BETTENDORF — Sunday’s worship at Asbury United Methodist Church was historic, in more ways than one. A recently restored, rare 1904 double-grand piano is at the front of the sanctuary.
“It’s completely overwhelming and exciting,” Moline piano teacher Laura Crumbleholme said Monday at the 8-foot-long instrument, played for the first time in public Sunday after a eight-month restoration. “It almost seems surreal. It’s been a really long, twisted road. Now the fact that it’s done is thrilling. I can’t wait for people to play it.”
“There were days we thought this was never going to happen,” said Marilyn Mitchem of Bettendorf, a retired piano teacher and church member, who has researched the Pleyel history and oversaw its $25,000 resurrection by Premier Piano Service of Walker, Iowa.
The company’s owner is head tuner for the St. Louis Symphony, and for the Pleyel replaced the entire black veneer, tuning pins, strings, hammers and cast-iron plate. A new four-wheeled dolly also was added underneath, to ease its transport.
On Sunday, church attendees were thrilled with its debut, Mitchem said. “People were just astonished. The congregation has been very supportive.”
The piano’s Paris manufacturer, Pleyel et Cie, was founded by pianist/composer Ignace Pleyel in 1807. His company made 50 double grand pianos from the 1890s to 1920s, with a full keyboard at each end and two separate sets of strings on a common sound board.
Concertos written for two keyboards include works by Bach, Mozart, Britten and Poulenc.
“There’s a certain tone to each piano, so if you have a bright piano and a more mellow piano, this will have the same tone,” Crumbleholme said, comparing it to one huge piano, with 176 keys.
“A lot of people didn’t get to hear orchestras, so a composer would make a two-piano reduction of their symphonies,” Mitchem said. “Pleyel invented this because there were a lot of wealthy French people that wanted to have two grands in their homes, but they didn’t have the room. Here you have two grands. It’s a precious and irreplaceable instrument.”
There are just seven such Pleyel pianos remaining worldwide, and this is the only one in playable condition in the Western Hemisphere, she said.
Its original owner, Marguerite de Saint-Marceaux, was “the grand dame of the Parisian salon movement,” Mitchem said. “She was one of the most famous women in Paris at the time. Her husband was a world-famous sculptor.”
Among her famous salon guests and friends were composers Claude Debussy, Gabriel Faure, Frederick Delius, Giacomo Puccini, Francis Poulenc and Maurice Ravel. Ravel premiered one of his works at her home Jan. 6, 1905.
She died in 1930 and bequeathed the piano to Bert Ibms, whose parents were close friends of hers.
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Thea Leclair and her husband Joe rented an apartment in Paris from Ibms. Joe was an Army lieutenant colonel, who landed at Normandy during World War II and worked in Paris two years after the war. Thea was originally from rural Cambridge, Ill.
They bought the piano from Ibms, and shipped it to Washington, D.C. Joe worked for the Army Corps of Engineers at Rock Island Arsenal from 1953 to 1955, before retiring and moving to Bettendorf.
In Paris, the Leclairs hosted then-Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and his wife, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. “He was high up in the military,” Mitchem said of Joe Leclair. “She loved to have people come and play her piano.”
Joe died in 1992, Mitchem said.
“They toured the world, and she said, ‘It was quite a life for a little country girl like me’,” Mitchem, who knew her for 20 years, said. “She was very well to do, but she didn’t flash it around,” she said. “She donated all the money for our pipe organ. And she donated the money for our Yamaha conservatory grand. She was a gracious entertainer and host.”
Thea was a member of Asbury United Methodist for more than 50 years, and she sang in a recital there when she was 90, Mitchem said. Thea died Nov. 1, 2006, at age 95, leaving the piano to Butterworth Center in Moline, with instructions it should be regularly played. But at the time, it had fallen into disrepair and was unplayable, Mitchem said.
Crumbleholme organized three fundraising concerts in 2011-12 at the church to benefit the restoration project. Those recitals raised most of the $22,000 that’s been collected to date, and about $3,000 is needed to pay off the work.
Lacking proper space for it, Butterworth Center gave the piano to River Music Experience in 2007, and piano tuner John Duda of Bettendorf was interested in restoring it.
He bought it in 2015 for $50 and began taking it apart. He learned who its original owner was, greatly increasing its value as a historic instrument. Before that, a museum official in New York City had estimated the piano’s value at $30,000.
After a long bout with cancer in multiple organs, Duda died Oct. 19, 2017, at age 65. Mitchem said of his work on the instrument: “This kept him alive. He said, ‘I’m gonna beat this cancer and fix this piano.’” His estate sold the Pleyel to the Federated Music Teachers Association for $51 so that restoration could continue.
The completed piano was delivered Oct. 26 to Asbury, which has seating for about 400. “It’s going to get played every Sunday. It’s a great place to have recitals,” Mitchem said.
They plan future programs with the piano, noting pianists of varied ages and abilities will be able to perform on it, as Thea LeClair wished.
Anyone interested in donating can contact Mitchem at 3302 Wakonda Drive, Bettendorf, IA 52722, or 563-359-1447.