When the new home of the Unitarian Church of Montreal opened on de Maisonneuve Blvd. in 1996, it also became home to a magnificent seven-and-a-half foot Steinway grand piano. This piano’s story is part of the musical heritage of our city and province.
James Ross, a well-known Montreal businessman, commissioned the instrument as a wedding gift for his wife, Annie. On August 28, 1890, Steinway shipped the piano in the rough - without legs, lyre or music stand - to the Cottier Company’s New York studio for completion of the cabinet work.
Daniel Cottier was trained as a stained glass artist in Glasgow and later studied under John Ruskin and Ford Maddox Brown and was renowned in his time. It took seven years for Cottier and his artisians to complete the magnificent case that was hailed as a work of art. It is ornamented using 16 different exotic woods inlaid into Circassian curly walnut.
Featured in the most intricate patterns are names of many composers, in addition to beribboned fruit, musical instruments, and the words, “Call in Sweet Music. I Have Heard Soft Airs Can Charm Our Senses and Expel Our Cares.”
The piano was the focus of the Ross family’s popular Sunday evening social gatherings with guest pianists from 1897 until James’s death in 1913. In 1935, the piano was sold to Alfred Laliberté. Laliberté (1882-1952) was a disciple and friend of the Russian composer, Alexander Scriabin. Laliberté was a composer, musical arranger and concert pianist, as well as being one of Canada’s foremost music teachers at what was to become l’École de Musique Vincent d’Indy.
He installed the piano in his music studio in the King’s Hall Building (now known as Les Cours du Roi) at 1231 St. Catherine St. W. Radio-Canada was also located in the same building and such prominent musicians as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Egon Petri, Rudolf Serkin and Witold Malcuzynski played the Steinway.
Upon his retirement in 1947, the piano was moved to Laliberté’s Westmount home.
On May 17, 1951, Laliberté and his pupil, Madeleine Lefort, were married in the Unitarian Church of Montreal by the Rev. Angus Cameron.
In 1995, years after the death of her husband and when she closed her Westmount home, Lefort sold the piano to the Unitarian Church with the expectation it would be used and appreciated rather than placed in a museum. The church had the instrument restrung, hammers replaced and the cabinet cleaned and polished.
The Unitarian Church of Montreal is proud to provide a home for this world-class instrument. Its richness of tone, clarity of projection and ease of response strike each musician who plays it. The acoustics and intimate concert ambiance of the sanctuary further enhance the experience for both musician and listener.
And, of course, it is still a feast for the eyes. Come and see and hear for yourself!