For Thomas Strange, the Carolina Music Museum is the natural next step in a musical journey stretching back 25 years. That was when Strange, the museum’s curator, artistic director, and co-founder, began collecting eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pianos.
Opened in March 2018, the museum occupies the 1930 Coca-Cola Bottling Company building, recently vacated by the Sargent Wilson Museum & Gallery. Carolina Music Museum comprises two floors of exhibits, the core of which is Strange’s collection of 31 pianos and harpsichords. Larger pieces—harpsichords and grands—fill the first level, while the second floor is devoted to smaller square “people’s pianos,” intended for home use. The upper level will also house rotating exhibits of different types of musical instruments.
The first notes of Tom Strange’s life-long passion for music sounded at the University of South Carolina, when he became transfixed by the music of a clavichord one of his physics professors had built. Now head of R&D for Abbott pharmaceutical company by day, Strange, in his free time through the years, has restored all the instruments in his collection, a feat he partially attributes to his PhD in physics. “People involved in early keyboard restoration tend to have science backgrounds because of the precision, mathematical correlation, and engineering entailed in making these instruments,” he explains.
Visitors to the museum can hear recordings of the instruments and are even welcome to tickle the ivories on a Flemish harpsichord Strange built in 1980. A year-round schedule of concerts will allow a maximum of 80 guests to gather around the pianos for an intimate experience of music.
“It’s a museum full of little treasures, and each one has a story to tell,” the curator notes. Though stunning as décor in a room, the instruments here make equally arresting sounds—which is why Strange fondly refers to them as “furniture that sings.”
Carolina Music Museum, 516 Buncombe St, Greenville. (864) 520-8807, carolinamusicmuseum.org; $6 admission. Upcoming concerts will include the Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival on Monday evenings in July, and Gail Schroeder and her five-musician ensemble, Asheville Baroque, on Sunday, July 15. Check the website for a complete calendar of events.
Every piece displayed at the museum is noteworthy, but here are a few highlights:
1748 Kirkman Spinet – Made in London, this small harpsichord is the earliest-known and among the best-preserved of the spinets built by prolific craftsman Jacob Kirkman.
1758 Kirkman Double-Manual Harpsichord – With its two keyboards and intricate satinwood marquetry, shaded by scorching the tiny pieces of wood in hot salt, this gorgeous instrument took a year to craft.
1794 Charles Taws Square Piano – Made in Philadelphia, this piano is steeped in American history. It was played for Benjamin Rush and Thomas Jefferson, who were close friends of its owner, astronomer David Rittenhouse.
1834 Unichord Piano – As it plays only one string per note, the unichord built by Robert Nunns, Clark & Co. doesn’t require tuning as often as a normal piano. This one, made in New York, was shipped to South Carolina, where it survived the Civil War owing to the fact that its owner, Eliza Lyles, played it for Union soldiers in her home.
1845 Broadwood Grand – On a visit to London in 1848, Chopin played this piano, made by John Broadwood & Sons, for the family who owned it. He charged them £20 for the honor, a pretty penny at the time.