Tinkling the ivories: Tales of piano and their makers

Tinkling the ivories: Tales of piano and their makers


I used to read Charles Schulz’s Peanuts voraciously as a callow kid (still do) and I never knew till very recently that in each comic strip Schroeder was actually playing Beethoven!

To those who are unacquainted with Peanuts, Schroeder is the Beethoven-obsessed music little boy whom musicologists like William Meredith, director of the Ira F Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University now say is actually playing Beethoven’s music. 

At the Canon Image Lounge in a Mumbai mall, a red haired young woman was the picture of concentration, as she played on a shiny black Yamaha instrument which combined a traditional keyboard with a computerised electronic playback. This recital by Uzbek musician Ksenia Ayzel marked the synergistic collaboration between two global brands — Canon and Yamaha. 

Spath in Regensburg, Frick in Berlin, Silbermann in Strasbourg, Strouth in London; Baldwin, Chickering, Wurlitzer are just some of the 12,000 plus brands of pianos available worldwide.

 Vertical pianos include Spinets, Consoles, Studios, and Uprights. Grand pianos come in many sizes. (Many years ago, I twanged two and a half chords on the guitar and an equal number of keys on the piano which was a good reason to buy a Chinese manufactured upright dirt cheap in Dubai — alas, I had to leave it behind). The best pianos are said to be of German make (with the Japanese now getting into the act). 

Pianos have been built in Germany for some 300 years. Even today, roughly 80 percent of their 12,000 or so individual parts are hand-made. It was an Italian though, one Bartolomeo Cristofori, who invented the piano, around 1700 in Florence. Subsequently, German piano-makers influenced the instrument’s development. As it happens, in one year alone, 1853, three of today’s leading companies were founded — by Carl Bechstein in Berlin, by Julius Blüthner in Leipzig and by Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg in New York (Steinweg had emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1850 and Anglicized his name to Henry E. Steinway there) these firms were followed by Steinway & Sons in Hamburg in 1880 and by Schimmel in Stötteritz near Leipzig in 1885.
Towards the end of the 19th century there were some 300 piano-makers in Berlin alone. According to Steinway in Hamburg, the vast majority (90 percent) of buyers still opt for the traditional black design. Schimmel caused a fuss in the early 1950s with the first transparent piano made of acrylic, so one can imagine purists’ alarm at the electronic or digital keyboards and synthesizers (which can either imitate other instruments or generate unusual new timbres) Today, these are manufactured by the likes of Alesis, Casio, Ensoniq and Sonic. 

Needless to say, the inexpensive digital keyboards proved to be a hit worldwide. Today, the world’s largest manufacturer of musical instruments is Yamaha. Established in 1887, Yamaha began producing Japan’s first locally made piano in 1900. In 1904, a Yamaha piano and organ were awarded an Honorary Grand Prize at the St. Louis World’s Fair.
That was also the year that Steinway produced more than 3,500 pianos in its New York and Hamburg factories. In the last 150 years alone, Steinway has registered 128 patents. Steinway is the instrument of choice for the world’s greatest pianists and  95 percent of the world’s concert halls have a Steinway grand. 

In the recent past though, a number of international artists have chosen to play Japanese-made instruments on the stage. In 2002, Ayako Uehara followed in the footsteps of Denis Matseuv, playing a Yamaha CFIIIS to take first place in the 12th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.  

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