A SOUND INVESTMENT
Delve behind the scenes at the Steinway factory in Hamburg and it’s easy to see why the world’s most famous pianos come at a price
Behind the scenes at Steinway’s Hamburg piano factory
On an unprepossessing industrial estate in Hamburg, a ten-minute drive from the River Elbe, the Steinway piano factory could be missed among the signs for Transthermos frozen goods, Bosch car servicing and Jungheinrich forklifts. Yet it is here in Rondenbarg that Steinway makes its worldfamous grand pianos (another factory in Queens, New York, makes those destined for the Americas).
The series of buildings includes everything from warehouses, where spruce, maple, whitewood and bubinga is dried for up to two years, to the workshops where the strings for the pianos are cut. In one large room, up to 20 thin slices of maple and mahogany are glued together and bent to form the rim of the piano, using techniques that form one of 139 patents held by the company, while in another soundboards are prepared and fitted. There’s even a room where a machine pounds the keyboard continually for an hour before it is tuned. A grand piano built this way has 12,000 parts, and 80 per cent of the construction is done by hand. Each element has been refined over the years, and though technology is introduced where it will add to the precision of an operation, the piano-making process has remained largely unchanged for a century. It can take a year of production to create one of the concert grands.
THE STEINWAY STORY
In some ways, Steinway is typical of the mittelstand – those small and mid-sized German companies that the world so admires and is envious of – yet in others it is completely different. To take one obvious example: it is really a US company, one which moved out of family ownership in the 1970s and is currently the property of hedge-fund billionaire John Paulson. Together with the US Steinway, the company employs 1,150 people, many of whom have worked here for decades. Despite the difficulty of learning to play the piano, the instrument is as popular as ever. Therefore, thought of expansion is in the air at the Hamburg factory, home to 310 of the employees, with plans for a further facility next door to →
allow Steinways to be renovated and to expand overall production capacity.
The Steinway story began in Germany with Henry E Steinway (or Steinweg as he was then) building his first grand piano in Seesen in the Harz mountains in 1836. He emigrated to the US and founded Steinway & Sons in New York in 1853, and after success came there he opened the Hamburg factory in 1880, first in Schanzenstrasse then, since 1927, in the present factory.
The current Hamburg location produces the full range of classic models, from the baby grand S-155 to the concert grand D-274 (the numbers refer to the length of the pianos in centimetres). There are also two upright pianos, K-132 and V-125 (the height in centimetres). The grand pianos run from €35,300 for the S-155 to €160,000 for the D-274. Steinway also has two less expensive ranges – the Boston and the Essex, the former being built in Japan and the latter in China, costing from €5,630 for an upright Boston through to €25,700 for a Boston grand.
Prices may be high, but for pianists around the world the experience of playing a Steinway is something to be aspired to. The chances are, if you listen to a piano recording, it’s the inimitable Steinway sound you are hearing. Everyone from Lang Lang to
Daniel Barenboim, and, historically, Horowitz to Richter played
KEYS TO SUCCESS
A number of factors have contributed to Steinway’s status as the most famous piano maker in the world – history, marketing and the sheer quality and consistency of the product. The company has always made grand pianos, but by concentrating on this type of instrument, it has withstood some of the ups and downs the rest of the industry has faced. Roll back a century and many middle-class families owned an upright piano, while it was part of the furniture in pubs, clubs and churches – entertainment centred around it. As radio then TV grew in popularity, there was a decline in demand. Many companies specialising in the production of uprights closed or merged, but Steinway was focusing on another market, and one which has held true for more than a century – the concert hall and top performers. For recitals the best is needed, and the pianos, though they are remarkably robust, need replacing every few years because of the wear and tear of performance and practice. As one Steinway retires from the stage to the concert halls’ practice rooms, so new Steinways are purchased.
The price the pianos command is a reflection of the work that goes into them. Although the prices are high, you can find Swiss watches that cost more in the jewellers of Hamburg. The brand faces the challenge of balancing its illustrious history and heritage with remaining up to date for a new generation for performers, however. This is helped through the Steinway artists programme. Although the company doesn’t pay top pianists to play its pianos, it does support them by ensuring they have access to the best Steinways available and the help of specialist concert technicians (you can hear an interesting story about one of them – Ulrich Gerhartz – in a Radio 4 programme called The Piano Man, available on the BBC iPlayer).
The chances are, if you listen to a piano recording, it’s the inimitable Steinway sound you are hearing
VERY GRAND PIANOS
Despite the length of time they take to make, Steinways generally aren’t built to order, though, of course, a careful eye on previous demand helps determine how many of each model are constructed each year. There are bespoke options for those with plenty of money to spare, however. The 165th anniversary is being celebrated with a limited-edition piano, costing €165,000 and, in addition, there are various finishes and bespoke elements that can be selected. At the other end of the scale are the matt versions of the pianos, made for schools and institutions, which come at a reduced price; evidence that the company is keen for a new generation of talented players to know what it’s like to play a Steinway.
It is also a clever business strategy. Yes, Steinway would like private individuals to be customers, but such is the longevity of the pianos that once someone has bought one they are unlikely to do so again; the pianos will last their owner’s lifetime and beyond. The company as a whole has manufactured more than 600,000 pianos, all registered in the records, yet finding a second-hand Steinway is difficult, because people tend to hold onto them, handing them down the generations. If they do let one go, it’s often to local churches or schools.
A visit to the factory and conversation with those who work there soon leads to technical details that are probably only of interest to real aficionados – the ingenuity of cross-stringing, for instance, the duplex scale, the sostenuto system and laminated bridges. What is really impressive, however, is the final touch, the “voicing” of the piano; different from tuning in that it is the job of the voicers (there are three of them at Hamburg) to ensure the piano, while unique in itself, has a consistent tone and timbre, with harmony among the keys.
If you happen to be in the market for a Steinway, you can visit one of its showrooms (or registered retailers) around the world and choose the size and voice you prefer. Or simply enjoy the distinctive sound from a seat in the auditorium the next time you attend a recital.
A polished, black Steinway grand piano