La Mort du Cygne pianos are highly decorated instruments in the Art Nouveau style. The marquetry of these pianos’ casework depicts a swan in the throes of death. Just a handful (see below) of these instruments were made in the early 1900s and they are considered to be extremely important examples of the genre.
One of these spectacular instruments is to be sold by Christie’s, New York, on June 7th (2022) as part of their “Design” live auction. In 2013 this piano sold for 300,750 euros (just over $320,000). The sale estimate this time is $200,000 – $300,000).
The pianos are attributed to Louis Majorelle and Victor Prouvé.
Majorelle (1859-1926) was a French furniture designer and one of the leading exponents of Art Nouveau. He was also a key figure in the establishment of L’Ecole de Nancy — a group of French artisans dedicated to a particular type of Art Nouveau. A museum dedicated to this artwork (Musée de l’École de Nancy) possesses one of the La Mort du Cygne pianos.
The La Mort du Cygne pianos were built between 1903 and 1905 on a mechanism supplied by the Erard company. Majorelle primarily designed the casework and Prouvé the decoration.
The theme, La Mort du Cygne (The Death of the Swan), is said to be based on Richard Wagner’s 1882 opera Parsifal. This tells the story of Parsifal’s quest for the Holy Grail. In Act I Parsifal, then considered a fool, kills a swan, not knowing it is a sacred creature. On learning this from one of the Arthurian knights, he is filled with remorse and breaks the offending bow and arrow. Consequently, Parsifal later becomes a knight and joins the quest.
Another possible reference comes from Greek mythology, where it is believed that a swan, when about to die, sings a beautiful song to Apollo, the god of the sun, grace and music.
The base of these pianos feature intricately carved leafy branches and the sides are inlaid with lakeside scenes. On the bent-side there is the image of a single swan at the water’s edge. It appears either to be dying or is already dead. The lids are decorated with a simple floral motif.
Details of Auction item
Piano: 1/2 tail, La Mort du Cygne (The death of the Swan), 1903
Signature: V. Prové and dated 1903 at the front right
Serial Number: 88354 inside
Materials: Mahogany, carved and inlaid with fruitwood veneers; ivorine; gilt bronze
Dimensions: Width 3ft 3in (100.5 cm); Length 7ft 2in (213.5 cm); Width 4ft 10in (147.5 cm).
The term “half tail” (Fr. demi-queue) is often used in Europe for pianos around 7ft in length.
This exquisitely crafted instrument will be auctioned by Christie’s New York on June 7th. It has Lot number 262. More information can be found on Christie’s website.
The Other La Mort Du Cygne Pianos
Two other La Mort du Cygne pianos can be found at The Musee de l’Ecole Nancy, France, and the Virginia Fine Art Museum. The whereabouts of a fourth instrument, which isn’t signed, is not known.
Two further versions of this piano by Majorelle exist. Neither feature the swan design. One is carved, but has no marquetry and was sold in New York in 1985. The other has marquetry inspired by the “Song of the Man with the Sand” by Richepin and is at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Photo Credits: All images courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2022