The Sound and the Glory
Mercedes Momentum, Vol. 1, Number 1
by Bernard Holland
The first pianos spoke quietly. They were born to serve as conversationalists, but the pull of history turned them into orators. No one is more responsible for that escalated voice than Steinway & Sons. Steinway perfected the instrument's iron spine and its capacity for string tension. It gave the piano lung power, breath control, and remarkable enunciation. Loud and clear don't necessarily go together in piano making, but Steinway made them fit.
It had no choice, for by Beethoven's time, at the turn of the 19th century, music had begun its exit from the palace, the noble benefactor, and the elite audience. Sustenance now came from paying customers, as many as could be fitted into ever bigger public halls.
The older instruments were meant for smaller rooms and fewer ears. In the years after Beethoven, Franz Liszt's gargantuan virtuosity literally crushed the delicate pianos put before him. New music called for new instruments, and Steinway answered the summons more fully than others. Founded 140 years ago in New York, Steinway rose from a small factory to a dominant position in music. It invented few of the mechanisms that make the modern piano go, but it assembled and refined them into a product that swept an entire culture.
The varieties and subtleties of early pianos remain endearing and instructive; different keys, for example, actually had a different sound color even on the same keyboard. The modern instrument, helped by a more uniform tuning system, smoothed out the old bumpiness and rolled it into sleek, powerful reliability. Many miss the old intimacy. They have a point.
According to piano restorers Sara and Irving Faust, the Steinway arrived at its present makeup at the close of the 19th century. What has come since, these notable craftsmen say, is a series of small refinements. Yet the Steinway character continues to change, subtly and not so subtly. Pinning down that change is not so easy.