Student researchers Liza Zabelina and Mike Cheng-Yu Lee (former visiting scholar/artist-in-residence) regulate a piano modeled after Johann Schantz (ca. 1800) in 2021 as part of a project

Campus Center Holds the ‘Keys’ to Musical History

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From fortepianos to pipe organs, the Hill boasts one of the world’s leading collections of performance-ready vintage instruments

By Joe Wilensky

What do Sage Chapel’s massive pipe organ, a fortepiano from 1799, and a 1960s-era synthesizer have in common? In addition to their ability to produce music, they share the same interface: a keyboard.

These, and more than two dozen other keyboard-based instruments, form a selective-but-notable collection: the Cornell Center for Historical Keyboards, one of the world’s most significant resources of performance-ready historical pianos, harpsichords, clavichords, and organs.

In the spotlight: A 2022 Chopin masterclass performance
A summer 2022 performance on fortepiano.

The center’s collection includes both original instruments and historically accurate replicas that run the gamut of keyboard history. Among its core holdings are fortepianos that emeritus professor Malcolm Bilson, a giant in the field of the period instruments, gifted to the University from his own collection.

It also houses some much more contemporary items: it recently acquired four synthesizers, including two original instruments designed by Robert Moog, PhD ’65, a pioneer in electronic music.

Founded in 2019, the center has a physical home on the ground floor of 726 University Avenue.

The building, brick Colonial on the edge of West Campus, is a former fraternity house that now hosts several offices of the College of Arts & Sciences.

One of the original historic MiniMoog synthesizers that is part of the keyboard collection
An original Minimoog variant of the Moog synthesizer.

It draws students and faculty from diverse fields—from composers to engineers to physicists—to study instruments’ sonic properties, craftsmanship, materials, and more.

Some of the center’s holdings reside elsewhere, including the German Baroque organ in Anabel Taylor Chapel, instruments in Lincoln and Barnes halls, and its largest item of all: Sage Chapel’s Aeolian-Skinner organ, which boasts more than 4,000 pipes.

Detail view of the stops, keyboards, and pedals of the organ at Anabel Taylor Chapel
The Anabel Taylor organ.

Also in the chapel: the center’s oldest instrument, a Neapolitan organ that dates to 1746, its maker’s name still visible on an engraved panel inside.

On an early summer day, Annette Richards—professor of music, the University’s organist, and the center’s founding director—puts the nearly 300-year-old instrument through its paces for Cornellians, playing a toccata by a 17th-century Roman composer.

She pauses to show off the organ’s leather bellows and 45 boxwood keys, whose uneven grooves display generations of use.

“Instruments like this, every part was made by hand,” she notes. “Everything is the result of craft. It has this incredible character and charm; it can essentially transport you back to late-17th-, early-18th-century Italy. It’s really remarkable.”

(The organ even sports a bonus feature, likely added many years later: a set of tiny pipes, called a “bird stop,” that can imitate a warbling chorus of nightingales.)

The center grew out of the music department’s long experience in historical organ and piano performance, as well as its connection to the nonprofit Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies, of which Richards was the executive director from 2007–17.

Now serving as Westfield’s physical home and expanding its programming and outreach, the center offers music salons, research opportunities, scholarly residencies, and more.

One of the center’s historical keyboards in use during a salon in 2022 at the A.D. White House featuring baritone Jean Bernard Cerin and fortepianist Nicholas Mathew
A salon at the A.D. White House in 2022.

It also presents public concerts and festivals, often in partnership with other universities and historic orchestral groups.

In May 2023, for example, it hosted a weekend of masterclasses in Barnes Hall (in collaboration with the Warsaw-based Chopin Institute) with guest artists and scholars, showcasing the beauty of Chopin’s music on pianos from his time.

In addition to the breadth and depth of the center’s collection, one of its most notable aspects is that its instruments are generally available for use.

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Kept performance- and concert-ready, they offer aficionados the rare ability to play and hear pieces on the instruments for which they were composed.

For classical musicians, that can be a transformative experience.

Annette Richards at the Baroque organ in Anabel Taylor Chapel
Richards plays in Anabel Taylor Chapel.

As Bilson explains: before the piano industry became standardized in the mid-1800s, manufacturers experimented with different casings, strings, and octave ranges, and even varied the number of keys.

Compared to modern instruments, he says, that diversity of materials created a much wider variety of sounds, tones, and playing styles.

Bilson himself became known in the 1970s as a performer of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert on late-18th- and early-19th-century pianos.

Malcolm Bilson at the (historical) keyboard at a 2022 salon in Barnes Hall
Bilson teaches a masterclass in Barnes Hall in 2022.

He was an integral part of the burgeoning historical orchestra movement during that decade, when the entire oeuvres of classical composers were re-recorded by major labels, using period instruments and guided by musicologists.

Even decades later, Bilson still vividly recalls the first historical piano he ever played—the same type of 18th-century fortepiano that Mozart himself used.

“I was rehearsing for a concert, and I started to see that I was actually going to be able to play what Mozart wrote, which nobody can on a Steinway,” he says.

Tickling the ... boxwood? The wooden keyboard of the 1746 Neapolitan organ
Anabel Taylor’s 1746 Neapolitan organ is the collection’s oldest item. (Joe Wilensky / Cornell University)

“What you hear on a piano like this is a very sharp attack, and an immediate decay. Modern pianos play everything smoothly. And if they’re good, it’s beautiful—but it’s not what Mozart wrote.”

Bilson’s colleague Roger Moseley, an associate professor of music, echoes that sentiment.

Many early pianos, he says, “have this wonderful precision and clarity when it comes to articulating musical textures.”

He sits down at a Viennese instrument from the early 1800s to demonstrate.

“The bass on a modern piano often overpowers the treble,” he says. “On this instrument, it doesn’t.”

Perhaps surprisingly, many of the center’s instruments can be (carefully) transported across campus for performances.

Roger Moseley demonstrates one of the historical pianos at the center's University Avenue home
Moseley tickles the (antique) ivories at the center’s University Avenue home. (Joe Wilensky / Cornell University)

Occasionally, they even go farther afield: postdoc Ryan McCullough, DMA 2020, has used its restored 1857 Streicher piano to perform a rarely heard Brahms song cycle in Cambridge, MA.

“The wealth of the keyboard collection is the incredible variety of timbres and personalities,” McCullough marvels. “Designs even just 20 years apart seem like they were built for completely different kinds of music, with entirely unique sensibilities.”

Top: A student researcher and visiting scholar tune a replica of a circa-1800 piano in 2021 (Jason Koski / Cornell University). Photos provided by the Cornell Center for Historical Keyboards, unless otherwise indicated.

Published August 1, 2023


  1. George Weiner, Class of 1964

    726 University Avenue, formerly Alpha Chi Rho. My fraternity had some joint parties with them. Very different music then.

    • Charles R Shedlak

      Great article. I had no idea that this great resource existed.

  2. James Strub, Class of 1952

    When I was a student (Architecture 1952) there was still an early-20th century 4-manual “theater organ” (but not a Wurlitzer) in Bailey Hall. The pipes, etc, occupied the entire back portion of the stage; some of them (the 32-foot and 64-foot pedal divisions were partly in the basement). The console was movable. I often played it, sometimes at intermission time during Glee Club performances, sometimes just to play the Alma Mater for a gathering. I have a photo of this I could send you, but don’t see a way to do it here.

    • Jordan Strub, Class of 1981

      Wish I could have heard you play it, Dad!

  3. Rachel Taylor Baroni, Class of 1964

    Very interesting! Great to know the history of these musical instruments. Thank you.

  4. Jacqueline Male Greenwalt, Class of 1970

    In high school I had taken organ lessons and played a few times at my church. When I got to Cornell in 1966, I found out (somehow) that they had an old organ that students could use for practice. I think it might have been on the 2nd floor of Barnes Hall?? I had a key that got me into a rather dark space that housed the organ.

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