Pianos and their Makers: The Big Four
The “big four” piano manufacturers are frequently regarded as Bechstein, Blüthner, Bösendorfer and Steinway. Something they have in common the fact that they all began in Europe at a time when piano was beginning to dominate the concert stage.
Julius Blüthner began his workshop in Leipzig, Germany in 1853, together with three other craftsmen. By 1900, Blüthner had become the largest and most important piano maker in Germany, creating over 5,000 pianos per year. Today, Blüthner pianos are still going strong and are available in from 5 foot grand to a 9 foot grand, as well as upright pianos. The outer surface comes in several varieties and veneers.
Blüthner pianos made headlines when a lightweight custom-made Blüthner piano was created specially to be used inside the LZ 129 Hindenburg Zeppelin, which was a passenger air vehicle. Luckily it was removed before the unfortunate Hindenburg air crash just 14 months after its first flight. Despite this narrow escape, the one-of-a-kind piano was nevertheless destroyed in the Second World War.
Rachmaninov with a Blüthner piano, C. 1905
Brahms, Mahler, Debussy, Wagner, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky owned Blüthner pianos. Blüthner pianos are as popular today as ever and has equally made its mark in pop culture: Blüthners were used in many Beatles songs, such as Let It Be and The Long and Winding Road. In film, Blüthners have been used in The Sting, Hannibal and Iron Man!
Ignaz Bösendorfer established his piano manufacturing company in 1828. This remains one of the oldest piano-making firms still in existence. In 1830 it gained the status of official piano maker to the Emperor of Austria. One of the earliest celebrities to endorse the Bösendorfer piano was Franz Liszt who was of the opinion that only two piano brands were capable of withstanding his powerful playing: Bechstein and Bösendorfer.
Liszt giving a recital for the Emperor Franz Joseph I on a Bösendorfer piano
Bösendorfer pianos were warmly embraced throughout the history of recording. Examples of notable classical recordings played on a Bösendorfer piano include Sviatoslav Richter playing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Terry Riley’s 1986 minimalist piece Just Intonation, performed by Riley himself and Roland Pontinen and Dag Achatz performing Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, The Firebird and Petrushka.
C. Bechstein Pianofortefabrik AG (more commonly known simply as Bechstein) was founded in Berlin by Carl Bechstein who had worked in England and France as a piano craftsman before finally forming his own independent company. On 1 October 1853, Carl Bechstein struck out on his own, with the aim to build strikingly robust instruments that could withstand the force of the likes of Franz Liszt. The first person to give a recital on a Bechstein piano was Liszt’s son-in-law and renowned conductor Hans von Bülow, playing Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor in Berlin. With these endorsements from such high profile instrumentalists, the Bechstein pianos quickly became the mainstay of the concert halls and private mansion across Europe.
A 1920 C. Bechstein advertisement poster
At the same time, Bechstein had competition from two other piano manufacturers that had been established in the same year: Steinway and Blüthner.
In the 1880s, by which time Steinway was beginning to dominate the American piano market, Bechstein built strong ties with England. In 1881 Bechstein began supplying pianos to Queen Victoria and elaborately gilded art-case pianos were installed in Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle and several other royal residences, as well as British embassies across the world. In 1885, Bechstein opened a branch in London, which would prove to be the largest piano supplier in Europe, followed by branches in Paris, Vienna and Saint Petersburg. On 31 May 1901 Bechstein Hall (now known as Wigmore Hall) was opened next to the company’s showroom.
Due to growing anti-German sentiment in the early 20th century, Bechstein suffered huge losses across Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom, not to mention that the war led to the loss of lives of many of the firm’s craftsmen. After the war, the company began to gradually build up their business again but the post-war economic situation and the construction of the Berlin Wall meant that the scale and magnitude of Bechstein was hindered from being restored to its former glory. The ownership changed many times and in 1963 all the shares were bought by the Baldwin Piano Company.
Things started looking up in 1953, the year of the Bechstein Company’s centennial. The event was marked by a celebration with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Furtwangler and during this period, many leading musicians such as Leonard Bernstein and Wilhelm Kempff favoured Bechstein pianos. The first C. Bechstein International Piano competition took place in 2006 under Vladimir Ashkenazy’s patronage. It continues to nurture talent of the up-and-coming generation of young pianists.
Bechstein pianos, like Bosendorfer pianos, have been used widely across the genres, from classical composers like Debussy, who stated that “Piano music should only be written for the Bechstein” to popular icons like Bob Dylan and Freddy Mercury.
Steinway & Sons
Probably the most internationally prolific and enduring piano manufacturer of the four is Steinway & Sons. Steinway won many awards throughout its impressive history and has been granted 126 patents for developments in piano making.
Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg (later Henry E. Steinway) built his first piano in the kitchen of his home in Seesen, Germany. Steinway built over 450 pianos over the next decade and subsequently moved to New York with his family. His company Steinway & Sons was set up in 1853 on the West Side of Manhattan, the same year that Bechstein and Blüthner were founded. Within a year, Steinway was producing pianos at a rate of 2 per week. The amount of pianos increased from 208 pianos per year in 1856 to 6,000 pianos in 1911.
The 10,000th Steinway piano was built especially for President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902, to be housed in the East Room of the White House. It was gilded in gold leaf and a painting on the lid conveyed “America Receiving the Nine Muses.”
This lithograph by Amédée de Noé shows the Steinway's popularity at the 1867
The first Steinway Hall opened on 14th street in 1866, the second largest concert venue at the time, accompanied by a showroom. In the following decade another Steinway Hall opened in London. Both halls moved premises several times, with the London hall now located on Marylebone Lane and plans are being made for a new Steinway Hall on New York’s Sixth Avenue.
American conservatoires began to pride themselves on possessing exclusively Steinway pianos, starting with Oberlin College which became the first ever all-Steinway school in 1877. This was followed by Yale in 1897 and Juilliard in 1924. Nowadays, there are an estimated 175 schools worldwide that house exclusively Steinway pianos.
The White House Steinway from 1938 in the Entrance Hall
The artist roster playing on Steinway pianos included the pre-eminent Van Cliburn, Vladimir Horovitz, Sergei Rachmaninov, Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock. The year 2015 marked the company’s 600,00th piano, a limited edition instrument that took over 6,000 hours to build over 4 years and cost 2.4 million!