The Steinway Mystique
The Enduring Name of Steinway & Sons
The Steinway name has endured for more than 150 years. The company has survived the U. S. Civil war, World War I, World War II, the Great Depression, and the age of electronics. More than once the company threatened bankruptcy, moves to liquidate, and faced intense political turmoil. In fact, at a time during World War II, piano production all but came to a complete halt while the Steinway factory in New York switched to manufacturing parts for gliders and aircraft — Steinway even registered two patents — for the U. S. war effort while in Germany, Steinway’s Hamburg factory was commandeered for the Nazi war effort. Talk about a conflict of interest!
Perhaps the biggest threat to the Steinway’s reputation was what many enthusiasts would call a “sell-out” of the entire name and tradition to the Musical Instruments Division of CBS. Suddenly Steinway was just one name among many owned by CBS (like Fender, Leslie, Rhodes and Rogers). Still the name survived, even amidst severe rumors and technical reviews claming that CBS had attempted to streamline production and increase profits by compromising Steinway’s high quality standards.
In 1985 CBS sold its Musical Instruments Division to an investment group from Boston, MA. Hope for the company returned. From this transaction, Steinway & Sons was defined as a part of a larger venture called Steinway Musical Properties. In 1995 Steinway Musical Properties was sold to band instrument manufacturer, Selmer, but with the Steinway name continuing to be a powerful icon, the entire conglomerate, which includes previous CBS holdings, plus Selmer band instruments, Selmer Paris saxophones, Bach trumpets and trombones as well as Ludwig drums, became known as Steinway Musical Instruments, Inc. Today, Steinway Musical Instruments is a thriving company with orders for Steinway grand pianos often exceeding the factories’ production numbers.
Five Generations Through a Hundred and Twenty Years
Although Henry Steinweg (who changed his name to Steinway soon after arriving in the United States) was just one of many highly skilled piano craftsmen immigrating from Europe during the middle of the nineteenth century, his name would quickly become associated with the highest standards of quality workmanship and state of the art advances in piano design not only in the United States but throughout the world.
And for good reason. In James Barron’s research, Barron found that Steinweg had already built by hand close to 500 pianos before he migrated to the United States (the first piano Steinway built in New York was numbered #483. Barron assumes that number to be a sequential continuation of Steinway’s work in Germany. That first American made piano reportedly sold for $500.) (See Barron, 26.) Whether folklore or fact, the history of Steinway & Sons is an interesting and compelling study in human ingenuity, determination and technological innovation.
Pianos Made to Last
Many people expect to pass their piano on to the next generation, and they to the next and to the next. Steinway pianos, like all superbly built pianos, will need plans for their periodic tuning and maintenance (even the piano’s frequency of use factors into the equation), their occasional repair, and their eventual overhaul and restoration. Every Steinway piano deserves to have a caretaker, someone who respects the magnitude of what’s at stake and of what’s entailed in accepting the responsibility of protecting and preserving a Steinway grand piano.
In Larry Fine’s The Piano Book, he writes an addendum on previously owned Steinway pianos. He says:
A rebuilt piano is not the exact equivalent of a new one. Even a fully and competently rebuilt piano will still retain the original case, cast-iron plate, keys, key frame, and action frame, and possibly the soundboard and some of the actions parts, too… These original parts will probably not give any trouble for the next twenty or thirty years if the piano was properly rebuilt and is well maintained.
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