NEW YORK — What has 243 strings, 88 keys and is all about touch, feel and sound?
Most musicians will know the answer is a piano — and that the top of the line remains the Steinway. But while almost everyone has heard of the company, few are aware of the full story behind it. New York Times staff writer James Barron hopes to alter that in his just-released book, “Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand.”
“They came here with almost nothing but expertise and were very entrepreneurial, like many Americans in the 19th century,” says Barron, referring to the family that started in Manhattan in 1853 and later migrated to Queens. There was even a Steinway Street named after the company. “Even the early pianos sounded better than the other ones you can get. They’re still doing it the way they’ve always done it.”
The book, which originally appeared as a nine-part series in the Times’ Metro section in 2003 and 2004, chronicles the 11-month creation of K0862, a Model D concert grand piano. From the gathering of raw lumber from the Pacific Northwest to inserting the soundboard and stringing 243 strings for 88 keys, no detail of making a grand is omitted.
“This artistic thing — the melodies you hear in your head — wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t for these mechanical operations,” says Barron. “If you play the piano or go to a concert, you forget that this object has a structural side.”
Steinway was the first company to market pianos actively. William Steinway invented the idea of the concert tour and brought virtuosos such as Anton Rubinstein and Henri Wieniawski on stage at the family’s own concert hall. And unlike other piano makers such as Yamaha, Steinway has resisted diversification over the years, choosing instead to remain a “one-product company.” The family refused to license the Steinway name for refrigerators and loudspeakers. Only during World War II, when the government wouldn’t allow the manufacture of nonessential products, did the company begin making aircraft parts, including wings for CG-4A gliders.
According to Barron, a Steinway continues to stand out because of its sound, touch and feel. “For a musician who plays classical music, it’s the sound you are accustomed to — that’s what you’re hearing, even if you don’t know it,” says Barron, an amateur pianist who began taking lessons at the age of 7. “They’re the last one standing and stuck to the one thing they know.”
This story first appeared in the August 7, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The book is filled with intriguing trivia. For example, what do a Steinway and baseball have in common? Well, the lacquer coatings Steinway developed in the Eighties for the rims, lids, legs and keyboard covers come from the same company that produces paint for the helmets both the New York Yankees and the Mets wear.