The Story of Steinway Pianos
A number of legends surround Heinrich’s origins, but historians agree that Heinrich’s life was, by no means, an easy one. At around age 8, Heinrich’s family was torn apart as the French invaded Germany. The Steinweg family house and land were confiscated by Napoleon’s forces while Heinrich’s father and two older brothers were fighting the French on a distant front. The remaining family members fled to the mountains where Heinrich watched his mother and siblings (except for one sister) die from exposure and starvation. Heinrich and his sister returned home later that spring and were reunited with their father and brothers. Together, they worked for the Duke of Brunswick - repairing roads, planting trees, and gathering wood to make charcoal (which they sold as fuel). Heinrich’s father remarried and had more children. Life was peaceful for a time.
One summer, Heinrich, his father, and two of his brothers were out in the woods, when a severe storm arose, accompanied by winds and lightning (typical weather in the Hars Mountains). They sought shelter in an abandoned hut, but lightning struck the hut and set it on fire. The blast left Heinrich unconscious, and when he came to, he found the bodies of his father and two brothers strewn about the burned shack. He fled to a nearby town for help. At age 15, Heinrich found himself alone and penniless.
Heinrich decided to join the army and, two years later, he found himself fighting against Napoleon under the Duke of Brunswick’s flag at the Battle of Waterloo. According to family legend, when the charge began that fateful day of June, 1815, it was signaled by a lone bugler: Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg.
Heinrich stayed in the military until he was 21. He then apprenticed with a craftsman to learn the woodworking trade and began working for an organ builder in Goslar. In February, 1853, Heinrich married Julianne Thiemer, the daughter of a glove maker and property owner in Seesen (a small city of 3000 people only six miles from Wolfshagen). Together they raised 10 children in Seesen where, in 1835, Heinrich started a piano business attaching his name plate “H. Steinweg, Instrumentenmacher” to every instrument.
Within a year, Heinrich was building one or two pianos a month and earned enough money to send his two sons – Theodore and Henry Jr. – to the finest school in Seesen.
In the summer of 1839, he exhibited a grand and two “square” pianos at the state trade exhibition in Brunswick. He won top prize for tone and workmanship and sold a piano to the Duke of Brunswick for 3000 marks. His son, Theodore (who played the pianos at the exhibition), aided with the sale of the instrument and helped make the Steinweg family famous.
By 1848, Steinweg had produced over 400 pianos in Germany, but the economy there was not good. Due to the rising costs of supplies, Germany’s feudal social structure and high border tariffs, the Steinweg economic prospects were bleak. Finally, in 1850, The Steinweg family decided to move to the New World based in no small part to their son, Carl’s enthusiastic depiction of life in New York. Heinrich (then 53) and Julianna (46) sold their home, paid off their debts and, together with three daughters and five sons, moved to New York. Their eldest son, Theodore, decided to stay in Germany where he repaired violins and tuned pianos.
The Steinweg family spent three years in New York, learning the American business world. Finally, on March 5, 1853, the Steinwegs established an informal partnership with an initial investment of $6000.00. In an effort to make their name sound more appealing to Americans they decided to name their partnership “Steinway & Sons.”
Henry E. Steinway worked with his sons (and, eventually, most of his family) to develop the Steinway & Sons name (and its world-famous piano) in America until his death in 1871. Henry most likely never saw the Hamburg, Germany “Steinway & Sons” business, which was started that year by his sons, William and Theodore Steinway.
Thus began Steinway & Sons, one of 204 piano building companies in America at that time, with the partnership between Heinrich E. Steinweg (who became Henry E. Steinway), Carl Steinweg (who became Charles Steinway), Wilhelm Steinweg (who became William Steinway), and Heinrich Jr. (Henry Jr.).
The company's first piano, serial number 483, was sold to a New York family named Griswold for $500. It is now displayed at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Over the next forty years Henry Steinway and his sons developed the modern piano. Roughly half of the company's more than 120 patented inventions were made during that period. Many of these late-nineteenth-century inventions were based on emerging scientific research, such as the acoustical theories of the renowned physicist Hermann von Helmholtz.
Combining these inventions with existing techniques resulted in the famous “Steinway System”, which remains the basis for building a piano. All pianos today are to some extent built according to this system. Only the Steinway piano, however, benefits from the extensive knowledge of more than 120 innovations.
By 1860 Steinway & Sons had outgrown its rented quarters and opened a “pianoforte manufactory” at Park Avenue and 53rd Street. Ten years later, with no more room available for expansion, the company moved to its present location in Queens, New York, “where land was abundant”.
The Steinway family purchased 400 acres, in what is now the Astoria section of the Borough of Queens, and built Steinway Village. Virtually its own town, Steinway Village not only had its own foundries, factory and housing for employees but also its own post office, kindergarten, library, parks, a ferry company and an amusement park.
In 1866 Steinway & Sons opened Steinway Hall, its retail showroom, on 14th Street, then the hub of New York's cultural life. For nearly 25 years (1865-1890) the Concert Hall within Steinway Hall was among the city's leading concert venues. In 1890, the Concert Hall was closed, and its significance as a concert hall was passed on to Carnegie Hall. In 1925 the company relocated its retail showroom, Steinway Hall, to its present location - 109 West 57th Street in New York City.
In 1888, Theodore Steinway signed an agreement with Gottlieb Daimler (who built the first four-wheeled car) to produce engine parts for the new Daimler Motor Company in America. Daimler and Steinway collaborated on a number of vehicles, including light trucks, passenger cars and Steinway yachts. Some years later, a French car dealer named Jellinek petitioned the German Daimler company to build a car named after his daughter. Eventually, the German and American companies decided to avoid legal troubles with the widely-used “Daimler” name and rename their companies “Mercedes.” Relations between Steinway and Mercedes remained warm even after a 1907 fire shut down engine parts production in Long Island.
To earn the respect of the international community, Steinway & Sons entered and won gold medals at several U.S. and European exhibitions. The Steinway piano captured prizes in London in 1862 and Philadelphia in 1876. But it was at the Paris Exhibition in 1867 that the company was thrust to international fame. Steinway & Sons was the first American company to receive the Exhibition's prestigious “Grand Medal of Honor”, for excellence in manufacturing and engineering. The recognition of Steinway's innovative techniques sparked a revolution in the industry that altered the trade of piano manufacturing. The Steinway piano became the piano of choice for many members of royalty and won the respect and admiration of the world's great pianists.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Steinway & Sons managed the careers of many great artists. The first major artist brought to the United States by Steinway & Sons was Anton Rubinstein, who toured the U.S. from 1872 to 1873. Ignace Paderewski also made his first U.S. tour, from 1891 to 1892, under the auspices of Steinway & Sons. The preference for the Steinway piano by such famed artists further boosted the instrument's reputation as “the piano of international fame”, but the company eventually left the artist management business. Under a new arrangement, a Steinway Artist was assured a concert-ready Steinway piano at public performances anywhere in the world.
In 1920, Raymond Rubicam, a young copywriter of the firm N. W. Ayer and Son, convinced Steinway & Sons to begin a national advertising campaign which would feature paintings of world famous pianists and would label Steinway as “The Instrument of the Immortals.”
The result was incredible. People began to recognize the vast number of world-famous artists who chose the Steinway piano as their performance instrument. Such famous names as Franz Liszt, Ignace Paderewski, Vladimir Horiwitz, Richard Wagner, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Josef Hofmann, Anton Rubenstein, Rudolph Serkin, Glenn Gould, Cole Porter, Van Cliburn, and George Gershwin filled magazines, newspapers, and programs across the nation.
Today, Steinway & Sons continues its close association with the world's greatest pianists. Over 1500 prominent concert artists and ensembles worldwide bear the title Steinway Artist. No artist or ensemble is a paid endorser of the piano. Each Steinway Artist personally owns a Steinway model 'B' or 'D' and has chosen to perform on the Steinway piano professionally.
The Steinway piano is the overwhelming choice of today's concert artists. More than 98% of solo artists performing with major symphony orchestras use a Steinway piano.
The Second World War wrought havoc at Steinway & Sons. Up to this time, Steinway had managed to remain outside of the war engine. World War II was different, however. Rationing of iron, copper, felt, brass and other war materials forced Steinway out of the piano business – both in the United States and in Hamburg. With their primarily male workforce fighting in the war and all their raw materials frozen by the government, Steinway struggled to keep the factory open. By 1942, the American Steinway plant began to produce wooden CG-4A gliders for the Allied military while the Hamburg plant was seized by the German government and forced to produce airplane decoys, bunk beds and rifle butts. Women entered the factory for the first time as laborers – building gliders or decoys where their male predecessors had build beautiful musical instruments.
In Hamburg, Steinway & Sons faced additional obstacles: Hitler had declared Bechstein “The Official Piano of the Third Reich” and put the Steinway factory under the direct control of a German custodian for the duration of the war. Allied bombings destroyed the Steinway showroom in Berlin and wiped out nearly two million dollars of pianos in Steinway’s administrative offices. Workers picked up the pieces and set to work salvaging the pianos they could – often using parts from several pianos to complete one. Despite the destruction, Steinway & Sons survived.
By the mid 1980s, Steinway & Sons was the dominant piano of choice for artists, schools and musical institutions the World over. The challenge for Steinway dealers was to find suitable mid-priced pianos to sell along with the famous Steinways. The mid-priced pianos available at that time utilized a higher-tension scale design, which left the pianos with a nervous – almost “tinny”- sound. The Steinway dealers, who had grown accustomed to Steinway’s warm, rich tone, felt that these pianos were unrewarding and difficult to sell next to such a tonally superior instrument. Finally, after six years of research and development, Steinway & Sons decided to incorporate 29 patented design features from their flagship piano into a new, mid-priced “Steinway-designed” piano. Thus, in 1992, the Boston Piano was born.
Boston’s beautifully balanced, rich and clear sound was a delight to the piano community. Though not entirely hand-made, Boston was considered a new design – a “hybrid” piano (“Hybrid” in this case meaning “partly hand-made and partly machine-made”). Boston quickly became the piano of choice for university practice rooms, houses of worship and private music conservatories. Eventually, Boston gained international recognition as the piano of choice for famous music festivals such as Brevard, Tanglewood and Aspen.
Encouraged by the success of the Boston Piano, Steinway & Sons began work on their third (and final) member in the all-new “Family of Steinway-Designed Pianos.” Urged again by their dealer network to provide mid-priced pianos with a greater focus on furniture design, exotic veneers and elegant finishes, Steinway & Sons set out to create another low-tension, hybrid piano. Named after New York’s “Essex House,” the Essex Piano debuted in 2001, receiving a mixed reaction from the piano community. The initial designs (especially with the vertical piano models) focused too heavily on an art-deco style, which failed to resonate with more traditional piano buyers.
Thus, after a few years of market research and dealer feedback, Steinway hired renowned furniture designer, William Faber, to re-design the Essex piano cabinets and produce a full line of more traditional cabinet styles. The re-design took a few years, but in 2006, Steinway relaunched Essex with major, Worldwide fanfare. The new line, including 35 grand and 31 vertical models and finishes, received critical acclaim from around the World as the first-ever mid-priced, Steinway-designed piano for the home. Today, the newly-designed Essex pianos offer piano buyers 29 Steinway-patented design features, rich wood finishes and an excellent variety of cabinet styles to fit any décor.
Steinway & Sons is the most carefully and lovingly documented piano company in American history. For a complete listing of Steinway books, videos and materials, visit our Links and Resources page.