A Truly Grand Monopoly: How Steinway Calls the Tune

Back in 2003, when Steinway & Sons celebrated its 150th year of manufacturing splendid pianos, the company raised a few eyebrows in the music world by launching a grand-piano model designed by Karl Lagerfeld. This Steinway Limited Edition, or S.L.ED, was duly produced (as described entertainingly in The S.L.ED, an 80-page booklet by Mr. Lagerfeld) with piano legs transformed into something resembling the “runners of a sled.” In polished red-and-black lacquer, the piano was limited to an edition of 150, priced at $85,000; Mr. Lagerfeld explained that he wanted to create “something you would not tire of after a short period of time.”

Neither musicians nor audiences seem likely to tire of Steinway pianos anytime soon. Just as connoisseurs of wine and spirits argue over the merits of top-ranking champagnes or whiskeys, there are legitimate reasons for preferring other pianos, whether Germany’s C. Bechstein or Boston’s Mason & Hamlin. Yet Steinway dominates the market for concert grand pianos to an amazing extent; recent statistics put their market share at no less than 98 percent. Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz were Steinway artists: Rubinstein could make the instrument sound as hearty as a steak dinner, while Horowitz’s fleet, flat-fingered renditions sounded mercurial and diabolical. Other musicians who were loyal to the Steinway brand include George Gershwin, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Igor Stravinsky.

A piano is an artistic vehicle, and if it’s recalcitrant or unwieldy, it will frustrate and anger anyone who tries to play it seriously. Steinway pianos can be joyfully obedient, adding to sonic artistry rather than making concerts even more difficult than they are. Part of the company strategy to ensure that future generations of pianists will feel this way about Steinways is to make top music conservatories like Juilliard and Oberlin so-called “all-Steinway schools.” If you want to study the piano there, you must play a Steinway.

Since much of the brand’s prestige depends on its continued manufacturing skill in a field that still demands much craftsmanship by hand, it’s natural to wonder precisely how this quality is achieved. Others have written in detail about the Steinway manufacturing process, but James Barron’s Piano marks the first time that a skilled, experienced reporter has offered a full-length study of this industrial phenomenon.

Mr. Barron’s byline has recently appeared under such New York Times headlines as “Husband Aided Wife’s Suicide in Cliff Plunge, Police Say” and “Jet Crashes in L.I. Sound, but 3 of 5 Aboard Survive, Largely Unhurt.” He also hosts The Times’ weekday podcast summarizing top stories on iTunes. Who would begrudge this diligent reporter a more artsy subject, especially as his book’s blurb identifies him as an “accomplished amateur pianist”?

Piano originated as a series of Times articles in 2003-4, but only rarely has Mr. Barron had the chance to write on music. One exception is his obituary of Liberace in 1987 (“With his megawatt smile, his furry, feathery costumes, rhinestones as big as the Ritz … and a unique blend of Beethoven and the ‘Beer Barrel Polka,’ Liberace charmed millions with a flashiness that was almost too much to be believed”); another was Mr. Barron’s own wedding in 1995. (The organist played the melody known as Bach’s Air on the G String, which Mr. Barron dismisses as the “musical equivalent of Hamburger Helper.” Oops!)

Inside the Steinway factory in Astoria, Mr. Barron displays a great love for memorable detail and an endless interest in New York lives. He traces the progress of the new concert Steinway K0862, informing us that one workman has posted a photo of Frank Zappa above his workbench and uses a plastic bucket which his creatively dyslexic young son labeled as “Dad’s paino tools.” Mr. Barron alludes not just to the “paino,” but also to the instrument’s erotic attraction, telling us about “pianists who kiss their pianos every day, who touch the case as tenderly as they would touch a lover’s cheek.” This theme extends to the Steinway technicians, one of whom confesses, “This company kind of sucks you in. I’ve had a dream where my wife turned into a piano.” Readers learn that a visceral response to the piano is inherent in the manufacturing process: Some Steinway workers are called “bellymen” because the “only way to do their work is to climb inside a piano on their stomachs.”

Such intimate contact does not preclude workplace strife. Mr. Barron doesn’t stint on details about difficult labor conditions, including workrooms reeking of “glue-caustic, stinging glue that is all the more unpleasant for the lack of ventilation.” He mentions Steinway employees who are obliged to work at two jobs—or struggle with strenuous overtime hours—in order to make ends meet. These descriptions take away some of the “romance” of the craftsmanship, which still includes the manual labor of bending a maple rim to form the piano’s body and fitting the spruce soundboard to the rest of the construction.

On the management side, the company’s proud possessors are depicted admiringly, starting with the founder Heinrich Steinweg, born in Wolfshagen, Lower Saxony, who anglicized his company’s name to Steinway & Sons in the 1850’s. One of Heinrich’s sons, born Wilhelm, changed his name to William but retained Teutonic precision as a way of life. William Steinway, who died in 1896, recorded in his diary each time he and his wife “had sex and when his wife Regina’s menstrual periods had occurred.” Regina eventually took a lover, with whom she had a child; William’s reaction was to banish the immoral woman and her illegitimate son to the predestined place for depraved Victorians—Paris, France. Beyond such intriguing details, the Steinways have indubitably marked the face of New York, as anyone who is familiar with the Steinway Street subway stop in Long Island City (once the site of worker housing) will readily acknowledge.

Mr. Barron clearly conveys the rather tangled destiny of the family company, which was sold to CBS in 1972. In 1985, CBS sold it to an investment group, Steinway Musical Properties Inc., which in turn dealt it to Selmer—the noted instrument manufacturer—in 1995. Steinway stock is currently listed on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol LVB (for Ludwig van Beethoven).

A seasoned news reporter is an apt narrator for the corporate aspect of Steinway lore, yet a full-time arts writer might have done a bit better with certain cultural details. The great pianist, editor, lecturer and teacher Arthur Loesser (1894-1969) is described reductively here as “the historian”; Loesser did indeed write some wonderful music history, but that’s not the whole story. Similarly, the American crafts prophet and philosopher Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) is described here as merely “the writer.”

Seemingly hesitant to judge for himself the quality of concert Steinway K0862 when it’s finally finished, Mr. Barron relies on word of mouth, which tends to be somewhat anticlimactic, if not banal. Emanuel Ax calls the resulting piano “nice” and Katia Labéque finds it “not terribly brilliant—yet.” Perhaps the worst letdown is when the reader is informed without a trace of irony that the first recording for the new piano is a CD by “The 5 Browns,” a gaggle of teenage brothers and sisters from Utah who hammer away relentlessly at the keyboard like so many Howdy Doody puppets in a horror flick.

The bibliography at the end of Piano lists only English-language sources and omits a number of obviously pertinent books, such as Susan Goldenberg’s Steinway: From Glory to Controversy: The Family, the Business, the Piano (1996). But that shouldn’t detract from Mr. Barron’s accomplishment. His modest professionalism—he’s an objective recorder of facts who doesn’t elbow egoistically to the forefront—is a rarity on the New York publishing scene. His book is a refreshing treat to read, just as it must have been for this doughty reporter to write.

Benjamin Ivry is the author of biographies of Maurice Ravel and Francis Poulenc.

A Truly Grand Monopoly:  How Steinway Calls the Tune