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180-year-old piano likely heard by Abraham Lincoln to play again

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln is seen in a seated portrait taken by Anthony Berger in Washington February 9, 1864, in an archive image from the Library of Congress.

REUTERS

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- The music score, displayed on an incongruous iPad, sits above the ivory keyboard of a piano that Abraham Lincoln likely heard.

Jane Hartman Irwin, an accomplished pianist who's performed with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Tennessee Ernie Ford, rises after a run-through of "Ben Bolt," said to be one of Lincoln's favorites while he was a lawyer.

"You've got to be gentle," Irwin said, looking as though she got caught touching something she shouldn't. "You can't use full 'concert arms.'"

Until last month, the 180-year-old instrument that's believed to have been in the Springfield parlor where Lincoln courted and later married Mary Todd hadn't been heard for decades. Persuaded enough of the Lincoln link, the Springfield Art Association raised $17,000 to restore it. It will debut Saturday night at the association's Edwards Place - the city's oldest home that was a haunt of the future 16th president.

"What an amazing opportunity to hear the same music Lincoln enjoyed on the actual instrument," said Erika Holst, the association's collections curator. "It's transcendent." Holst acknowledged there's no "smoking gun" in the piano's provenance, nor is there record of the legendary storyteller waxing about the piano, even if its melodies underscored the wooing of his wife in the sitting room of Ninian Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth.

That home no longer stands. But family history, news articles and other evidence is strong enough to warrant the investment, Holst said. Manufactured by of Philadelphia between 1835 and 1840, the square grand piano remained in the Edwards family for decades. In 1895, Frances Todd Wallace, another sister of Mary Lincoln, said in an interview that Lincoln "liked to hear the piano, and he liked to hear us sing."

It was purchased by the state in the 1920s and later went to the National Park Service, which donated it to the art association in 2011. The workmanship impressed Steve Schmidt, owner of The Piano People in Champaign, who restored it. Schmidt struggled to find the correct density of felt and proper distance that each hammer should be from the strings, but the original parts vital to its music-making viability were intact.

The result, he said, is a "charming little sound." But is it what Lincoln heard? "It probably sounds very similar to the way it did," Schmidt said. "There's no way to know." Hartman Irwin said she'll let the music express the "spirit of nostalgia" when she plays the instrument, which she calls "a very sweet responsibility."

"He probably, countless times, was there, enjoying somebody playing it, probably standing there with his hand on it," Schmidt said. "It's kind of goofy but people like that, it gives them a kind of connection."