Striking A Chord: Used Pianos
With the Prices of New Grand Pianos Reaching the High Notes, High-Quality Used Pianos Have Become an Increasingly Attractive Alternative
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97
(continued from page 1)
The instrument generally regarded as the earliest ancestor of the modern piano was "invented" by Bartolomeo Cristofori, an Italian craftsman at the Medici court, around 1700. Three of his instruments still exist--one is in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. In creating his "Arpicembalo che fà il piano e il forte," as he called it--a harpsichord that could play quietly and loudly--Cristofori adapted the physics of the clavichord, a popular instrument of his day, but with one important innovation. To improve upon the limited vibration that the clavichord's string produced, Cristofori devised a free-falling hammer mechanism (called the "action") that would allow the string to vibrate along its entire length. The repetitive movement of the mechanism (which lies between the piano key and a string) enabled trills and flourishes to be played that previously could not.
This innovation also made one other crucial thing possible: the ability of the keyboard artist to vary the sound the instrument produces by varying the touch upon the keys. Harpsichords, which were the primary stringed keyboard instruments of Cristofori's day, cannot do this--their strings are excited by plucking, and their action is far less sensitive to the artist's touch. The organ, the other keyboard instrument in wide use in 1700, is similarly limited in its expressive range. The introduction of this new instrument, it can be argued, altered the course of musical history; would Chopin have created his romantic Ballades if the only instrument available to him was a pipe organ?
Within a few years of Cristofori's invention, the pianoforte, as it came to be known (piano meaning soft, and forte, loud), displaced both the harpsichord and the clavichord as the premier stringed keyboard instrument. Craftsmen, mainly in Vienna, London and Paris, adapted Cristofori's action for use in their own instruments, and the engineering advanced rapidly. Competition was intense. By 1850, names such as Broadwood, Pleyel, Erard, Bösendorfer, Blüthner and Bechstein were well established, but it was at the International Exposition of 1867 in Paris where a grand piano from the young American firm of Steinway & Sons caused a sensation.
This piano included several modifications that created a bigger, more responsive sound than had ever been heard before. Collectively, these innovations were known as the "Steinway System." In addition to garnering gold medals, and the instantaneous prominence that went with them, the company also came under the intense scrutiny of other piano makers. While patented at the time, Steinway innovations such as the one-piece overstrung cast-iron frame and the solid bentwood rim were rapidly adopted by nearly every major piano builder, and have since become the standard of the industry. They can be found underneath the top of just about any grand piano made since the 1930s.
The story of the House of Steinway is uniquely American. Founded in New York in 1853 by Henry Englehard Steinway, an illiterate German cabinetmaker and musical instrument builder, and four of his five sons (the fifth stayed behind in Seesen, Germany, but joined his brothers in New York in 1865), the firm became, within a few years, the preeminent maker of pianos in the world--a position it enjoys to this day. Then, as now, Steinway made pianos both for the home market and the concert stage, realizing early on that there was a causative connection between the two. The company pioneered the sponsorship of touring legendary piano soloists such as Anton Rubinstein and Ignacy Paderewski, making sure that the artists' testimonials were prominently featured in Steinway's advertising. The guiding hand and business acumen of Henry's son William, and his relations who ran the company after William's death in 1896, remained consistent; the family saw to it that an image of civilized life and the pleasures of living in a gracious, culturally enhanced home was emphasized as much as the pianos themselves. Since this coincided with the emergence of the middle class, the timing was perfect.
With few home leisure activities available at the turn of the century, a large portion of disposable income often went towards the purchase of the ubiquitous piano in the front parlor. According to D.W. Fostle, author of The Steinway Saga (Scribner, 1995), musical instruments made up 7 percent of the value of all consumer durables produced in the United States in 1904, and one dollar in seven was spent on a "cultural" product. Without radio, television, movies, home stereo and computers as competition, consumers poured a lot of money into the piano business.
For some well-to-do Americans, a standard-issue piano was not enough. Maybe it wouldn't fit in with their decor, or the buyers wished to announce their arrival on the social scene by commissioning a unique instrument. To satisfy such longings, a rarified category called the "art-case" piano emerged just after the Civil War. The market for these special instruments originated in Europe, but the newfound wealth of the Industrial Revolution gave it a great push in the United States. Steinway & Sons worked with such people as Joseph Burr Tiffany, George Schastey, Herter Brothers, Pottier and Stymus, Hunt Brothers and Jules Bouy to fashion pianos in America, while in Europe illustrious cabinetmakers such as Louis Majorelle, François Linke and Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann created piano cases for nearly all of the major manufacturers. Many of these pianos still exist, in varying conditions, and a few are being created today by contemporary artists such as Hans Hollein, Christian Adam, David Linley and Wendell Castle.
This is where the top money for pianos goes, and this is the niche that the 31-year-old Manhattan dealer Rutten has developed since opening his own piano showroom, Maximiliaan's House of Grand Pianos, in 1992. "It was natural," he says, "that four years ago a lot of people thought, 'Well, he's just a baby, he's just come to this country, he'll sell a few pianos and then go out of business as many others did before him.'"
But Rutten proved the skeptics wrong, and his business has flourished since he arrived in New York from Amsterdam in 1992. Last summer, he expanded from the 12th floor to a more spacious, street-level space in the New York Design Center on Lexington Avenue. Working the fine line between the used piano market and the antiques business, Rutten, who once considered pursuing a career as a concert pianist, understands both sides of the question. "Most [piano] dealers in this country, and in Europe, shy away from buying art-case pianos on speculation, especially from the high-end manufacturers," says Rutten. "They have to deal with craftsmen that they may not be as familiar with. I stay away from the standard cases. You definitely want to go about the restoration of the [art-case] piano, especially the refinishing of the case, very cautiously. If you open the lid of a piano, you're looking at 12,000 moving parts, and there are very few people who have enough knowledge to know what's going on in there. We restore the instruments to the extent necessary to bring out the full musical glory." Rutten makes sure that the musical aspects of his pianos are given as much attention as the case work; he has five workrooms, including two in Manhattan, dedicated to restoration.
Rutten says that the availability of high-quality restorable instruments is quite limited. His pianos, with a few interesting exceptions, subscribe to the Steinway System of design and are meant to be played regularly. Visitors to his showroom spend equal time evaluating the pianos as musical instruments as they do assessing them as antiques. Compared to a new piano, an older model with a prestigious case may often represent a bargain.
You must be logged in to post a comment.