Iceland is a nation rich in both history and culture but it’s unlikely to rank very highly among nations you’d expect to find ordering Steinway pianos in the 1940s. Yet it’s curiously well-represented in two account books from the Historical Society’s collections kept by longtime Steinway employee Ralph Tapp.
In one example, Asta Helgadotter [sic] of the Icelandic consulate on Madison Avenue ordered a reconditioned ebony model B grand piano in May 1944. The purchase was a substantial one, $1,700 paid in full before its shipment to Reykjavik aboard an Iceland Steamship Company (Eimskipafélag Íslands) vessel. Its destination was Helgadotter’s brother, Hallgrímur Helgason, a celebrated Icelandic composer.
Taken broadly, the Helgason order provides a reminder of how rich account books can be in revealing intriguing histories, despite their apparent utilitarian purpose. While that order provides an interesting link to Iceland’s musical history, another shortly thereafter is slightly more unsettling. On August 10th, the Iceland Steamship Company itself ordered a grand piano for its ship Goðafoss (named after one of Iceland’s famed waterfalls). Tapp noted that the ship was docked at Pier 37 on the East River and an extra $20 charge for “fastening [the piano] to deck in Dining Saloon.” Hauling both cargo and passengers, the company clearly intended to maintain the piano as a ship amenity.
The entry also indicates that the Goðafoss was to return to Reykjavik in a convoy on August 14th, under its captain, Sigurdur Gislason. Sailing in a convoy is a reflection of the very real dangers ships faced during World War II. These larger groups, composed of as many as two hundred ships, were intended to mitigate the threat of U-boat attacks against cargo and passenger ships. In fact, the Goðafoss had sailed in a 1941 convoy that saw a tanker damaged and the sinking of the Rueben James, an American destroyer. The New York Times testified to the harrowing experience at the time, reporting that passengers “did most of their sleeping in the daytime with their lifebelts on.”
The initial voyage back to Iceland actually unfolded without incident but the Goðafoss’s subsequent return from New York met with tragedy. As ships from its storm-scattered convoy UR142 neared Iceland on November 10th, the German submarine U300 torpedoed the British tanker ship Shirvan. The story follows that the Goðafoss stopped to rescue sailors from the wreckage of the Shirvan in spite of orders to the contrary. Its humanitarian intentions (and Icelandic neutrality) notwithstanding, U300 then torpedoed the Goðafoss. Among those lost were the Icelandic wife and child of Maj. William G. Downey, an American officer and native of New York. The casualties numbered 24, including an infant and children as young as two. The New York Times ran a short article the following week, on November 18, 1944. Learning of its fate, Tapp dutifully penciled “Sunk by enemy action” below his original entry, a simple but poignant statement about the fate not just of the piano but of twenty-four lives lost.
Some might say the U300’s fate was just; in late February of the following year, British ships sank the U-boat near Portugal. Nine of its 50-man crew perished, including its twenty-five-year-old commander, Fritz Hein. As for the Goðafoss, it remains on the bottom of the ocean floor though far from forgotten as the search to locate the wreck continues.