A View Inside the Steinway Factory
Steinway to Heaven
Anthony Haden-Guest flexes his fingers at the Steinway factory in New York, where the pianos can be as much a work of art as the music played on them
‘AT RIVER CAFE, a loss of the finer things,’ read the New York Times headline in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The story about the Brooklyn waterfront eatery noted, with mournful specificity, ‘A new Steinway piano was destroyed; Georgian antiques were damaged.’
A couple of weeks later I was at the Lincoln Center for a concert headlined by Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs and Michael ‘White Lightning’ McDonald, a roller-coaster which had them at it from not long past eight till nearly eleven. During a breather I walked upfront to check out the maestro of Steely Dan’s piano.
Well, of course, it was a Steinway.
Steinway is not the only trade name to have earned a place in the global lexicon as a ‘real’ word, as real as the name of a fish or a flower, but even in that lexicon it stands out. Rolls-Royce is Rolls-Royce, but Bugatti and Ferrari also swagger. Coca-Cola is Coca-Cola. Hello there, Pepsi! But 95 per cent of the world’s concert pianos are Steinways.
The name has become a spiffy generic, a signifier, like caviar and champagne.
Actually the name began as Steinweg. Heinrich Steinweg was born in the Duchy of Brunswick, almost three-quarters of a century before Bismarck unified Germany. He fought as a volunteer in the war against Napoleon, then was apprenticed to an organ maker.
Once on his own, he made stringed instruments before building his first square piano in 1835. By the 1840s Steinweg had a successful business and a large family, but then came 1848, the Year of Revolutions. In 1850, he and four of his sons left for New York. Henry Steinway, as he now was, first set up on Varick Street, prospered, bought land in Queens and re-established his factory in what was not yet Long Island City.
That is where I went to visit Steinway & Sons. So it has been a thoroughly characteristic Euro-American story. But in its stick-to-itiveness and sheer durability it has been a pretty unusual story, too.
WE MIGHT AS well begin with the beginnings, which are the planks heaped outside the Steinway facility. These, the makings of future pianos, one day to glimmer in 10,000 concert halls, are left to weather for three years before being stripped of moisture in kilns. The woods are then carved into the piano components.
Laura Seele, manager of the Custom Pianos department at Steinway, took me around the plant, giving me a zippetydoo-dah course in piano-building all the while, as we passed the soundboards, the legs, different fiddly bits and pieces.
‘There are about 12,000 parts in a Steinway. If you think about cars that’s about four cars,’ Seele said. Then there are the woods. ‘This is Hard Rock maple,’ she said. ‘It’s incredibly strong. It has to withstand twenty tonnes of pressure when it’s put together. And a single frame can have up to eighteen layers of lamination.’
Seele said that once the laminated sheets are ready for assembly, the Steinway team needs to move on the order of greased lightning to wrap them onto one of the patented Steinway rim presses that will form the case of the piano before the glue that binds them together sets. ‘One thing that distinguishes Steinway from the competition is that we build both the inner and the outer rims together,’ she said; they don’t stick on the outside as the last phase.
Back to the woods. ‘This is Kewazinga Bubinga. It’s an African wood. It has a very curly grain to it, a very bright red colour. This is Macassar ebony, which is used quite a lot by high-end furniture designers at the moment. It’s very in vogue. Most of the pianos that we produce today are ebony. But we can do pianos in any solid colour somebody wants — anything from aubergine purple to royal blue to kelly green. Anything that anybody would want, we can match.’
After the piano is built, it must get a minute going-over.
‘It’s more than minute,’ Seele said. ‘It goes through a machine upstairs called the Pounder. There is this pounding for a number of minutes — it sounds like the soundtrack to a horror film or something. And it’s about the equivalent of two years’ playing time, which is a quality control measure.
'Problems with parts typically surface in the first eighteen months of a piano’s life, enabling us to catch and correct them before the pianos ever leave the factory. The piano then goes through a series of seven tunings by skilled piano tuners before it leaves the factory. That’s the last thing that happens.’
Does she have any idea how many Steinways there are in the world?
‘Yes, I do!’ she said. ‘I have a very good idea because we serial-number them all, and we are coming close to 600,000.’
Seele herself deals with the special pianos, though. ‘The customers who I deal with in general are the highly affluent customer who may or may not play the piano at all or very well. They are looking for a beautiful piece of design. The pianos that I deal with are specially designed either in terms of the architecture or treatment of the surface by a highly skilled craftsman — like covered in marquetry or fine painting or that kind of thing.’
How many such pianos does Steinway make?
‘Well, you know, they are extremely special,’ Seele told me. ‘We have a number of categories, limited editions, a special design that we will produce in a certain number for sale around the world. This year we had a limited edition of 25 special pianos. And at any given time we are working on a very small handful of customer-commissioned special pianos.’
WHAT'S THE MOST time it will take to make such a piano? ‘The most extraordinary one we have ever built took three years to make. It’s truly stunning. It was called Sound of Harmony and it was completely covered, the entire surface, with an exquisite marquetry that included 40 different species of wood. It depicted a couple of peacocks. It was a single piano that we have never and will never build again.’
The peacock piano, inspired by a painting, was commissioned by a Chinese client who gave the Steinway artists an idea of what he wanted. Does he play?
‘I don’t know if he plays. But I know he was proud to loan the piano to be used in a number of performances in China,’ including at the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai.
That was the most expensive art case ever made, but the most expensive to sell at auction was the Alma-Tadema Steinway, which sold at Christie’s in 1997 for $1.2 million. That’s actually pretty cheap, compared with Contemporary art, I observed. Seele laughed.
‘I know. But that was fifteen years ago,’ she said. Indeed, such is the appetite of the art market, that these days these remarkable objects would certainly fetch a great deal more. Indeed, as of earlier this year, Steinway actually has an artist-in-residence on its Long Island City demesne.
A Texan who works under the name of Lynx, he makes piano-and-music-inspired art. Seele’s rationale is shrewd. Steinway’s competition — at the lower end of the market anyway — is digital and this was a way of underlining that what Steinway does is done by hand and altogether different.
It should be noted that Lynx’s job description is ‘visual artist in residence’. Steinway doesn’t want any confusion with its other artists, namely the piano players.
‘We have about 1,600 Steinway artists,’ Seele said. ‘And there are specific qualifications that are necessary to being invited to become a Steinway artist.’ Seele doesn’t deal with them, she explained: ‘Professional pianists tend to perform on our classic standard Steinway grand pianos.’ There is nothing standard about a Steinway, you feel.
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