Keys to the Kingdom

7 min read

It is the most popular instrument in the world. The heart of any classical orchestra, the piano has also shaped jazz, rock and pop for generations. Arguably, its most iconic examples are made by one company in Germany. MOJEH Men visits Steinway & Sons.

WiebkeWunstorf’searsareeverything. She sits in silence, isolating the strings of a piano with rubber blocks, then striking a couple of keys repeatedly, lost in a two-note reverie. She just listens. Then she might take a piece of sandpaper or a small spiked tool and gently adjust the surface texture of the felt on one of the instrument’s hammers. Then she listens again. And she does this all day.

Wiebke is what is known as the head voicer at Steinway & Sons, arguably makers of the world’s finest pianos and the choice of composers the likes of Rachmaninoff, Liszt and Wagner, world-class players the likes of Horowitz and Rubenstein, not to mention Billy Joel, Elton John and Randy Newman. She is the last person to play the company’s pianos before they leave the factory. She is the person who gives each piano its own sonic mood; its ‘colour’. “Colour is something that you feel,” she says, a quiet woman who might play a personal favourite occasionally to break the isolation, but refuses to do so for an audience. “It’s very individual. Maybe it’s about removing a certain sharpness, or overtones that don’t seem clean enough. A note has to be clear and brilliant but also have a certain power and fullness. You have to feel it through the keys. You want to try to bring out what each specific piano will give you, to underline its personality, which might not be my favourite necessarily. Sometimes you have to leave a piano and come back to it another day. Very occasionally you have to send it back to the factory. It’s an emotional job.”

One, indeed, for an emotional instrument — few instruments can tug at the heartstrings quite like a piano, or, for that matter, rouse them too. Its iconic shape and high-shine lacquered surface — some 90 per cent of all pianos made are ‘piano black’, even if this is a 20th century trend, previously pianos having been made out of rosewood — gives the biggest of the beasts, a grand piano, a presence few other orchestra instruments can match too. And at Steinway, in Hamburg — holders of some 128 historic patents in piano- making — the attention given to finessing the piano’s evocative qualities verges on the obsessive. This is perhaps why concert pianists, unable to take their instruments with them on tour, have been known to pay to have a Steinway flown into that rare concert hall that doesn’t have one.

It was Heinrich Steinweg, who changed his name to the Americanised Steinway and who also established the company a little over 160 years ago, who discovered how the sound was enhanced by using different kinds of wood for many of the 12,000 different parts of the instrument. Yet today only half of the wood bought by the company is, after two years of being left to mature in its vast timber yard hangers, deemed good enough to use. This becomes the piano’s rim, built up from some 20 thin, bent layers, each with the grain running in the same direction — because this improves the sound — then left to rest for 100 days. The internal parts of the piano — the hexa grip pin block, cupola plate, duplex scale, the all-important diaphragmatic soundboard, made of spruce and checked for knots, whorls and imperfections as a leather goods maker might check hides — are all fitted to the rim, under pressure. A Steinway is a model of constant tension, in effect built from the outside in. It looks like a piano long before it can sound like one.

That too undergoes much testing before it gets to Wunstorf. Take, for example, what must be her nightmare: the idea of being locked inside the foam-lined room that houses the einpaukmaschine, which, in a repetitive tuneless tune that could serve more as an instrument of torture, plays each key on each piano 10,000 times. It is this kind of madness that ensures the world’s 6,000 concert halls invariably do turn to Steinway to replace their piano every 10 years or so, at anything up to €Dhs550,000 a time. Not that it’s a bad investment — a second hand Steinway will typically sell for 25 per cent more than the price paid for it. As the Steinway joke has it, the older pianos go to jazz players. And, it might add, the more outlandish they get — the company also creates more rococo styles and other limited editions designed by the likes of Karl Lagerfeld — the more likely they are to go to a Liberace. “In a way, it’s incredible that the manufacturing process has been largely unchanged for a century. And it would need an incredible innovation to move the piano on,” says Guido Zimmerman, an engineer who last year joined Steinway as CEO from pen-makers Montblanc, which is based literally just down the road. “Yes, we make tiny changes to perfect the process. But the piano is really not an easy instrument to evolve. It’s pretty much a perfected instrument.”

Visit Steinway’s ‘piano gallery’ in Dubai,however — there to cater to the explosion in piano sales across the Middle East and, even more so, in China, where Steinway last year created a subsidiary to cater to an estimated35 million piano students now tinkling away there — and there’s something called the Spirio. It looks like a grand piano and can be played like one but which, certainly unlike a grand piano, it has wireless connectivity. Maybe Spirio, which has been in development for the last decade, and which turns Steinway at least in part into a tech company, is just such an evolution of the kind Guido says is so hard to find.

Each Steinway piano is almost entirely handcrafted

There have been self-playing pianos before, but with Spirio, Steinway has recently launched a pioneering system by which a standard grand piano can be given additional functionality: connected to a tablet, it will play piano pieces from a library of some 3,000 recordings and growing; the system’s software, developed by an American company that Steinway acquired, has also analysed and recreated the performances of some of the piano’s greatest masters, from Vladimir Horowitz to Thelonius Monk and Art Tatum. “So you can have the greatest pianists playing almost live in your living room,” laughs Guido. “That makes the idea of having a piano at home that much more appealing, even if you can’t play.” Remarkably, Steinway does sell grand pianos to people who have no intention of ever tinkling the ivories; these days the keys are actually made from a special resin first developed by the company. Some buy because a Steinway is a status item. And now they can because they like piano music. Somewhat caught off-guard by demand, Steinway is already finding that almost half of sales now include Spirio, and this is before new features for pro players are introduced next year.

The innovation — which has obvious application as a teaching aid and which has been snapped up by several piano schools — might also help the company adjust its image. “There are lots of people out there with the means to buy a Steinway but who see it as not fitting their needs, because they see it as a piano only for serious pianists,” says Guido. “As a company, we could survive selling just to professional classical players, especially since the piano market is increasingly splitting into two, between entry-level products, which are often electronic now, and the very top end, supplying professionals. But we’d be missing a huge opportunity. The piano is every bit as much an instrument of pop and rock. Pianos belong at home as much as they do in a concert hall.” Earlier this year, Steinway launched its first Sunburst edition piano, in which the standard ‘piano black’ lacquer is given a glowing orange effect akin to that found on the electric guitar style of the same name. It’s planning to launch its own jazz and rock festivals, supporting young, non-classical players, and opening pop- up stores. Indeed, these could be boom times for the instrument, as much as for Steinway.

“But we can’t rush,” warns Guido. “There are only so many pianos we can make and we can only increase capacity very slowly, not least because of the challenge of finding or training the craftsmen. A piano technician is a very rare species. When I joined the company I looked at the manufacturing and thought ‘can’t all this be realised in a more modern way?’. I’ve spent 18 months studying it, and the answer is ‘no’. The feeling the craftsmen bring to the pianos really matters. You can feel it and hear it when you play. It’s not a rational thing for an engineer to say, but it’s all about those positive vibrations.”

Next up
Film & TV

Rami Malek Wins Best Actor for Bohemian Rhapsody at 2019 Golden Globes

56 sec read