Just as non-car enthusiasts still know what a Rolls-Royce is, most of us are familiar with Steinway & Sons. The name represents a gold standard in grand pianos. From Sergei Rachmaninoff to Sir Elton John, a Steinway has been the instrument of choice for so many major musicians. Indeed, the company practically invented the modern grand piano; it holds more than 125 patents, many of which were developed in an unprepossessing factory in a distinctly unglamorous suburb of New York City.
The Astoria area in the northwest corner of Queens has been Steinway’s home since the company moved from Manhattan as the 19th century came to a close. In a way, a piano from here is much like a Rolls-Royce. A lot of good old-fashioned craftsmanship goes into its manufacture. Each one has its own personality, sometimes by virtue of a customer’s wishes, or perhaps just because of the particular qualities of the woods used. There are roughly 12,000 components in a Model D Concert Grand, Steinway’s flagship instrument, and it takes the best part of year to assemble, glue, adjust, and tune before the final product heads for somewhere, like Carnegie Hall. It’s a smidge under nine feet long and just over five feet wide. Its 88 keys are not made of endangered substances like ebony and ivory (as Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder might have had you believe when they sang about their pee-yar-no keyboard) but Bavarian spruce; the white—or natural—keys are covered in a plastic (as they have been since the 1950s), the black keys—also known as accidentals or sharps and flats—have been “ebonized” according to Steinway’s specifications.
The strings, made from Swedish steel, are stretched on a 340-pound cast-iron frame that lies over a maple soundboard. This huge piece of wood is nine millimeters (about a third of an inch) thick in the center, tapering down to six millimeters thick at each side, much like the arched top of a violin, only on a grander scale (pardon the double pun). It’s this element that can take the note from a struck string (by a series of levers, hammers and counterweights) and fill a concert hall with the ensuing resonance. Incidentally, the piano’s full name is pianoforte, a combination of the Italian words for soft and loud, expressing the instrument’s full dynamic range.
The company was founded by Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg, born in Germany in 1797, the same year as Franz Schubert. He became a carpenter, then an apprentice to an organ builder, which led to him making musical instruments. His first grand piano was put together in 1836, in his kitchen; it’s now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Steinweg went on to build a total of 482 pianos before emigrating to the United States in 1851 with his wife and four of his sons. Another son, Christian Friedrich Theodore, was left behind to run the family business in Hamburg.
Don’t think this is a tale of poor European immigrants risking it all in a new land. The Steinwegs were said to have come over first class on the latest steamer. Father and sons worked for American piano makers before setting up shop in 1853, whereupon the patriarch anglicized his name to Henry E. Steinway, although he still didn’t bother to learn English.
Their first piano, number 483, sold for $500. Soon after, Steinway instruments were winning awards. Famed French composer Hector Berlioz described the typical Steinway sonority as “splendid and essentially noble.” But there was more to come. C.F. Theodore also made the trip across the Atlantic. By all accounts, not only was he quite an accomplished musician, he was also something of a genius when it came to the mechanics of piano engineering. Many of the company’s patents came as a result of his innovations.
Other piano makers started making their instruments the same way, following what they called the “Steinway” or “American” system, terms that have since fallen out of use because there is now no other system. Another son, William, also happened to be rather good at marketing. He made Steinway pianos available to the influential or up-and-coming players of the day. A bit like how car companies promote their product through motorsport, kind of a “play on Sunday, sell on Monday” approach.
William also had dealings with Gottlieb Daimler, maker of fine, expensive automobiles in the days when they were still referred to as “horseless carriages.” This led to the Steinway company making Mercedes-Benz machines under license in the United States, at a factory on Long Island. Only a few were made, at $7,500 each—a heck of a lot of cash in 1905. Sadly, a fire in 1907 destroyed the facility and the company shut down that side of its operations. But here’s a marketing idea for Mercedes-Benz: As an alternative to the usual wood trim, it could offer Steinway black lacquered piano trim and milk the heritage angle.
Steinway & Sons produce about 200 pianos a year; a new Model D costs in the region of $120,000 these days, although Steinways tend to appreciate in value. The company claims that 90 percent of concert pianists won’t play any other brand.