This post is about a trip to the STEINWAY Factory in Astoria, Queens and then lunch at L’Incontro on Wednesday, April 26th. This is a reprise of the tour which the MWC took several years ago and we ask that anyone who went on that tour to NOT join this one. Capacity is limited to 15. Also unlike last time, Steinway Group tours are now led by the Astoria Historical Society – members, please reserve your spot via TILT on the Sign-Up! tab on the members’ site’s menu ribbon.
It’s not uncommon to go into someone’s home and see an untouched piano sitting in the living room where it resides as a piece of furniture. From the height of the turn of the Century, Progressive Era, through the post-WWII baby-boom period, Americans were eager to put their upward mobility on display by showing their guests that they had the culture, taste, education – and disposable income – to invest in a hugely visible musical instrument. -Whether or not anyone could actually play it. But what was often not thought about or well understood is that first and foremost, a PIANO is a sensuous, complex, highly engineered, artisanal and historic musical instrument.
And who would have thought that the home of the modern piano is a hop-skip-and-jump (make that a subway ride) away in Astoria, Queens – formerly known as Steinway Village? For those of you who have a piano, perhaps play the piano, are thinking of maybe getting a piano , have ever listened to a piano … or ever seen a piano, boy, do we have a treat for you. The original Steinway Factory, built in the 1870’s, is still humming away making the best-of-the-best of these instruments and the visit to Steinway has been voted “the #1 factory tour in the world.”
Most New Yorkers don’t even know that not only is Steinway right within our City – but that it’s THE Steinway factory. Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg (later Anglicized to Henry Steinway) came to the US in 1853, at the start of the huge, 6MM-strong, German immigration to the US up to 1880. He had been a master cabinet-maker who had started making pianos (452 of them) and when he got to NYC and settled in on Varick St he made his first American one – #453 – which is now in the Smithsonian. His business and family flourished (he had seven children; five sons followed him into the business) and, as was the tradition for products utilizing many industrial processes he created a craft village of sorts, named Steinway Village. Most people don’t know that the Steinway Factory in Hamburg is a successor to the original in Queens and was created in the 1880’s by one of Henry’s sons. (By the way, the Steinway mansion is nearby and after its sale in 2014 seems to be imperiled by warehouse construction right up to its edge.)
It is hard to believe that in this electronic, mechanized, computer era of ours that there is still a factory (in NYC, no less) which produces something that takes a year to build, uses 12,000 different parts and 300 different types of workers. The piano action alone – that’s the mechanism which makes the hammer hit the piano string (and the reason why a piano is a percussion -not string- instrument) – has 40 separate parts and there’s one for each of the 88 keys ! The complexity of this instrument will leave you awestruck: specific types of hardwoods sourced from all over the world (and cured on site) because of their specific tonal or functional qualities; copper-wrapped Swedish steel base strings to produce a mellow, warm sound; a Steinway foundry which produces the plate which for years and years can effortlessly maintain 20 tons of string tension; and the famous, Steinway-developed, not-able-to-be-rushed rim-bending method. The modern piano could not exist without the 130+ Steinway patents – most of which are now expired – which are used by piano makers all over the world.
It’s not as though there aren’t other pianos in the world and, of course, this is a topic of lively discussion among pianists. Different pianos, both by brand and individually, have different sounds and “feel.” Other names are often bandied about – Bechstein, Bosendorfer, the new Fazioli – and for most of the last century there was an honorable American piano industry which included Chickering, Baldwin, Mason & Hamlin, Knabe and many regional, usually German, craft pianos. And now, many Asian brands, including Yamaha, Kawai and Young Chang have their proponents. But, none of these could have existed without the development of the piano by Steinway. Right in our backyard!