The first piece I ever penned for my creative writing degree was a portrait of my piano teacher, Sharko Hilbert. I chose her as my subject matter because I was nostalgically rooted in those Wednesday afternoons I spent in a sleepy suburb of Paris, practicing my Chopin, Schubert and Debussy with the cigar-smoking, mysterious Egyptienne. Sharko was muse to her husband, the painter Jaro Hilbert, and younger facsimiles of her would stare in pose at me from the walls of what was one of the most exotic rooms in which I had ever been (and I was no stranger to colourful places as a child). I can’t remember what kind of piano I used to play on, but I do remember my instrument at home, a gift from the painter Carmelo Arden Quin who was my father’s mentor and best friend. The upright had lights with tapered pink silk lampshades on it, it was in constant need of tuning, and some of the ivories were missing. I loved my dilapidated piano, but from the day Sharko died, I never did tinkle again.
Today, and 37 years later, I’m at the end of a tour of the Steinway factory in Hamburg, and I find it’s one of the most emotional things I’ve done in a while. It takes me back to Sharko’s velvet, dusky boudoir. There’s a chalky smell of sawdust, and time seems to stand still for a couple of hours in a comforting, sentimental time warp. And this factory also feels timeless. Sawing, moulding, buffing, spraying and tuning in the same way since the first Steinway was built, the production line in Hamburg is creating more than an instrument: they’re fashioning a timeless, priceless work of art.
“A Steinway is a Steinway and there is nothing like it in the world.” Arthur Rubinstein
The Key to Grandness
On February 15, 1797, Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg was born in the town of Wolfshagen in Germany. The ambitious Heinrich was both an orphan and illiterate, but by the age of 15, started working in an organ builder’s shop. He settled in the town of Seesen and by 1836 had built the first Steinweg forte piano in the kitchen of his home, now referred to as the Kitchen Piano. He manufactured a whopping 482 pianos in Germany before emigrating to New York in 1850, and as was so common in those days, eventually changed his name to Henry Steinway. By March 1853, Steinway and Sons was born.
Piano No 483 was the first Steinway and Sons piano sold on American soil, the first to be made with 88 keys and a precursor to the Model D grand. It was sold to a Griswold family in New York for $500 (its permanent home is now the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.)
In 1880, and with his son William in charge of global expansion, Steinway opened a branch in its original homeland with a factory in Hamburg. Today, it employs 305 staff and makes 1250 pianos a year. As of the date of my tour, 608,000 Steinways have been produced by the company.
Steinway’s UK home is in Marylebone, a maze of rooms and a hive of activity. This London outpost is where pianos come for some restorative love and attention.
This marks the spot where Lang Lang came to select a Steinway for his last concert at the Royal Albert Hall, and where other pianists pick their perfect accompaniment. The chosen one is delivered to the venue and tuned in situ to the exacting standards of the pianist.
Steinway and Sons is the proud holder of a Royal Warrant, first granted by Queen Victoria in 1890, and now held under Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. Today, the Royal Collection holds several Steinways.
Orchestrating a Masterpiece
The Steinway story starts with the heart of the beautiful beast: the selection of the finest spruce wood for the soundboard, cropped from the forests of Sitka, Alaska. This, and the maple used for the rim of the piano, is stored and dried in the factory for two years.
A Steinway Grand Model D is the sum of 12,000 parts and 125 patents. It starts with the wood and ends with some of the finest tuning on the planet to ensure the parts all work in exquisite harmony. It takes three and a half years to train an apprentice in the Steinway School in south Germany, where students are schooled into how to “build the best piano possible.”
The rim of the Steinway piano was patented in 1878 and is an essential component of what puts the “grand” in the Steinway grand. Twenty layers of maple and mahogany are glued together and fixed onto a machine for the bending process which takes six hours. Once the rim is removed, it is stored for six months for its drying-off period.
A Steinway is built from the outside in. The rim of the piano weighs approximately 100 kilos and it takes 4 men to carry it onto the bending machine.
The rims are stored for six months so they can dry off.
The Diaphragmatic Soundboard takes centre stage inside the rim of the piano. Only ten percent of the North American Spruce wood passes the quality test– the better the grain, the better the sound.
“With a tone so rich, I would never be afraid of the dark.” Harry Connick Jr
It takes three days to install and adjust the keyboard to the music desk. This is done by artisans, who warm and adjust the striking points with a small flame. This process will result in the famous Steinway sound: pure and clean. I’m relieved to hear that Steinway stopped using ivory back in 1956.
In the Pounding Room, the piano is put through a strenuous test for quality control: the strings must withstand 20 tons of tension, and each key is pressed 10,000 times every hour.
She was the first female trainee in the company 39 years ago, and she’s now one of the most important members of this unique production line: Chief Voicer. Wiebke Wunstorf checks the sound of every piano before it leaves its Hamburg birthplace. It’s not the ears that are the most important organ in this job according to Wunstorf – it’s the hands, and you have to have good nerve endings.
It takes three days to hand polish and lacquer the trademark glassy surface. It is essential that the piano player is able to see his or her hands reflected in the lacquer before the work of art can grace the world stage or become the centrepiece of the home.
“The new Steinway grand is a glorious masterpiece in power, sonority, singing quality, and perfect harmonic effects” Franz Liszt
Instrument of the Immortals
Steinway has always been in the business of creating bespoke masterpieces. Here is a selection of some of my favourite showpieces.
The White House Steinway
The 100,000th Steinway was gifted in 1903 to American President Theodore Roosevelt. It was originally used in the East Room of the White House but is now on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It’s encased in gold leaf with American Eagle leg carvings and a lid adorned with the Impressionist painting of ‘America Receiving the Nine Muses.’
In 1938, Steinway gifted its 300,000th piano to the White House. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the gift “to the advance of music in every city, town, and hamlet in the country.’ The case was made of fine Honduran mahogany and the startling gilded American eagle legs were designed by sculptor Albert Stewart. It now sits in the East Wing of the White House.
The Alma Tadema
This Model D Pianoforte took pride of place in the New York music room of one of the finest mansions of the Gilded Age. The Victorian artist, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, designed this beauty for philanthropist and avid art collector, Henry Marquand, together with textiles and other items of furniture. The piano is made of oak, ebony, boxwood, satinwood, cedar, holly, coral, ivory, mother-of-pearl, abalone, copper, silver, brass and pewter. It was later sold by Christie’s in London for $1.2 million and is now on display at the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts.
The critic John Ruskin called Alma-Tadema “the worst painter of the 19th century,” but I think this must be the most exquisite piano ever designed.
This Steinway Z1 Upright was John Lennon’s piano and the one on which he composed the hit, Imagine. George Michael paid £1.67 million for this slice of pop memorabilia, built in Hamburg in 1971. And speaking of Hamburg, did you know the Beatles were regular performers here between 1960 and 1962, before they became the Fab Four? John Lennon said, “I might have been born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg.” The Beatles played 281 concerts here, and this German cultural hub would become the springboard for their worldwide fame.
Lennon would go on to buy a white Steinway as a birthday gift for his wife, Yoko Ono, in 1971. It’s still in the Manhattan home they once shared together. Steinway has since unveiled a Limited Edition Imagine, modelled after the Yoko Ono piano. 175 of these were manufactured, so if you fancy your own slice of Beatlemania, contact Steinway to check for availability.
Pictures at an Exhibition
This model D grand was designed by artist Paul Wyse and is influenced by Mussorgsky’s famous work, ‘Pictures at an Exhibition.’ The rim is a fanciful art gallery with illustrations of Russian history. No small wonder that it took four years to complete.
The Cole Porter
Well, did you evah see anything like it? Cole Porter wrote some of his signature tunes on this good lookin’ piano from his suite on the 33rd floor of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Manhattan. The plaque on it says, “some of the loveliest songs in American musical history were composed on this Steinway.” It was still on display on the hotel’s mezzanine floor until the hotel closed for renovation. This baby is the top!
And speaking of immortal instruments, you can now own your own Steinway with some of the greatest pianists of all time tinkling the ivories right in your own living room. At the end of my tour of Steinway and Sons in Hamburg, I am greeted by the self-playing Spirio. Its latest offering is the One Six Five, built in celebration of the company’s 165 years in the business. The One model, a magnificent Model B grand, will set you back £149,750. There are only 10 pieces worldwide, so you’d better be quick if you want to snap one up.
If I can’t have Sharko playing in my living room, a concert for which I would pay a lot of money, then I guess I could settle for Harry Connick Jr and Lang Lang instead.
For more information about Steinway and Sons, visit the website.