Have you ever paused and glanced at a Steinway Piano and thought you would really like to know how they make such a beautiful and impressive instrument?
Well I did just that and decided it was time that IX Magazine visited the home of Steinway & Sons and investigated what skills and craftmanship went into the fabrication of such legendary musical oeuvres d’art. So it was off to Heathrow Terminal 4 to catch a Lufthansa/Eurowings flight to Germany. After two hours sitting in a plane seat clearly originally designed as a toasted sandwich maker I landed in the celebrated party and cultural destination that is Hamburg. First stop was the Marriott Hotel to meet up with some old friends who were joining me and get suitably attired for dinner at Au Quai (presumably a word pun) Restaurant in the old port.
The Au Quai Restaurant is in the quiet side of the port, with a great view of the water, opposite a building shaped like a cruise liner, which looks lovely in the evening with the office lights blazing as the sun goes down. The food is excellent, a mixture of French and Italian with a twist of Japanese, which would pretty much sum up my personal desert island preference. The evening was spent catching up, exchanging musical jokes with our hosts and learning about the latest developments at Steinway which I will reveal shortly. We then repaired back to the hotel bar for a quick night cap and an early night.
The next morning I took full advantage of the lovely basement pool at the Marriott before meeting up with my compadres for breakfast and setting off for the Steinway and Sons factory. The Steinway Pianos company was originally founded in a Manhattan loft at 85 Varrick Street in 1853 by Heinrich Steinweg who later anglicised his name to Henry Steinway. Originally from Seesen in Germany where he built 482 pianos, like most startups Heinrich built his first works in his kitchen, before emigrating to America. He named the first Steinway “483” as it may of been the first built in America but he had made a few before and knew his trade. This piano was sold at the time for $500 dollars and now resides at the museum in Seesen. You can bet it’s worth a little more today.
The Steinway story whilst not without its mishaps is essentially a story of craftsmanship, skill, innovation and dedication over the last
century and a half. From 1853 on Henry and his sons developed the piano, patenting over 127 inventions and forming the basis of one of the most recognised luxury brands in the world. They were the first American company to win the “Grand Medaille D’Honneur En Or” for excellence at the Paris Exhibition in 1867 and used the latest scientific and musical research to develop a musical following amongst royalty and the leading pianists of their time.
Steinway even opened their first hall in 1866 which housed the New York Philharmonic until Carnegie Hall opened in 1891 and they also created their own village with foundries, amenities and parks in Queens, which was very much the forward thinking trend of the time. As mentioned not everything went smoothly for the family as both brothers Henry and Charles died of illnesses and so the family sent for the last brother, Theodore Steinway, in Germany asking him to come and look after the business in New York. Though it was Henry’s son William that built the Steinway village in Astoria, Queens and there is still a Steinway Street commemorating the history.
It was in 1880 that William and Theodore Steinway created the Hamburg factory, partly to have a base back in the old country and to avoid the hefty European import taxes as they were now exporting all over the world and had garnered the reputation as the leading piano maker in the world supplying the finest musical artists and wealthy collectors. The ethos of Steinway Pianos originated then and is continued today, linking the finest construction of pianos with the leading artist musicians that play them. From The New York Philharmonic to concert musicians and pops stars from all over the world. The list of famous Steinway artists is the same as the list of world famous musicians we all recognise as leaders in their field. The list is enormous, so here a few of the “Immortals”, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Franns Lizt, Cole Porter, Nina Simone, Richard Wagner, Igor Stravinsky, Hector Berlioz and Segei Prokofiev etc.
The tradition continues with Steinway partnering with all the leading pianists, take a look at their site for more information on the Steinway Artists. Interestingly enough Henry Z Steinway, the great grandson of the founder, was president of the company until 1977 and only passed away in 2008. This really is a traditional luxury family brand and by American standards it must be one of their oldest.
There are only two factories, the one in Hamburg and the other in New York so it was very exciting to take a personal tour at the German base and get a behind the scenes look at the crafting of these extraordinary works of art. The tour started with a wander around the factory buildings to peruse the wood sheds where some of the different woods are dried for two years before being ready to use in the manufacture of the pianos. The wood has to reach a humidity of 6-8% to be suitable and only half will be good enough, the other half is simply burnt. The Steinway soundboard, for example, is made of the highest grade close-grained, quarter-sawn Sitka spruce. The Steinway grand piano rim is hard rock maple. Other woods employed in the making of these fine pianos are Yellow Birch, Yellow Poplar, Mahogany, Black Walnut and Sugar Pine. They all look wonderful, thick or thinly cut with the different grains, drying in racks and smell divine, a mixture of forests aromas from all over the world. Interestingly enough the grain is always used in a particular direction to transport the sound through the wood. Another inside snippet of knowledge for the connoisseur, the New York Steinways are matt black and the keyboard edge is squared off whilst the Hamburg Steinways are the famous gloss black shine and the keyboard edge is rounded off!
Another fascinating step in the process is the creation of the famous S bend shape of the surround or rim of the grand piano. This involves three men taking the grained laminated wood and using a wonderfully antiquated hand turned machine to convince the wood into the desired curve. The machine looks like a giant grand piano in steel ringed with massive heavy metal spikes and clamps. The craftsman play the wood around and successively bolt and clamp the laminate using large ceiling suspended bolt fasteners, gently bending the wood to the required form. It is a fascinating process to watch and the whole frenetic activity resembles the caging and grooming of a large snorting metallic rhino.
There are so many steps in the build of a Steinway, it takes a year to make one: the formation of the exterior, the crafting of the soundboard and plate, the strings, keys, legs and finally the tuning process. Each step requiring enormous skill and training. My favourite part was the final tuning where I met Wiebke Wunstorf otherwise known as the voice of Steinway. The voice is the last stage in the manufacture of the Steinway where the piano is tested, tuned and the sound perfected. It must pass her final strict criteria before it is allowed to leave the factory floor. Wiebke has the most soulful eyes and appears as the soul of the Steinway sound incarnate. This may be because she has been with Steinway for over 35 years, starting as their first female apprentice in the factory, working her way up to her present position. She employs a variety of tools to get the right sound. Amongst them are a small spike that she taps on the soft hammers of the piano to toughen or soften them. Too much and the hammer will be too soft, too little and the sound will not be dulcet enough. She can also polish the hammers for a cleaner sound. She explains that she is looking for power, brilliance, clarity and schon. When she is satisfied the sound is perfect she signs the underside of the front right block. You would have to take the piano apart to see it, but it is reassuring to know its there. She came to Steinway because she loved playing the piano as a little girl. Now her signature adorns the most celebrated instruments played by the most famous musicians in the world. The visit finished with a private concert by two young piano virtuoso’s, a brother and sister, and it was an absolute delight to hear them play the Steinway pianos that we had learnt so much about throughout the day.
It is always a pleasure to watch the creation of any highly skilled product, but Steinway really is synonymous with perfect craftmanship. It must rank as one of the top generic terms for luxury and quality and the innovation that marked the beginning of the brand still continues today. Steinway recently launched the Spirio Player Piano at The Serpentine Gallery in London and I was there to watch, listen and learn.
The Spirio piano is a brand new way to listen to great classics played by Steinway artists, many long dead themselves. It is a fascinating and ingenious player piano that will play a music list that Steinway provide on an iPad tablet that is identical to the live performance of the artist. The Spirio player physically moves the hammers and pedals, playing the music of the greats as if they were there tickling the ivories for you. It is like watching a magic trick,as the keys spring up and down, whilst the pedals below sway gently to and fro all exactly as the Steinway artist did when they played the piece. It is spooky and endlessly enthralling, as the invisible man plays the piano. I watched as George Gershwin played live for me on screen in grainy black and white film whilst the piano in front of me projected the exact sound of the keys, down to the pressure he exerted on them and the precise play of the pedals. The Serpentine Gallery reverberated to the tunes of George Gershwin that evening.
The British pianist Simon Mulligan also treated us to two pieces which were then faithfully reproduced by the Spirio as he stood by and watched, feet tapping. The piano was built in partnership with Wayne Stahnke and is designed using a modular system so the piano itself can be easily updated. It is a full Steinway piano with this player ability, ideal for those of us who would love to own a Steinway but missed out on the 10,000 hours of practice required to properly play one. You could always sit at the piano and pretend to play if you really need to impress!
I do own a Harcourt piano, which is in a way a family piece as the Harcourts are my cousins, but perhaps one day I will add a Steinway.
I will leave you with some words of a Steinway artist who knows a lot more about these things than I do.
"I have long admired Steinway pianos for their qualities of tone, clarity, pitch consistency, touch responsiveness, and superior craftsmanship."
You can see a photo essay of the factory tour here:
To buy one of these amazing pianos or simply read up on the history and artists: