Irving Berlin’s Piano
1940, American History Museum
A custom instrument held the keys to creating the ultimate American songbook
Berlin, who immigrated to New York City from Russia at age 5 in 1893, grew up in extreme poverty after his father died. He had little access to education, including piano lessons. Self-taught, he picked out tunes on black keys only—limiting himself to the key of F sharp. He produced a dizzying string of hits —God Bless America to White Christmas—on specially constructed pianos with a lever system that transposed notes into any key. “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music,” Jerome Kern said of his fellow composer.