Piano The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand

James Barron

Times Books



Trade Paperback

304 Pages



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Like no other instrument, a grand piano melds the magic of engineering with the magic of great music: the thunder of a full-throated bass, the bright, delicate trill of the upper treble. Alone among the big piano companies, Steinway & Sons still builds all of its pianos largely by hand, imbuing each one with the promise and burden of its brand.

In this captivating narrative, James Barron of The New York Times tells the story of one Steinway piano, from raw lumber to finished instrument. Barron follows that brand-new piano—known by its number, K0862—on its eleven-month journey through the Steinway factory, where time-honored manufacturing methods vie with modern-day industrial efficiency. He looks over the shoulders of men and women—some second- and third-generation employees, some recently arrived immigrants—who transform wood and steel into a concert grand through a process one of the plant's managers calls "anti-manufacturing." Together, they carry on the traditions begun more than 150 years ago by the immigrants who founded Steinway & Sons—a family that soared to prominence in the music world and, for a while, in New York City's political and economic life.

Barron also explores the decades of innovation and quirks that gave birth to the concert grand piano's design, as well as the tough global competition and changing music scene that have squeezed the piano industry. And he unmasks the art and science of developing a piano's character before its first performance, when the essential question will be answered: Does K0862 live up to the Steinway legend?


Praise for Piano

"Mr. Barron's Piano is a pleasant . . . addition to the instrument's book-repertory, offering an affectionate view of one of the two great artisans of Western musical culture."—James Penrose, The Wall Street Journal

"By the end of the book, Barron has turned a 990-pound hunk of wood and metal . . . into a living, breathing main character."—Lisa Davis, Star-Telegram (Dallas)

"This engaging narrative about the preservation of a great tradition by skilled craftsmen is the work of a writer who is quite a skilled craftsman himself. James Barron, an indefatigable reporter, has woven out of his scrupulous research a fascinating story of an all but vanished art, and of the men who created it."—Robert A. Caro, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner

"How has Steinway come to be the gold standard for the piano maker's art? In this engaging book, James Barron tells the story, taking us behind the scenes in the New York factory to explore the complex interplay of science, tradition, and skill during the eleven months it takes to build a concert grand. What emerges is a succinct and captivating account of the craft that produces this supremely subtle instrument that dominates the world's concert halls. Fascinating, informative, and fun."—Thad Carhart, author of The Piano Shop on the Left Bank

"No wonder no two Steinway pianos are exactly the same! No wonder each has its own special character and personality! In telling us in exquisite detail what has gone into the making of one particular instrument, James Barron has created a classic in its own right. Having read the story makes me love my own Steinway all the more."—Charles Osgood

"New York Times staff reporter Barron follows a Steinway Model D concert grand piano from warehouse to concert hall. The main character in this story, which began as a series of Times articles, is K0862. (Steinway pianos are known by their numbers.) Born as a few strips of lumber, glued together and bent into shape, K0862 was raised in the Steinway factory and warehouse in Queens, where it was given body and voice. Eventually, it left home for a professional life. Barron documents each step of the process and profiles the workers who complete each of the necessary tasks. Himself an amateur pianist, he combines a journalist's eye for exactitude with a musician's love of the instrument. He follows K0862 through the 11-month process, from the bending of the rim through the filing and sanding of each individual key and hammer to the voicing and multiple tunings in soundproof booths. A postlude follows K0862 once it leaves Steinway. The author supplements this individual odyssey with a history of Steinway & Sons. Founded in 1853, the firm faced some daunting challenges in the 20th century. First radio, then television promised entertainment at the twist of a knob (no lessons necessary), and in less than three weeks in 1953, more television sets were made than the total number of pianos built during Steinway's first hundred years. Yet despite these changes in technology and manufacturing, the company has maintained itself in the art and business of piano-making . . . [Barron] successfully conveys the pride each Steinway employee takes in this storied musical instrument. A treat not just for music-lovers, but for woodworkers, craftsmen and anyone who has ever mourned the passing of grand tradition."—Kirkus Reviews

"Barron, a staff reporter for the New York Times, has penned an informative and amusing read tracing the yearlong construction of a flagship nine-foot Steinway & Sons grand piano. Over the course of the narrative, this instrument becomes almost human, going so far as spending one of its first summers in the Hamptons like many another well-heeled New Yorker. The author interweaves brief histories of the piano and the company with observations and interviews with the factory men (or the very few women) and outside contractors. Barron's flowing style and evident affection for the material enable him to convey the pride in craftsmanship of the Steinway family and their employees, which has contributed immeasurably to the company's survival from 1853 to the present. (Curious fact: the company's glory days of 1926 saw 8300 pianos sold for making parts for gliders during World War II.) Remarks from famous pianists, contemporary newspaper quotes on early rivalries with Chickering and piano exhibitions, and a smattering of photos enhance the volume. Warmly recommended."—Library Journal

"Barron, a New York Times staff writer, expands on his series of articles published in the newspaper for a thoroughgoing chronicle of how a New York immigrant family created an American cultural institution. Barron tracks, from inception to stage, one Steinway concert grand piano named K0862, a direct descendant of the first Model D developed in 1884 by the German family of piano makers established in New York. Heinrich Englehard Steinweg from Seesen, Germany, installed his piano business, now anglicized to Steinway & Sons, on the Lower East Side by 1853, before moving to a factory on Fourth Avenue and eventually to Queens. The original Steinway pianoforte was a compact 'square' designed for Victorian parlors, and evolved into a grand that contained longer strings under the lid to 'deliver the kind of room-filling sound that earlier pianos lacked.' Most fascinating are Barron's descriptions of the old-fashioned handcrafting of K0862 in the Queens factory, from the crucial bending of the maple rim ('the chassis of the piano'), to the fitting of Part No. 81 (the spruce soundboard), cast-iron plate, and action parts, before the piano is tuned for its distinctive sound. In this solid book, Barron pursues the family's fortunes from the company's peak in 1905 through the golden years of 1920s to its sale in 1972."—Publishers Weekly

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By These People, in This Place

Steinway No. K0862 on its way to becoming a concert grand

The piano being a creation and plaything of men, its story leads us into innumerable biographies; being a boxful...

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