Butterfly Pianos and Symmetrical Grands

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A few days ago a nice example of a Wurlitzer Model 235 Butterfly Piano sold at Great Gatsby’s “A Lifetime Collection at Auction” sale. It had an estimated value of US$1,000 – US$1,200. After 29 bids the piano sold for US$6,500, somewhat exceeding expectations! So what is going on here, and what is a butterfly piano?

front of the Wurlitzer Model 235 Butterfly piano
Photo: Great Gatsby’s Auction Gallery

Symmetrical Grand Pianos

Most, but not all, butterfly pianos are symmetrical grands. They get their name from the two-part “winged” lid which gives the piano a butterfly-like appearance. They are attractive to look at but the symmetrical grand is to some extent a compromised instrument.

To get the best sound from a piano the strings need to be as long as possible with, of course, the bass strings being the longest. That is why a standard grand piano has its customary shape—a straight bass-side, and a curved S-shaped treble-side.

The casework of the symmetrical grand restricts the length of the bass strings, and this can lead to inharmonicity (unwanted overtones) when thicker strings are used to compensate for length.

A common solution is to simply reduce the span of the keyboard, and that is why most symmetrical grands have 73, not 88 notes. The longer bass strings aren’t therefore needed, and the instrument can be made more compact. Even so, the bass strings will still not deliver the timbral quality of a traditional grand piano. Read more about string length and inharmonicity here.

plan view of front of the Wurlitzer Model 235 Butterfly piano
Wurlitzer Model 235 Butterfly piano with the bass “wing” removed. Photo: Great Gatsby’s Auction Gallery.

And so, with this basic symmetrical design, the lid can be hinged down the middle and the butterfly effect created. With the two “wings” raised, the bass notes tend to emanate to the left and the treble notes to the right. This spreads the sound somewhat. Originally symmetrical grands had lids hinged parallel to the keyboard but these are rather less pleasing in appearance, and the sound is reflected away from the player.

Symmetrical grand pianos first appeared around the 1880s, with manufacturers such as Hugo Sohmer at the design forefront. However, it was the Art Deco movement of the 1920s and 30s that fuelled demand for these instruments. Manufacturers such as Strohmenger, with their half-moon shaped baby grands, were delivering contemporary instruments that perfectly complemented this design ethos.

image showing the front view of the Morley Orchestral Upright Grand Piano,and a smaller three-quarter view of the Morley Perpendicular Grand Piano.
Orchestral Upright Grand Piano, c1950 (L) and Perpendicular Grand Piano c1934 (R). Both made by Morley, London.

Other variants include the Perpendicular Grand and the Orchestral Upright Grand. Both these have a vertically-mounted symmetrical frame, but the former has the apex sitting on the floor, whilst the latter has the frame rotated and sat just above the keyboard. The upright grand was designed for use in a small orchestra where floor space is strictly limited.

The Wurlitzer Effect

It was, however, the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company that took the symmetrical grand piano and turned it into the Butterfly Grand. The company released several models in different styles including Art Deco, and Louis XV. Most had 73 notes, although the company did produce an “Art Deluxe” model (the Butterfly Grand Style 1411) with 88 notes.

Wurlitzer also built a 44-note entry-level Butterfly Piano for the education market. This was known as the Piccolo. Production of these pianos only ran from 1936 to 1939. After the war Wurlitzer focussed on the electric piano, based on the designs of B.F. Miessner.

black and white image of ten women playing Wurlitzer's new Butterfly Grands
The launch of Wurlitzer’s new piano at the 35th Music Merchants Convention, New York, 1937. Photo: Presto-Times

The aforementioned Model 235 is classified as a symmetrical grand because it has 4 legs, but this model is now widely accepted as a Butterfly Grand.

These instruments were comparatively inexpensive, relatively small and, were promoted as being a massive status symbol. Sales were helped by Wurlitzer’s flair for creative marketing. Stores would throw cut-paper butterfly shapes from top-floor windows. These would float down drawing attention to the company’s unique new models.

Other Manufacturers

More recently Edelweiss Pianos has championed the butterfly piano with their C50 Sygnet and Elmer instruments. Their designs, however, are far less art-deco and far more 21st-century contemporary.

Three-quarter view of Edelweiss Pianos' "Elmer"
Edelweiss’ Elmer – more of an elephant than a butterfly (the lid representing the ears and the yellow leg the trunk)

The French company Rameau produced “Aurore” (1993) — an upright piano based on a design by Christian Adam. This has a split top-board with hinges again running perpendicular to the keyboard rather than parallel, thus producing a butterfly effect – but although symmetrical this isn’t a true example of the genre.

front view of a bright red Rameau "Aurore"
The Aurore by Rameau

Pearl River also offered the GP198, a 6ft 6in butterfly grand piano with four legs and large perspex / plexiglass wings.

And back in 2017, Fazioli unveiled their beautiful one-off Butterfly Piano, which didn’t have “wings”, but a flowing, almost organic, casing.

Software house Spectrasonics includes a version of the Wurlitzer Student Butterfly Pianos as part of its Keyscape – Collector Keyboards multi-sampled virtual instrument package.

image showing the Student Butterfly Piano screen - part of its "Keyscape - Collector Keyboards" virtual instrument
Screenshot from Spectrasonics’ Keyscape – Collector Keyboards virtual instrument

But back to the Wurlitzer Model 235 Butterfly Piano. Why are these instruments fetching good money at auction? The answer lies in their styling, in their size, and in their scarcity. The Art Deco heritage, and the more recent mid-century modern designs are very much in fashion at the moment. Both styles sit well within the modern home. And these are compact instruments that don’t dominate a room.

If you are looking for a small acoustic grand piano that makes a unique statement — visually rather than acoustically — then these instruments perfectly fit the bill. They are to the grand what the better Eavestaff, Brasted and Mason & Hamlin minipianos are to the upright.

Please do add your thoughts about, and experience of, Butterfly Pianos in the Comments section below.

Wurlitzer ‘Butterfly’ Model 235 Symmetrical Grand Piano
Year of Manufacture: c1937
Keyboard: 73-note, FF to F4
Casework: Mahogany, with winged top, lyre form foot pedal, and four tapering fluted legs with brass casters
Dimensions: 35.5in (H) x 47in (W) x 45in (D)
Estimated Auction Selling Price: US$1000-US$1200
Price Realised: US$6500, 27-Jun-2020
Auctioneers: Great Gatsby’s Auction Gallery, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.


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