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Steinway and Sons Paperback – September 23, 1997
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Mr. Lieberman also gives us an often fascinating overview of a musical epoch that may, regrettably, be coming to an end. -- The New York Times Book Review, Eva Hoffman
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The book is exceptionally well written and chock full of facts and historical information. It should be required reading in our history classes, for it covers the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800's, the Civil War of 1861-65, WWI, riots, strikes, the Spanish Influenza of 1918, the formation of unions in the 1940's, WWII and the role a Steinway member had in each event; not to mention the living conditions and economic swings of the times.
Steinway's history begins in 1797 with the birth of Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg, ultimately the sole survivor of fourteen children. We are brought back to a time when Germany was divided into thirty-eight states, each with its own government, legal codes, weights, measures and currencies. Torn by wars and revolution, the now successful piano maker decides, at the age of fifty-three, to take his wife and five children and emigrate to New York. (One son, Theodore, remains behind.) With no English language skills, they begin working in a piano factory in New York City where German is spoken--incidentally, German is the main language spoken in all piano factories of the time, and it is to the Germans that we owe thanks for bringing the piano and its wealth of music to the United States.
Three years later (1853) Heinrich and his four sons open their own factory, Americanize their name to Steinway and begin their journey as Steinway & Sons. It is interesting to note that the two sons, Charles and Henry Jr., are those primarily responsible for the patents and innovations that gave birth to the piano we know today: innovations that helped Steinway & Sons win every prize of the 19th Century when exhibitions and fairs featured major inventions of the Industrial Revolution. However, with the death of these young men in 1865 (ages thirty-five and thirty-six) it is William Steinway who takes the reins as he begins to create a publicity campaign by paying European artists to tour the country and make the name Steinway & Sons a household word. He coaxes brother Theodore over from Germany and opens showrooms in London, Berlin and Hamburg. Theodore is responsible for the invention of the rim-bending press, which gives the modern grand piano its continuous bent rim, but William perpetrates the illusion that it is the living Steinways that are responsible for every patent as "dead Steinways would have no allure." William is a powerful public figure at every level as he sings his way through New York Society, creates Steinway Village (to have complete control of his workers), roads, schools, amusement parks, train routes, plans the modern subway system, encourages Daimler to build his new invention--the motorized "riding car" in the Steinway Factory. (William Steinway is the first American to ride a motorized vehicle in the streets of New York.)
With the death of William in 1896 of typhus, the torch passes to the son of his late brother, Charles H. who harvests the fruits of the labor of those who have passed away in what are known as the Golden Years of Steinway & Sons. He dies, tragically, of the influenza virus in 1919. His brother Frederick follows for another eight years, but it is Theodore, son of William Steinway, who inherits the heavy crown as Steinway faces the Great Depression and heads into WWII. He is passionate about music, memorizing Wagner operas and attenting performances at the MET regularly. He is ultimately overwhelmed by insurmountable obstacles, Theodore ultimately finds solace with his companion of choice: gin. When Theodore passes away at the age of seventy-four, the responsibility shifts to his son Henry Z. Steinway--(who, by the way, just left us two years ago at the age of ninety-three and was the last president of Steinway & Sons).
Theodore is not a musician, nor does he have much appreciation of the arts. He is a Harvard Graduate businessman set on making Steinway & Sons financially solvent by tightening the belt, consolidating the Ditmar and Riker factories and in 1958 selling Steinway Hall to Manhattan Life Insurance Co., (while still maintaining the showroom). In 1955 he decides to stop using ivories. This is not due to any humanitarian bent on his part or the fact that from 1860-1930 up to 100,000 elephants were killed each year for their tusks (one tusk made fifty keyboards), but because of the labor-intensive task of preparing the ivory's consistency of color and use (ivory importation into the US remained legal until 1985).
According to Lieberman, Steinway & Sons began to use TFE-fluorcarbon resin in 1957 (The DuPont product known as Teflon), to replace the traditional wool felt cloth used in the action's 1,130 movable parts known as "bushings." This decision was made to compensate for the low quality of post-war felts, and, it was hoped, would resolve the problem of sticking in humid weather and looseness in dry weather. Unfortunately the organic material--wood--which was married to the Teflon bushings did not remain static during changes in humidity and the sluggishness in summer and clacking in the winter proved to be a curse that plagued the American Steinway piano for over twenty years. Although encouraged to follow suit, we learn that the Hamburg factory never made its own parts but bought (and still buys) ready-made action parts from Renner, which never adopted the Teflon idea. (Perhaps why the Hamburg Steinway holds an untarnished reputation.)
But it is Japan and the Yamaha piano that strike fear in the heart of Henry Z. Steinway as Yamaha seeps into America as the white man seeped into the territory of the Native American Indian. With American pumping aid back into the Japanese economy after WWII, they were actually enabling Japan to invade our musical economy as they produced as many pianos in one week as it took Steinway to produce in one year--with a labor force that earned $1 to an American's $5. In 1967 Yamaha ousted the Knabe as the piano of the Metropolitan Opera by giving the house $10,000 and forty new pianos every year.
By the late 1960's Henry begins to drink and fears that Steinway will bring him to the same end that it brought his father. And although it has been rumored in the piano world that no Steinway family member was interested in carrying on the family tradition, we learn that this is false; Henry's sister Betty has two sons, Theodore and Simon, who are anxious to follow in their forefathers' footsteps but, alas, their last name is not Steinway, it is Chapin and their enthusiasm is squelched. Steinway is sold to CBS Musical Instrument Division in 1972, who then turned it over to the Birmingham brothers in 1985--whose contribution is the creation of a modestly priced piano to compete with the Yamaha, and named it after their hometown of Boston. They, in turn, sold Steinway to the Selmer Company ten years later and Steinway is now publicly traded, in unison with Selmer's clarinets and saxophones, under the umbrella of LVB (Ludwig Van Beethoven).
P.S. In 2002 Steinway introduced the Essex piano--a modestly priced instrument with 26 of Steinway's unique design features.
This is great reading, and a wonderful resouce for anyone interested in music or pianos.