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The Modern Piano Emerges

Thanks to the remarkable inventiveness of Broadwood in England and other European contributors, the piano was reaching maturity on The Continent by the middle 1800s. The next bold steps towards the modern instrument would come form New World builders across the ocean (albeit transplanted Europeans themselves.) America was in throes of the world’s biggest advancements in industry & technology, and it was here that so many fine piano builders started to set up camp and invent wonderful new improvements for the instrument.

Jonas Chickering established his piano company in Boston in 1823, and industriously set out making many important improvements to the plate, bearing and tension of the stringing scale. Other famous makers sprung up in Baltimore (William Knabe and Charles M. Stieff) Boston (Mason & Hamlin) Ohio (Baldwin) and the countless piano manufacturing companies that sprung up in New York. Of these, the most prominent and legendary is Steinway.

In 1846, after years of building pianos in his kitchen and workshop in Germany, cabinet-maker Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg decided to move his family to the New World. One of his sons, Theodor, stayed back to continue the family’s German piano business, and eventually sold the business to three other piano builders to form the Grotrian-Steinweg company, still in business today in Braunshweig. Theodor then left to join his family in New York, which, had since changed its last name to Steinway, to demonstrate their full embracing of the American way.

Stacks of books have been written about the incredible rise of the Steinway Company, their inventive genius, their bold marketing by securing the endorsements of the top pianists of the day, their full employee “village” campus, complete with schools for the employee’s children, their foundries and three world-spanning manufacturing outlets in New York, London and Hamburg. Thick tomes and coffee-table books like Ronald Ratcliffe’s “Steinway”, D. W.Fostle’s “The Steinway Saga”, and Chapin’s “The Making Of A Steinway Piano” are all readily available in both new and used editions, and make fascinating reads for anyone interested in delving deeply into the making of both the piano and the company.

Steinway had held over 100 patents for inventions pertaining to virtually every component of the piano. They invented a special quarter-round fulcrum under the keys to speed play, calling it the Accelerated Action; the Duplex scale for extra harmonic string resonance; the middle pedal on grands, the Sostenuto, which allows for selective sustaining of individual notes; and wooden dowels to allow the iron plate to hover slightly over the soundboard. One significant improvement to the piano which Steinway is credited for, stands out above the rest: the “overstrung” stringing scale.

In the photo below, you can see how the copper-wound bass strings go over the treble strings at an angle, whereas prior pianos like Broadwood had bass strings going straight to the back on the same plane as the trebles. This overstrung designed allowed for increasing the length of the bass strings by several inches, and repositioning the bass bridge more to the center of the soundboard, both resulting in a deeper, richer tone in the bass section.

Steinway- top down View (2)

My passion for sharing the piano with everybody has made it fun for me erect this piano lover’s website, and to spend these last several posts giving a quick overview of the piano’s history and evolution. If you’re crazy about the piano like me, and would love to learn even more about the piano’s “grand” history, there are many books devoted to a thorough coverage of the subject. Here I’ll just mention a couple favorites: “Pianos And Their Makers” by Alfred Dolge, and Arthur Loesser’s “Men, Women and Pianos – A Social History.” And for an up-to-date overview about the current state of the piano industry and all the brands still in production today, every piano fanatic will want to own a copy of Larry Fine’s “The Piano Book”, kept current with Annual Supplements.

In our next post we’ll take time out to view some exploded perspectives of the inside and outside of both grand & upright pianos, for those who wish to understand how their beloved instrument works.

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