Steinway builds legacy with distinctive pianos

By Rick Rogers
Staff Writer, Daily Oklahoman, Oklahoma City

From AccompaList, a Resource for Church Accompanists
AccompaList Home Page

[Editor's Note: Reporter Rick Rogers visited the Steinway manufacturing factory in New York City in December, 2000. I thought he did a good job in making the story interesting and understandable and also in capturing the essence of how Steinways are built. --Richard Huggins, AccompaList]

NEW YORK - As Gertrude Stein once stated, "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose."

Just don't try to apply that motto to a piano. You might as well stir up a hornet's nest.

In simplest form, a grand piano is little more than a mass of wood, metal, felt and plastic. But each one is a miracle of invention, technology, craftsmanship and musical inspiration. And despite the similarity of their outward appearance, each possesses a distinction all its own.

"We like to think of it in terms of a family with 10 children," said Leo F. Spellman, director of advertising and public relations for Steinway & Sons. "There's a family resemblance, but each kid has his own personality."

During a recent visit to New York, I visited the Steinway factory in Long Island City. Each year, the 400,000-square-foot facility produces about 3,000 pianos: 2,500 grands and 500 uprights.

The visit also tied in with what is being proclaimed as the 300th anniversary of the piano. Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori created the first piano some three centuries ago in Florence.

His gravicembalo col piano e forte resembled the harpsichord in shape and construction, but instead of plucking the strings, the new instrument featured leather-covered hammers that struck the strings.

Improvements were slowly introduced during the 19th century. Many were pioneered by C.F. Theodore Steinway, the fifth son of founder Henry Engelhard Steinway.

The modern grand piano has changed little in the past 100 years, and many of the early Steinway developments are still in use today. Spellman said people who might have visited the factory in the early 1900s would notice few changes today.

Some 15 piano manufacturers build 9-foot concert grand pianos today. The majority are mass produced, but Steinway still builds its instruments by hand. The process takes about two years.

Before entering the factory, one passes by enormous stacks of wood; Sitka spruce will be used for the instruments' soundboard, hard rock maple for the case and poplar for the lid. The wood is left to air-dry and cure for about a year before construction begins.

From there begins the meticulous process of shaping, gluing and pressing the wood into various parts that will eventually encase the mechanical working parts of the piano.

For a 9-foot grand, 17 strips of hard rock maple are glued together and then put into a gigantic press which bends the wood into the familiar shape of the piano's outer rim.

It takes half a dozen workers to lift the wood into the press and begin the process of cranking the viselike sections into place. As they do so, one hears what sounds like wood splintering. Amazingly, it never does.

"Nobody can understand how you can bend this wood," Spellman said. "The foreman of the department was once asked how many rims were broken. He said, 'I've been here over 30 years and in my time, we've broken no more than three.' It doesn't really happen a lot. Part of the secret is the way they cure the wood."

Once removed from the presses, the rims are placed into a temperature-controlled room where they're left to stabilize for six weeks. In a nearby room that resembles a sauna, decorous wood veneers made of mahogany, rosewood, cherry and other exotic woods will someday adorn a piano's outer case.

"About 20 or 30 years ago, about 80 percent of all the pianos we made here were ebony - the satin, classic black finish," Spellman said. "Now that's down to about 65 percent.

"More of these natural wood veneers are becoming popular with sophisticated consumers who are looking for not only a wonderful musical instrument but a decorous piece of furniture."

Walking through the different areas of the factory, one can view pianos in various stages of completion: those awaiting the critical positioning of the soundboard, those ready for stringing and others prepared to undergo the all-important tuning and voicing.

Philippos Poulos, a master technician from Greece, works in one of many soundproof rooms where pianos are voiced, a process by which the instrument's unique sound is slowly uncovered and honed.

"When the pianist strikes the keys, you want everything to work uniformly," Poulos said as he demonstrated shaping the hammers for optimum sound. "We like to make sure the piano has an even sound throughout. For me, this process takes about 25 or 26 hours for one piano."

The action, which involves the lightness or heaviness of the piano's touch, is another important factor in creating a piano. Artists tend to have strong preferences when it comes to a piano's "feel."

"There's a famous story about Horowitz and Rubinstein, two legendary pianists," Spellman said. "They would have hated each other's Steinways.

"The Horowitz piano, which we actually have touring various cities of the United States, has a touch that is lightning fast, almost uncontrollable. Whereas Rubinstein really wanted the stiff, heavy action. It's all very subjective and can be adjusted according to the artist's wishes."

With so many delicate adjustments to be made, all of which affect the touch and feel of the instrument, one can easily understand why many artists become so emotionally attached to a particular piano.

When Jean-Philippe Collard performed with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic in the spring of 1998, he was so impressed with the orchestra's Hamburg Steinway that he offered to buy it on the spot. Rather than risk having to play on an unresponsive instrument, Van Cliburn always ships his own 9-foot Steinway wherever he is booked.

"Sometimes when I take people through the factory, they ask if the process is different when we're making a piano for a well-known artist," Spellman said.

"The answer to that is that the workmen don't know whether this piano is going to be for Vladimir Horowitz or for Joe Jones. It's exactly the same. There's no second tier or third tier - the artist gets one quality and everybody else gets another. It's just one tier of quality."

Steinway has long enjoyed the distinction of being the instrument of choice among major concert artists. The company maintains a roster of about 1,200 such artists, who range from Van Cliburn and Alfred Brendel to Billy Joel and Harry Connick Jr.

Certainly the purchase of any grand piano, which can range from $32,400 for a baby grand to more than $100,000 for a 9-foot concert grand, constitutes a major financial investment. But buyers can rest assured that a Steinway piano will not only hold its value, but appreciate.

Two months ago, John Lennon's Steinway, an upright piano he bought in 1970 for $1,500, sold in London for a record $2.2 million. And while that is obviously a special case, most pianos, if properly cared for, can generally be sold for a handsome profit.

Vintage pianos built during the 1930s, '40s and '50s often sell for nearly six times their original value while those built in the '60s and '70s typically sell for three times their original cost.

The quality of the workmanship also means that a Steinway piano can last for generations. Henry Steinway, the 84-year-old great-grandson of the company's founder, says he's often asked what the life expectancy of a Steinway piano is. His response is always the same: the company has been in business for about 147 years so he doesn't know. Ask him in another 50.

"It's a product that in some sense speaks to people and will have a legacy long after we're gone," Spellman said. "What these craftsmen work on today will be here for another 50 or 100 years.

"Hopefully, as has been true over the past 147 years, enough people will be interested to keep us in business and keep this treasure alive. It's a tremendous legacy."

AccompaList Home Page