From the New York Times:
June 6, 2003
Fanfare for the Uncommon Piano
By DIANE COLE
I Love a Piano," Irving Berlin's anthem to the keyboard, has been music to my ears ever since I began tickling the ivories at the age of 8. But New York's love affair with the keyboard has been going on a lot longer, as several museums, a landmark showroom and this country's most famous piano factory all attest. In addition, gala concerts at Carnegie Hall this weekend commemorate the 150th anniversary of the founding, in New York, of Steinway & Sons.
But while that venerable piano manufacturer may be the best-known symbol of the instrument in New York, there are other places connected to the piano that can delight the casual visitor and surprise even the connoisseur. The best place to begin exploring the piano's extraordinary popularity in the United States and its advent as a status symbol in this country is at the Museum of the American Piano, at 291 Broadway in Lower Manhattan.
Entering this compact, basement-level institution, founded in 1984, is like walking through an auditory time machine and hearing the unusual plunk and plink of keyboards made 200 years ago. Many once-popular piano makers displayed here — Knabe, Chickering, Osborn, Geib and Nunns, Clark & Company, among others — no longer sound familiar because they have gone out of business.
But more than a century ago hundreds of manufacturers proliferated across the country. Piano ownership conveyed a sense of middle-class refinement and domesticity, and such was the demand that by 1850 about 60 piano manufacturers existed in the New York area alone, making it an important local industry that provided factory work for new immigrants and created jobs for salesmen, tuners, movers and music teachers. By the end of the 19th century, about one in six New Yorkers worked in some piano-related job, says Kalman Detrich, the museum's founder and executive director. (Mr. Detrich or an associate will provide a guided tour if you call in advance.)
As you walk through the two chronologically arranged galleries, don't be surprised if you find yourself rubbing your eyes as you count only 61, or in some cases 73 or 75 or 85, cream-colored keys on instruments of earlier eras, rather than the standard 88 of pianos today. One eerily glistening keyboard has keys made from mother-of-pearl. The foot pedals are not always where you expect them to be, either; on one instrument there is one each on opposite ends of the piano. In some instances, you might not even realize that the once-fashionable but now obscure-looking piece of furniture before you is a parlor piano of yore.
One such oddity is the giraffe piano, essentially an upright with a grand's harp-shaped frame with strings standing atop it. These pianos became popular in the 1880's, promising to provide the resonant sound and high-class décor of a grand while taking up much less space. One catch: no stand for sheet music. Another 19th-century space saver is displayed: a piano whose music desk folds up and disappears, allowing the piano to masquerade as an exquisitely carved rosewood cabinet with no telltale keyboard, pedals or strings in sight.
Still another obsolete style well represented here is the so-called square piano, whose actual shape more closely resembles an elongated rectangle. One intricately carved 1815 example is supported by six fluted legs. No wonder this style's massive size, compared with the more compact upright, led to the square's extinction by the end of the 19th century.
A 1920's Player Piano
On his tour Mr. Detrich saves the most novel item for last: a 1920's Nickelodeon Company player piano that also encases a mechanically operated tambourine, cymbal, bass drum, triangle and accordion.
Although the museum also offers examples of French, German and British pianos, the emphasis on American ones highlights the fact that the piano was the first American product to supersede its European counterparts, Mr. Detrich says. The turning point, he explains, came in 1850, when the American-made Chickering piano beat out European competitors to win a gold medal in Paris.
The piano industry also presaged today's trend toward globalization, Mr. Detrich said. Exotic woods like rosewood originated in South America, ivory was imported from Africa, felt for the hammers came from New Zealand and Australia, and shellac and finishing materials were made in Asia.
More piano history — and additional exotic pianos — can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's musical-instruments collection, which houses the oldest piano in existence, built in 1720 by the Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori. In outward shape, Cristofori's unornamented, slim-cased, fragile-looking wooden instrument with yellowed keys resembles a harpsichord. But his interior music-making mechanism was revolutionary, essentially replacing the harpsichord's string-plucking quills with fast-striking hammers.
The keyboard on this piano, though only four and a half octaves, could produce a wider range of sound, high and low, and could play, as suggested by the instrument's new name — the gravicembalo col piano e forte — soft and loud. By the end of the 18th century, five octaves had become standard, and pianos were so popular that wealthy music lovers were commissioning ornate, custom-made instruments. Around 1790, for example, Ferdinand Hofmann of Vienna built an elegant cherry grand, with delicately carved arcades above an ebony-and-bone keyboard, and a music rack with a tall Gothic-arch window design.
Mozart, Haydn or their contemporaries might have played such an instrument. By the time Beethoven died in 1827, the octave range had grown even larger and, thanks to the use of steel to reinforce the previously all-wooden frames, pianos could withstand greater wear and tear. Such are the conclusions to be drawn from the far heftier, heavily legged Brazilian rosewood grand piano built by John Broadwood & Sons of London in 1827.
The prize for showiest instrument goes to the splendiferous, honey-colored satinwood grand built in 1840 by Erard & Company. It has a Louis XV-style inlaid wooden case with elaborate gilt trim, massive sculptured legs and painted scenes of lutenists, singers, birds, lions, floral arrangements and nudes.
More down-to-earth keyboards are also on view at the Metropolitan, however, and not just in the musical-instrument collection. In the painting galleries, two canvases by Renoir, for example, display upright pianos — ubiquitous in middle-class homes throughout Europe and the United States by the 1890's — surrounded by sweet-faced girls eager to show off their musical accomplishments.
Temples to Music-Making
While the antique, handcrafted pianos at the Museum of the American Piano and the Met may be rarities, the skills that go into piano-making have not been lost. A glimpse of this can be gleaned at Steinway & Sons, at 19th Avenue and 38th Street in Long Island City, Queens, where piano manufacturing is still a respected craft honoring the spirit of that company's founder, Heinrich E. Steinweg, who was a master cabinetmaker before he came to the United States in 1850 and Anglicized his name.
New York remains the very place to learn a fine way to treat a Steinway, as Berlin wrote — especially this year, the 150th anniversary of that piano manufacturer's founding. To celebrate, Steinway & Sons is sponsoring three gala concerts at Carnegie Hall this week, the final two tonight and tomorrow, with each performance intended to highlight a different musical style. Tonight's concert is to feature the jazz pianists Herbie Hancock, Ramsey Lewis and Ahmad Jamal. Tomorrow night the spotlight is on pop, with a bill that includes K. D. Lang, Peter Nero and Roger Williams.
Tickets for these events can be pricey, but the Steinway factory — in Astoria, Queens, since 1870 — offers free tours showing workers as they assemble the approximately 12,000 parts that go into a new concert grand.
You can see the finished product by stepping inside Steinway's Manhattan showroom at 109 West 57th Street, a building whose 1925 Beaux-Arts exterior and ornate interior rotunda were designed by Warren & Wetmore, the same firm that gave New York its Grand Central Terminal. Grand is indeed the word for the multitiered Waterford chandelier that dangles from the domed ceiling of the main room, which is graced by tall marble columns and oversize paintings of heroic-looking composers.
The two lower floors of this 16-story structure have the feel of a private mansion, but with a difference. The cathedral-like main room, where a polished black concert grand sits regally in the center, can also double as a recital room for private performances, often by piano teachers and their students, and for occasional public seminars.
Only slightly less intimidating are the five salons down the hall, each filled with at least a half-dozen grand pianos in different sizes and models. You would think you are in a hall of mirrors except that each instrument differs slightly from the other, in wood type (satinwood, rosewood, dark cherry, mahogany, pear and ebony, to name a few), style (compare the elaborately decorated, stubby-legged retro Victorian model with the austere, pared-down lines of Karl Lagerfeld's design) and vintage (the oldest, from the 1890's, have 85 keys rather than today's traditional 8.
Each instrument sounds different, too. You can hear this in the jazz riffs and rippling arpeggios, some passages more mellow, others brighter, that float through the building, a cacophony provided by piano shoppers happy to test the merchandise. If you put your hands to the keyboards you can feel the different resistance in each action as well.
As you roam you might also see the former company president, Henry Z. Steinway, the 87-year-old great-grandson of Heinrich Steinweg, who established the firm on Hester Street, on the Lower East Side, in 1853 before moving to Astoria in the 1870's. Wearing a natty bowtie and a dark suit with Steinway's trademark lyre on a lapel pin, the white-haired Mr. Steinway reports every day to the second-floor office he calls his "very own Old Curiosity Shop." This is a conference room lined with metal file cabinets and graced with memorabilia like a framed lock of Liszt's hair; a beige doorman's hat bearing the Steinway & Sons insignia, dating from more gracious days when businesses employed doormen; and a fire helmet with the Steinway name, from the 1890's, when the Astoria factory had its own fire company.
"I'm the last Steinway, a sort of icon they show off from time to time," Mr. Steinway said, introducing himself. The family no longer owns or runs the company; it was sold in 1972 and since 1995 has been part of a corporation known as Steinway Musical Instruments Inc. These days, Mr. Steinway observed, his chief duty is autographing pianos, a task he performs with the single flourish of a black-inked laundry marker. Oddly, he never learned to play the piano himself. "I had a few lessons, but they never really took," he says.
The procession of distinguished musicians associated with Steinway began in 1872, when the company sponsored the first American tour of the European piano sensation Anton Rubinstein. Another 19th-century matinee-idol pianist, Ignace Paderewski, played the inaugural concert at Carnegie Hall in 1891. Since then it has been host to more than 520 additional pianists in solo performances. This is the focus of an exhibition paying tribute to those great pianists, which is on display at Carnegie Hall's Rose Museum through July 3.
Concert programs, posters, autographs, photographs, sheet music, record covers and newspaper clippings document the parade of pianists who have played at Carnegie. Most notable is the continuously playing videotape of piano performances by, among others, Artur Rubinstein, Claudio Arrau, Vladimir Horowitz, Rudolf Serkin and Eubie Blake, who all knew how to get to Carnegie Hall. And even if, as hard as we practice, we can't, we can always hum along with Irving Berlin.