The Piano Makers

Baldwin

D.H. Baldwin, a music teacher and a piano salesman founded a firm which begun to manufacture pianos in 1889. After his death in 1899, his partners Lucien Wulsin and G.W. Armstrong made the Baldwin Piano Company into a model of enlightened industrial management. They treated their workers as craftsmen. They designed their factories with beauty and efficiency in mind so as to provide comfort and to encourage their workers’ aspirations to the highest quality – the offices were light and spacious, the walls were decorated with Greek and Roman masterpieces, the factory was surrounded with flower beds and ornamental paths and the windows had floral window boxes. At the great Paris Exposition of 1900, Baldwin took the Grand Prix. From the mid-20th century onwards, Baldwin has been the principal American rival to the great American giant Steinway. It has earned the advocacy of such outstanding musicians like Leonard Bernstein and André Previn.

Bechstein

German Carl Bechstein founded his piano firm in 1853. His business acumen and the support of Hans Von Bülow, one of the greatest pianists of the century, enabled him to rise to market supremacy and to be considered as the undisputed emperor of European piano manufacturers. He was also one of the first to establish prestigious concert halls in several cities. Bechstein became the principal supplier of piano to most of the crowned heads of Europe. The quality of his pianos were generally held to be peerless and in public’s mind, rivalled only by Blüthner and Steinway.

Blüthner

Julius Blüthner founded his firm in 1853 in Leipzig and built it into one of the biggest and most admired piano manufacturing firms in the world. Blüthner contributed to the piano’s tonal armoury the “aliquot system,” whereby the tone, duration and power of the upper notes were enhanced by unstruck, resonating strings set in motion by sympathetic vibration. Despite this device, however, his instruments had a generally lighter, more silvery tone than those of his principal rivals.

Bösendorfer

The piano firm of Bösendorfer of Vienna was founded by Ignaz Bösendorfer in 1828. They are responsible for some of the biggest pianos ever to go into mass production, with their full-size concert grands exceeding ten feet in length and encompassing more than eight octaves. In 1872, Ignaz’ son, Ludwig opened a concert hall, the Bösendorfersaal, which soon became the principal Viennese venue for chamber music concerts and solo recitals.

Broadwood

The London firm of John Broadwood & Sons is the oldest piano manufacturer in existence. It started to manufacture pianos in 1773 after the firm founded in 1728 by Swiss-born harpsichord Burkhard Tschudi (later anglicized to Burkat Shudi) passed on to his son-in-law, Scots-born John Broadwood, whom he made into a partner. Their pianos were not much different from Zumpe’s square. It was only after seven years later did Broadwood produced a square piano of his own design, which included the transplanted wrestplank. It was followed a year later by his first grand. Many of Broadwood’s innovations, including those of his sons and further descendants, were widely and in some cases, universally adopted, by most piano manufacturers. The foremost of Broadwood’s innovations was the inclusion of pedals for raising the dampers (sustaining pedal) and shifting the action sideways (“una corda” or soft pedal).

Chickering

The piano firm founded in 1823 by New England cabinet maker, Jonas Chickering, was the first to rival in quality and enterprise the great European piano manufacturers. Chickering’s major innovation was the introduction of a single cast-iron frame for the square piano, an improved version of Babcock’s iron frame, in 1840. He later adopted the similar frame for the grand piano in 1843.The success of his design enabled the piano to support the heightened tension and thicker strings required to meet the resilience and richer tone demanded by the greatest virtuosos and composers. Chickering’s innovation was acknowledged in Europe with the award of the Gold Medal at the Universal Exposition held in Paris in 1867.

Erard

Sébastien Erard pioneered piano making in France. He produced a square piano in 1777, with a compass of five octaves, based on similar models from England and Germany. Louis XVI conferred him the right to build fortepianos independently of the Parisian instrument-building fraternity. Erard opened a branch in London 1786, and with the outbreak of the French Revolution, transferred there. The firm enjoyed the patronage of clients in both France and London. His clients included such personalities as Marie Antoinnette, Napoleon and George IV, as well as many great pianists. Erard’s important contribution to the grand piano’s development was his design of a replacement for the English action, which he called the “double replacement” action. Erard’s firm reached the height of its success when it was awarded the gold medal at the great Paris Exposition in 1855. Due to its chronic conservatism, however, the firm’s fortune declined dramatically thereafter and by the end of the 18th century, it closed down.

Pleyel

Ignaz Pleyel begun his piano business in 1807 which carried his name well into the 20th century. Pleyel, with the exception of Clementi, was musically the most overqualified piano manufacturer in history. He had sixty symphonies, still more string quarters, eight concertos, chamber works of almost every kind and two operas to his credit. He opened a music shop and founded a publishing house in 1795, which issued his own works as well as works by Boccherini, Beethoven, Clementi, Haydn, Dussek and many others.

The firm opened the Salle Pleyel, Pleyel’ concert hall in Paris in 1830. This is where Chopin, a friend of Ignaz’ son, Camille who was also an accomplished musician like his father, gave his first and last concerts in Paris.

Steinway

The name Steinway has come to be synonymous with the piano itself.. It was the Steinway sound that set the standard for the piano industry. The Steinway dynasty, still going strong, was founded 1836 by Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg of Wolfshagen in Germany. He emigrated to America in 1850 and there built his piano business into a major player in the industry. His squares won him a prize at the great fair of the American Institute. But it was his iron-framed, overstrung grand of 1859 and the similarly based upright of 1863 that has significant ramifications – it revolutionized the concept of piano design and tone for the whole piano industry worldwide. With Steinway’s innovations to the piano, pianists have been able to command a great range of tone and volume such as never been done before. Steinway’s innovations, which included more than 40 patents between the years 1865 to 1885, were later on almost universally adopted by the piano industry.

Steinway established a European branch in Hamburg, Germany in 1880. After the Second World War, Steinway’s American and European models have diverged somewhat in character, with the American instruments generally brighter, more brilliant and more metallic in tone, while the Hamburg pianos retained the warmth and tonal depth associated with the Steinways of pre-World War One vintage, and to this day with Bechsteins.

Yamaha

Yamaha, a company now famous for its motorcycles, hi-fi equipment and other electronic products, actually began as an instrument maker in 1887. It started to built upright pianos in 1900 and its Yamaha grands fifty years later. Since then, Yamaha grew steadily in quality and reputation. Now, it is considered among the top makers of pianos in the world. It has won the advocacy of keyboard legends such as Sciatoslav Richter and Glenn Gould.