hobby occupied many hours almost daily, and his collection grew tremendously through the years. Space at home was outgrown, and with the encouragement of his wife, Debra, who often also volunteers at the Museum, Tom founded the Carolina Music Museum in Greenville to share his remarkable collection of historic instruments with the public, as well as impart his vast knowledge to visitors. The Museum presented frequent programs demonstrating these instruments, which are in perfect condition due to his restoration skills.
In 2020 when the family of the deceased Marlowe A. Sigal of Newton, Massachusetts, who was a private collector and had been a friend and colleague of Strange, donated the extensive Sigal collection of music instruments to the relatively young Carolina Music Museum. The Sigal collection consisted of nearly 700 instruments spanning centuries, including keyboards, flutes, woodwinds, whistles, strings, percussion, and world historic instruments. Strange knew the museum building, which had been the Coca-Cola Bottling Company built circa 1938 on Heritage Green, could accommodate the entire collection, and he renamed the museum Sigal Music Museum. With the impressive museum’s private tour, Neely recognized the exhibits to be very high among the premiere music museums nationally and internationally.
We saw the oldest piano, which was made in 1720 in London by John Zampi. It was a square piano, and he gave one in 1766 to Queen Charlotte, who loved it and bought one for her ladies-in-waiting, and the square piano market exploded in London. Next we stopped to learn about the very first (1770-1775) Piano Forte, by John Berent. In early days of American settlers pianos were scarce and were made in London, so this was unique. It was the first keyboard instrument made and sold in America. It was created like European harpsicords only with hammers added to strike the strings. The sound was powerful, hence the name piano forte, which translate to soft-loud.
Next Mr. Strange showed us an 1816 early square piano, uniquely made in America by Thomas and John Loud, who showcased it with ornate wood and ebony to impress General Marquis de Lafyette on his visit to America. These two extremely prized, significant, historical instruments were worth our visit to the museum, especially since Mr. Strange played briefly to let us hear the tonal quality of each of these. Next Strange showed us the 1836 Alpheus Babcock piano made in Boston with the first cast iron frame, a unique feature which, when introduced, opened much discussion, both negative and positive, but within a few years became the standard for piano makers. Blake loved the technical terms of the explanations Strange gave about many of the instruments, since both musicians spoke the same language, but sometimes I felt it was Greek since I could not understand! However, at other tours by Strange I watched his skill at delivering the perfect information for each visitor’s understanding. He not only is an incredibly knowledgeable musician and skilled restorer of instruments, but he is also an excellent teacher/presenter. Other tour guides at the museum are also quite well trained and enthusiastically present so many fascinating facts.
Because Blake is the owner of a Steinway, and recently had the honor of playing the Steinway at the Whitehouse in Washington, DC, he was quite interested in learning about the oldest original Steinway piano, patented in 1858, with its ornate and heavy wooden frame. The tour also included a piano which Chopin played. Another one of interest was a piano owned by a young woman on a Southern plantation. When the Union Army plundered everything in its path, they were about to burn her piano. She demurely asked if they could wait until she played it one last time, since it was a gift from her father. She was granted the time and she played beautifully a piece which calmed the spirits of the soldiers, and they left without harming the piano.
Because the piano collection of Sigal Museum is vast and pianos are difficult to move, only about 10% of the entire collection is on display for the public at any one time but are rotated periodically, and so most visits to the museum will have different instruments on display with different historical stories. On the upper floor of the museum, we were happy to see some of the historical instruments of other types: strings, woodwinds, horns and various early recording devices and the evolution of music equipment in modern times.
A visit to Segal Music Museum is a must for any musician in the area, and anyone interested in music or history will find this a fascinating place and a treasure in the world.
Regular concerts and programs are presented, featuring various instruments of the vast collection and presenting historical insights into the music of a featured period. Tickets are available online and are quite reasonable. Sigal Music Museum is open Tuesday – Saturday 10 AM -5 PM and Sundays 1 PM – 5 PM. at 516 Buncombe St. in Greenville, SC, 29601. firstname.lastname@example.org. 864 520 8807. Entrance fees are nominal, and tours are available on prior request.