Grand Expectations


The Making of a

Steinway Concert Grand

By James Barron

Times Books -- 280 pp -- $24

( below)

Editor's Review

Four Stars
Star Rating

The Good The engaging story of how one Steinway grand piano gets built.

The Bad An overabundance of detail--and Steinway rivals' contributions to piano construction are slighted.

The Bottom Line A surprisingly rewarding account of a masterpiece in the making.

For as long as I can remember, I've been a sucker for factory tours. It doesn't really matter much what's being made -- silicon chips, chocolate bars, TV sets, cars. It's more the magic of watching workers and machines making finished products out of a collection of mostly unidentifiable parts. As Henry Ford put it: It's raw materials going in, and cars coming out.

But Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand by James Barron, a staff reporter for The New York Times and an accomplished (amateur) pianist, is the first plant tour I've taken in book format. Barron follows a single piano, No. K0862, on its yearlong journey through Steinway & Sons' New York City factory and on to its debut in Steinway's storied concert division, pianos earmarked for loans to artists and institutions. Barron's is a surprisingly rewarding approach, letting your mind's eye flesh out the parts and processes that he describes in words.

The book is special in another way as well. Steinway has resisted automation, so you're witnessing a kind of manufacturing that is rare today. K0862 is largely handmade in the same way that pianos were produced in the last century -- and the one before that. Barron describes techniques and tools, often homemade, that you can imagine being passed from father to son, from master to apprentice.

The piano's wooden case is fashioned from 17 maple strips glued together and bent -- not by some giant press but with the brute human force of a crew of six men -- into the familiar arc of a grand piano. Ante Glavan, a so-called bellyman because to do his job he has to lie on his stomach on the spruce sounding board, carves 88 notches in the wooden bridge to accommodate the piano strings, all without bothering to use a ruler to check his measurements.

If such details make you think that Piano could get a bit tedious, well, in other hands it might. But Barron weaves an engaging narrative, and he rounds out the personalities of the workers. He's helped, too, by his subject. For a musical instrument, the piano is easily understood. At a glance you can grasp how all the parts work: pressing a key swings a hammer down on a string, producing a note. Besides which, many boomers, including me, grew up with at least a little hands-on experience -- those dreaded piano lessons.

Barron leavens his account with chapters on the waxing and waning of Steinway's fortunes. He starts with German founder Heinrich Steinweg (the name was changed to Steinway when the family set up shop in New York in the 1850s) building pianofortes in his kitchen in the 1830s. The best of these sections detail the rivalry between the Steinways and the first American piano maker, Chickering & Sons. There are delightful stories of the companies' marketing shenanigans, such as the erection of the competing, blatantly commercial Steinway Hall and Chickering Hall in Manhattan, long before Carnegie Hall stole the show from both. The rivals constantly angled for artists' endorsements and for awards. That part of the history culminates at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where the Steinways walked off with the grand prize after bribing a judge and, rumor has it, ghostwriting his report.

One shortcoming: Barron fails to give Jonas Chickering full credit for his contributions to piano making, such as the use of a cast iron plate to relieve the stress on the wooden piano case and what's called overstringing, positioning the longest bass strings over the others so that they can take advantage of the sounding board's sweet spot. (Full disclosure: I'm an amateur pianist, and the last piano I played regularly was a 9-foot Chickering concert grand similar to the Steinway profiled here.) A casual reader may think those improvements were Steinway's.

The author also details Steinway's slow decline. Piano making in the U.S. peaked in 1905, when more than 400,000 were made; Steinway's best year was 1926, at which point the nation produced only 200,000. Somehow, the company couldn't seem to grasp the fact that the instrument was no longer at the center of U.S. social life. The prime living room real estate was being taken over by technology -- first the phonograph, then the radio, and, finally, TV. Ironically, what would save Steinway was its sale in 1972 to CBS.

Early on in the book, in the spring of 2004, when the K0862 is still a big wooden box, Barron writes: "In the fall, it will become a musical instrument. First it will become a piece of furniture." The observation underscores a sad reality: Today, over half of all grand pianos sold never get played. The craftsmanship and exertion of Steinway's workers are impressive -- but many of their masterpieces will serve as little more than glorified coffee tables.

By Larry Armstrong

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