“Today’s Steinway: We still make them like we used to… only better.” So states their official U.S. website. Steinway & Sons has been crafting superior pianos since 1853.
Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg was born February 15, 1797, in Wolfshagen, Germany. He served in the German Army from 1812 to 1822, then left the service and began work as a carpenter. While apprenticed to an organ maker, he discovered his love for music. He began making instruments of his own—first guitars and zithers, then gradually escalating to building pianos. In 1836, in the town of Seesen, Germany, he built his first grand piano in his kitchen, and gave it to his bride, Juliane, as a wedding gift. That same year Steinweg moved out of the kitchen and into a shop, where he built nearly 500 more pianos over the next decade—an average of one piano per week. Juliane bore him nine children, and when the family immigrated to the United States in 1850, two of his sons, C. F. Theodor and Wilhelm, remained in Germany to keep the piano shop in operation.
Soon after arriving in the U. S., the Steinweg family americanized their name to Steinway. At first Henry and his sons worked for other companies in the piano business, then on March 5, 1853, they opened Steinway & Sons.
In 1865, tragedy struck the Steinway family when two of the sons, Charles and Henry Jr., as well as the factory foreman Theodore Vogel, all died. In the same year, Albert enlisted in the Union Army (Civil War). With the loss of so much leadership in so short a time, C. F. Theodor sold his share of the German-based company and moved to New York to help keep his father’s company going. Henry Steinway, Sr., died February 7, 1871, just shy of his 74th birthday.
A few of the earliest pianos Henry made in Germany are still in existence. His first piano, nick-named “The Kitchen Piano,” still exists in its original condition. Depending on the source, you may read that it’s on display at the Musical Instrument Museum of Scottsdale, Arizona, at the Steinway & Sons factory in NY, or at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. I don’t think they’re inaccurate. Rather, I’m inclined to believe that the piano has been moved from time to time, and that it has indeed been at all these locations. Although I’m not sure of the date of publication for the various articles I read, I think perhaps today it is at Steinway & Sons. There is a Steinway piano located at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Built in 1868, this one is called the “Plain Grand Style 2,” although when you look at the photo, you’ll see that there’s nothing plain about this model! This was Steinway’s first piano built with 88 keys, and incidentally, the natural keys are black and the sharps are white. It is the prototype for the Steinway Grand Model D.
Early Growth and Continued Production
In just one year Steinway & Sons outgrew their first building and moved to 82 Walker Street. In 1860, just six years later, they constructed what is still today the world’s largest piano factory between 52nd and 53rd Streets, on what is now Park Avenue.
In the late nineteenth century, it was common for piano manufacturers to open their own concert hall in order to showcase the unique voice of their instruments. The first Steinway Hall opened in New York in 1866, with a seating capacity of 2,500, and was the premiere concert hall until the opening of Carnegie Hall in 1891. Another Steinway Hall opened in London, England, in 1875; and in 1880, Steinway & Sons returned to their roots when they expanded the business to Hamburg, Germany. This plant was operated by Henry’s fourth son, William (Wilhelm). A second Steinway Hall in NY was built in 1925, when the first one was closed and the showroom relocated to West 57th Street.
Following the death of the founder in 1871, Steinway & Sons remained under family ownership for another 99 years. Henry Z. Steinway, great-grandson of the founder, was the last family member to participate in the making of Steinway pianos. Until his death in 2008 at the age of 93, he signed every custom-made limited edition piano.
The end of the family ownership was marked by a merger with CBS, Inc., in 1972, although Henry Z. remained president. Then in 1985, a group of Boston businessmen purchased the company and formed Steinway Musical Properties, Inc. This corporation merged with the Selmer Company in 1995, but both companies continued to operate independent of one another until Steinway Musical Properties, Inc. was taken public. John Paulson, of Paulson & Company, bought Steinway and privatized it again in 2013. The new showroom and music hall opened in 2015, at 1133 Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue), and the manufacturing plant remains in operation at #1 Steinway Place, Long Island City, NY.
Key to Success
The reason Steinway & Sons has stayed at the top echelon in the piano manufacturing industry is because they continually look for ways to improve the process. I recently took a virtual tour of the Steinway grand production house and was impressed by the number of times that the tour guide said that such-and-such a process only came into use a few years ago, or maybe a decade ago. This tells me that although they already produce one of the finest quality pianos, they never tire of looking for ways to improve. From forming the body of the piano, to outfitting its interior, to applying the finish, to fine-tuning the sound, to packaging the completed piano for shipment, the manufacturing of every individual piano is performed by a symbiosis of man and machine. The few steps done by machine ensure uniformity and precision in the workmanship, while the many steps done by the skilled hands of artisans provide each instrument with its own unique voice while still maintaining that characteristic Steinway look, feel, and sound.
Steinway Contributions to the Industry
Steinway & Sons is responsible for bringing to the industry many qualities and construction techniques that we now think of as standard:
- Overstrung grand piano (1859). This means they crossed the bass strings over the treble strings, the way we see them in pianos today. This allowed for longer strings, thus providing a deeper, richer tone.
- Iron plate (1866). We’re all familiar with that heavy plate inside the piano. (Some people call it a harp, or mistake it for the soundboard.) The iron plate replaced the wooden one and is able to hold significantly more tension and will not warp over time, as the old wooden plates did.
- Accelerated Action (1931). This improved the reaction time of the action pieces when the pianist struck the keys. Steinway pianos have a characteristic double action, which gives them a faster response time than any other piano in existence.
- Diaphragmatic soundboard (1936). Since the soundboard is constructed of many thin sheets of spruce, approximately 6 inches wide, glued side-to-side and cut on the diagonal, the addition of ribs on the back of the soundboard give it better durability and stability while still allowing it to vibrate freely with the sound.
- Hexagrip pin block (1963). The pinblock is located at the top of the soundboard and houses the tuning pins (220 of them on average) for the strings of the piano. Steinway strengthened the pin block by laminating seven layers of hardwood maple in a staggered grain formation. This innovation improves the overall quality of the sound and allows the piano to hold its tune longer.
The Making of a Steinway
There are more than 12,000 individual parts to a piano, more than half of which are in the action. (Based upon my experience in taking pianos apart, I estimate this number to be representative of all pianos, and not exclusive to the Steinway.) I recently took a virtual tour of the Steinway factory in NY, and I’ll have to say that as one who disassembles pianos, I was fascinated by the reverse process. It gave me a greater appreciation for some of the pieces for which I haven’t yet found a use, such as the bridge and its hitch pins. But, believe me, I will—especially after watching the fine craftsmanship that went into making them. Too much time and effort went into the construction of the various components of these (and other) pianos for me to simply throw away any part of them.
I now invite you to take the same virtual factory tour. This 42-minute tour will walk you through the entire process of the making of a modern-day Steinway grand piano. It truly is an amazing work of art!
Ashley, Larry E. pub. Pierce Piano Atlas. 70th Anniversary Edition. Larry E. Ashley Publishing: Albuquerque, NM, 2017.
Photo courtesy of Luxurious Magazine