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Colonial settlers of Canterbury treasured their precious pianos which were not merely for entertainment but were also a prestige status symbol … as well as being useful for educating young ladies in the art of music so as to show off their accomplishments and attract only the most suitable of husbands. In what was called the ‘Golden Age of Pianos’ these instruments were a sought after treasure across the Australasian colonies of the Victorian British Empire. And one brand in particular figured prominently in the 19th century: the Emil Ascherberg as pictured here in the Museum’s collection. Allegedly made by their namesake in Dresden, Germany between c. 1877 and 1883, many were imported to the Australasian markets by the ‘Music Publishers’ and ‘Importers of Fortepianos, Cabinet Organs and Harmoniums,’ J. Nicholson and E. Ascherberg Inc.
Eugene Ascherberg, a composer for voice and piano, also from Dresden, may or may not have been Emil’s relative – or he may have even been Emil himself! – but nonetheless he arrived in Melbourne in 1867 from London. He was an initiate of the Freemason Lodge of Australia Felix by 1872, and in 1875 launched Australasia’s first retail music store, on Sydney’s George Street, with James Nicholson formerly of Bradford UK. The piano importing partnership lasted until 1879 when the business dissolved and Eugene returned to London where he started a music publishing business, E. Ascherberg & Co in 1880.
Very little is known about Emil Ascherberg, except that he owned the Dresden factory that made pianos under his own brand name from 1877, although the company was not incorporated until 1880, the year after Eugene arrived back from the colonies. Then in 1883 Emil ran into financial difficulties and the piano factory was bankrupted … at the same time as Eugene’s E. Ascherberg & Co., importers of French and German pianofortes in London, also apparently went bankrupt. ‘Emil’ absconded and was allegedly “trading pots in Copenhagen since January 1884” before apparently setting up another business … as a music publisher in London! Not much more is known of this E. Ascherberg as the factory and many records were destroyed in the fire bombing of Dresden in WW2. Eugene, however, continued to run various music related businesses while residing peacefully in London with his wife and children up until his death in 1908.
Aside from these historical ambiguities, it seems likely that we can place the year of manufacture of our Museum’s Emil Ascherberg piano, with its signature ornate clawed feet, as sometime between 1875 – when the Australasian import business began – and 1883 – when Emil’s piano factory went bankrupt and was sold, after which the pianos were manufactured under the name of Ascherberg Perzina. We look forward to displaying this fine example of Victorian piano making and colonial commerce, once the future Te Ūaka Lyttelton Museum is built to house the collection!