Lifting the lid on Steinway

At its Hamburg factory, Steinway & Sons has been making the finest pianos the same way for aeons. Timothy Barber steps inside the workshops of the most famous instrument maker of them all

March 26 2020


Here’s a remarkable fact. Of the companies historically regarded as the ‘Big Four’ of piano making – Steinway, Bechstein, Bluthner and Bosendorfer – three of them were founded, by Germans, in the same year: 1853. (Only Bosendorfer is older, established by the Austrian Ignaz Bosendorfer in 1828.) Not a lot of significant music came out of 1853 (La Traviata being an exception), or significant history for that matter. But the contribution of those three entrepreneurial German piano-makers is hard to overstate 165 years later. They refined, improved and proliferated the most versatile, complete musical instrument of all, and would vie with each other for the attention of the world’s greatest pianists and patrons.

Although it was really, in many ways, a one-horse race: Steinway & Sons left its peers trailing in the most distant dust. Today it’s a category top predator, like Rolex or Apple – a brand that defines the broader product itself. To see a piano concert of any merit not performed on a Steinway can be a genuine surprise. Look up on YouTube performances by any of the greats, from Glenn Gould to Martha Argerich, Bill Evans to Ahmad Jamal, and the chances are they’ll be tapping away at a Steinway.

As the 20th century’s greatest pianist of all, Arthur Rubinstein, put it: “A Steinway is a Steinway and there is nothing like it in the world.”

One reason the company was able to survive as its peers floundered, especially following the devastation of Germany’s war years, was the fact that Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg, an illiterate former carpenter who knocked together his first grand piano in his kitchen in 1836, had had the good sense to move to America. Emigrating there with his family in 1850, he changed his name to Steinway, and in New York founded the company Steinway & Sons. The US market continues to be exclusively serviced by the historic factory in Queens, built in the 1870s, by which time Steinway & Sons was already producing 1,800 pianos a year – mostly, at that point, ‘square’ pianos, with a mere handful of uprights and grands – while taking prizes at exhibitions in New York, Paris and London.

Pianos being hardly the most suitable item for trans-ocean export, a European plant was established in 1880, in Hamburg. From there Steinway & Sons was able to launch its assault on the most powerful market in the world. Baron Rothschild was a buyer; Queen Victoria extended a Royal Warrant, as did the rulers of Russia, Italy, Spain, Sweden and many others. No less a figure than Franz Liszt wrote in 1883: “The new Steinway grand is a glorious masterpiece in power, sonority, singing quality, and perfect harmonic effects, affording delight even to my old piano-weary fingers.”

Those are words with considerable resonance when you stand among the craftspeople on the workshop floor of the Hamburg factory now. To enter this place is, in effect, to set foot in the mothership of the piano as we know it, and of musical instrument making itself.

It’s a privilege extended to a few private clients and occasionally to journalists, hence my visit, though we’re lucky there’s a factory at all: it was bombed several times during the Second World War, when its facilities and wood supplies were re-purposed – this was a part-American company, after all – to make items like coffins and beds. All- German Bechstein, meanwhile, became the anointed piano-maker of the Reich, something from which it would struggle to recover for years afterwards. Steinway & Sons, by contrast, maintained business through its New York base, and accessed Marshall Plan funding to rebuild the premises in Hamburg.

Piano-making has hardly changed in the past 100 years, and indeed you perceive little sense of modernity in the huge, light-filled atelier at the heart of the factory, where the keyboard and ‘action’ – the mechanism governing the movement of the keys and hammers – are assembled at wooden desks, slowly fixed into the piano cases, and then fine-tuned over a two-day process. Amid the jumble of half-built pianos and deconstructed keyboards, there’s a constant free-jazz background music of random tinkling keys emanating from booths in which the piano is ‘pre-voiced’ – rather than the tuning of the strings, this is the careful shaping and adjusting of the felt-covered hammer-heads themselves.

One thing unavailable to Heinrich and his sons is the sound-proof cupboard in which a robot presses each key on a piano 10,000 times in an hour. It’s a uniquely weird and glorious cacophony, ensuring the piano has been thoroughly tested before it’s even fully assembled.

In the early days, the original Hamburg factory was also the research site for the investigations into piano construction for the man more than any other responsible for the creation of the modern grand piano, Heinrich’s eldest son, C.F. Theodore Steinway. A serial collector of patents – Steinway has over 125, most of them pre-1900, scores of which were down to C. F. Theodore – he revolutionised, among much else, the way a grand piano’s body, known as the rim, is made. Up to 20 thin, long layers of maple and mahogany wood are glued together and clamped around a huge mould that bends them into the shape of a piano. After three hours in situ, the sheets are left to settle in temperature- controlled cellars for 100 days, before emerging to be veneered and assembled into a Steinway & Sons piano.

Incidentally, of the wood that’s ordered by Steinway, only a fraction is selected for use – the rest is burned to fuel the factory itself. The other crucial wooden element is the sound-board: the resonant flat surface underneath the strings, made to a design patented in the 1930s, with the wooden bridge glued over it. Above this sits the huge, bronze- painted cast iron plate that serves as the backbone of the piano, sustaining 20 tons of tension from the strings. This plate is a work of art in itself, hand-finished to an extraordinarily smooth degree – and no part of it touches the sound-board beneath, or the rim around it, instead resting on the wooden dowells that hold the sound-board in place.

Walking around the factory is intoxicating. Great lines of upended cases form hooped corridors, waiting for assembly, while history itself lurks in the corners: I notice a piano apparently dating from 1878, the era the ‘& Sons’ themselves were still running the show. It turns out antique Steinways are also serviced here, though the New York site sees rather more of these old timers, for an eerie reason: so many of Europe’s were destroyed during the two world wars. The chaos of the 20th century is reflected in the rate of production: in 1903 Steinway & Sons made its 100,000th piano, and in 1938 its 300,000th. Both ended up in the White House. But it took until 2015 for the 600,000th to be made, decorated in an elaborate veneer of spiralling ebony marquetry that took almost four years to finish.

Such top-tier instruments, with all manner of bespoke finishes to various degrees of oligarch-pleasing ostentation, are known at Steinway as the Crown Jewels and can cost into the millions. Such theatrical flamboyance has always been part of the Steinway story: Heinrich first collaborated with artists on decorative designs back in the 1850s. The business hasn’t always been so high-minded, though: one enjoyable anecdote relates to a 19th-century spat between Steinway and rival US company Weber, resulting in gangs from the two firms unscrewing the legs of their respective pianos in order to batter each other with them.

Things are more elegantly managed now, with the company owned by John Paulson, the Wall Street hedge fund billionaire (and owner of three Steinways). He acquired the company in 2013 – not that such changes would have at all affected the way these great instruments are made.