Until a few days ago, I’d never really thought much about the piano.

My maternal grandparents had an upright, which my late mother and aunt learned how to play. My late paternal aunt owned and played a Yamaha baby grand. I could read music and play a bit myself.

However, lifting the lid off the piano reveals a world of science and nature many of us haven’t contemplated.

The French newsweekly Marianne recently reported on the intricacies of the piano, from sound to brand dominance (‘Un Steinway, sinon rien?’ [‘A Steinway or nothing?’] by Emmanuel Tresmontant, 24 – 30 April 2015, pp. 80-83).

Hundreds of manufacturers, now gone

There was a time when every Western nation — even a US state — had its own piano manufacturer. Wikipedia has a nearly complete list here. (My grandparents had a Gulbransen, not included.)

Very few of them are still in business. A handful of survivors have moved production to the Far East.

The French manufacturer Pleyel was the most recent to stop production. That was in 2013.

Interestingly, around the time Pleyel was winding down, a new company in England, Cavendish Pianos, launched. Named after the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, Cavendish being their family name — and partly financed by them — the company makes five models from uprights to grands. They are located at Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire and use the county’s finest expertise, wood and wool in manufacture.

However, most of us know only the Steinway and Yamaha brands. And there’s a reason for that. More in a moment.

What classical composers used

The Marianne article tells us that in the 19th century, Paris had over 100 piano manufacturers (p. 81).

The pianos were made in various shapes depending on the sound desired: pear, pyramid, cube and even a giraffe! Some pianos were able to indefinitely carry the sound of one note played until the person playing lifted his finger. If you try this today, you’ll be disappointed. The sound fades out even with your finger on the key.

Pleyel pianos were developed by the classical composer Ignaz Pleyel. He introduced the upright model to France in 1815. This piano was developed from models popular in Britain at the time. By 1834, Pleyel et Cie employed 250 workers who constructed 1,000 pianos each year.

Chopin composed and played on a Pleyel, said to have a singing sound quality. Liszt used a piano made by rival Erard, thought to have been even better in tonality. Pleyel bought Erard and another pianomaker Gaveau in the 1980s.

Today, only a few models made by these companies and others around the world exist. The classical pieces we hear today from other pianos lose some of the earlier subtleties in the original compositions.

Steinway’s world dominance

These days, most concert pianists play a Steinway, the leading brand of piano.

French music critic Alain Lompech explained Steinway’s evolution, which began in the 1800s (p. 81):

The genius of Steinway & Sons, founded in New York in 1853 by Heinrich Steinweg, a German, was to take the best innovations of the other manufacturers and integrate them in a harmonious unit. At the first Universal Exposition in Paris in 1867, Steinway took three gold medals from Pleyel and Erard. The most unbelievable bit is that Steinway pianos are made the same as they were in 1880! Nothing has changed since the patents were granted. It’s an absolute miracle.

Philippe Copin, arguably one of Europe’s best piano technicians, told Marianne why Steinway dominates the market (p. 82):

Steinways distinguish themselves by their capacity for resonance. They can project sound in concert halls with 3,000 seats, which had never been done before. Steinway also knew how to accommodate from the start the demands of composers such as Liszt, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov who needed more percussive pianos: a fortissimo from Prokofiev does not have the same impact as one from Mozart or Beethoven.

Copin adds that few professional pianists know how to get the best from a Steinway:

They don’t know how it’s made and how this affects its timbre. Most often, they all ask for the same thing: that their piano be adaptable and allow them to play all repertoires … In order to respond to all these demands, it has been observed that only one brand can meet them: Steinway! Add to that that a grand piano for concerts costs €140,000 whatever the marque. You then understand why there is so little diversity.

Marianne points out that other manufacturers ended up trying to imitate Steinway to meet the demands of pianists. For example, the sound from the Austrian make Bösendorfer started out as ’round and soft, deep’ (p. 82). Not so long ago, concert pianists complained that Bösendorfer wasn’t powerful enough, so the maker altered its hammers in response, resulting in a ‘hard and metallic’ sound.

Incidentally, Yamaha bought Bösendorfer in 2007.

Musicologiest Ziad Kreidy told Marianne that he is sorry the original sounds which distinguished one piano manufacturer from another are history (pp. 82, 83):

… to satisfy demand on a global scale, piano manufacture has become extremely automated and standardised.

Modern pianos have such heavy, sonorous and rich basses that it’s impossible to respect the pedals played, for example, by Chopin in some of his Nocturnes.

This also holds true for Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3:

On a modern Steinway Beethoven’s instrumentation is impossible to achieve. A too-insistent resonance ruins the sound and the interplay becomes cacophony. On an old Pleyel, by contrast, you had only to respect the pedal indications for the melody to unfold naturally.

He went on to say (p. 83) that, previously, each manufacturer had their own notion of tonal

warmth, clarity and the natural which made the reputations of Pleyel and Erard, handmade by passionate artisans, depositors of a savoir-faire completely lost now …

With these instruments, as rare as they are fragile, we enter into another poetic universe. The sound is natural, round and golden, as if it were amber.

Concert virtuoso Alain Planès was fortunate enough to play a 1836 Pleyel which he said sounded

totally authentic … exactly as Chopin intended.

He was also able to record Debussy’s Préludes on an 1897 Bechstein which left his heart pounding with excitement.

Yamaha, the only real rival

Marianne noted that, whilst the Italian manufacturer Fazioli and the German Bluthner still make ‘excellent’ pianos, Steinway’s only real rival is Yamaha, especially with their newest model, the CFX (p. 82).

Only time will tell.

Hammers and wool

Modern Steinways have much harder hammers than the old, beloved makes of piano (p. 83). This affects the sound quality, making it bold, percussive and heavy.

Another factor contributing to sound is the sheep’s wool felt used on the hammers. Alain Planès said that the late, great pianist Rudolf Serkin who died in 1991, surmised that modern felt is considerably different to that of the old days:

He thought that today’s sheep are badly nourished, that their wool no longer has the same quality as their ancestors’ and that this, naturally, has a direct influence on the sound coming from the piano.

An interesting theory, one which might be true.

It is interesting to note that the earliest covering on piano hammers was leather. Felt replaced leather. The first piano felt manufacturer was JD Weickert, based in Leipzig:

In 1847 the first felt for piano hammer was made in Germany by the Weickert factory. This felt was successful[ly] tested and used by the piano factory J.G. Irmler. Piano Felt Factory J.D. Weickert was the new name of the company.

The existing and newly founded Piano factories at that time caused an increasing demand for Piano Felt. Even today well-known companies as Steinway, Blüthner, Bösendorfer , Ibach, Bechstein or Rönisch were already customers of the Felt factory. The factory had to increase the capacity and had to add on new facilities. The number of staff increased by 50 in year 1860 to 350 employees at the beginning of the 20th century.

In the late 19th century, The Guardian tells us:

more people were employed making pianos in London than in any other manufacturing business.

Highly technical

None of us doubts that manufacturing a piano is an involved process.

So is being a piano technician. Philippe Copin spent ten years training at Yamaha’s factory in Japan. It can take a highly trained technician up to two days to properly tune and adjust a piano before a major concert (pp. 81, 82).

This video describes some of what is involved in adjusting individual key’s temperaments:

Wikipedia has an excellent entry on Boston’s Timothy Gilbert and his piano patents from the 19th century, which were very technical and highly successful.

The technology and mathematical calculations behind piano hammers is discussed here, complete with illustrations.

Today, at Cavendish Pianos, owner and founder Adam Cox told The Guardian that:

With each piano made up of as many as 20,000 parts, the suppliers include hardwood sawmills, feltmakers and a hand-spinner of piano strings, all within easy reach of the ex-cowsheds.

“China and the far east have many advantages but we can beat them,” says Cox, whose favourite statistic is a reminder of the glory days of British piano sales.

Whilst many reading this will say, ‘Keyboards get the job done, too,’ Cox says:

Keyboards and the like had a novelty but people are realising their limitations compared with a real piano.

When it comes to music, nothing’s grander than a grand — or even a standard upright piano! Expensive, yes, but well worth it. And now we know what’s under the lid.

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