When pianos went to war
Posted by Sarah Czarnecki on
Battlefield music has played a vital role in military history for as long as there has been both music and war. A vital morale boost for the troops, a signal to get things moving, or just a brief diversion from the horrors of war, we owe much success to the immense power of music.
During WWII, the troops desperately needed this power. With the timely popularity of piano music, the US military was faced with a conundrum.
How can we bring a piano into battle?
Due to the rationing of metals and other raw materials during WWII, Steinway & Sons found themselves in a pickle. Pianos have hundreds of crucial metal components, so piano makers had to get creative to stay in business. As morbid as it sounds, Steinway became a temporary coffin manufacturer.
Mercifully, the US military reached out to the piano manufacturer and granted a contract to create custom instruments to give musical hope to the troops.
These pianos, called Victory Verticals, were less than 40" square, weighed about 450 pounds (that's pretty lightweight for a piano) and were "tropicalized" to resist bugs and high humidity no matter where they travelled. They had no front legs (too fragile) and ivory keytops were replaced with celluloid. Most importantly, the number of metal components was cut by 90%, using only 33lbs of material.
Naturally, they were painted drab olive green. Blue and gray were sent to the Navy and even built into submarines. Steinway made around 5,000 of these pianos, over half of which saw battle. The rest were sent to essential organizations like houses of worship and educational institutions.
The specialty uprights were packed tightly in crates and air dropped from B-17 bombers right where they needed them. Each piano was packed with tuning and repair tools, an instructional manual, and a packet of sheet music. The music was primarily patriotic or religious in nature, but Steinway remembered to include a few poppy numbers just to keep things light.
Contemporaries agree that GI Steinways didn't sound all that great. They did their jobs, but because of materials rationing and the ultra-compact design, they sounded nothing like the full-bodied concert grand we associate with modern Steinways.
Victory Verticals were played in the hospitals to soothe patients, performed at concerts and singalongs, and sometimes brought out right in the middle of a field to keep things lively. In this time of extreme need, music gave the troops a much-needed morale boost and a reminder of what they were fighting for.
One soldier wrote in 1943, "Two nights past we received welcome entertainment when a jeep pulling a small wagon came to camp. The wagon contained a light system and a Steinway pianna. Mom, you would laugh if you were to have seen it, because the Steinway is not at all like Uncle Jake’s. It is smaller and painted olive green, just like the jeep. We all got a kick out of it and sure had fun after meals when we gathered around the pianna to sing... I slept smiling and even today am humming a few of the songs we sang."