Steinway and Sons remains one of the best-known producers of concert pianos in the world. Throughout its great history the company has shown a distinctive talent at innovation and quality workmanship, as evidenced by its 114 patents. In an age of mass production, Steinway continues to manufacture a limited number of handmade pianos in a unique testament to individual craftsmanship. However, Stein¬way’s dominance in the concert piano market is being chal¬lenged by several rivals. Can Steinway continue its cherished ways, or will it need to adjust to new circumstances?
A Long History
Steinway & Sons was founded in 1853 by German immi¬grant Henry Engelhard Stein¬way in a Manhattan loft on Varick Street. Henry was a master cabinet maker who built his first piano in the kitchen of his Seesen, Ger¬many, home. By the time Henry established Steinway & Sons, he had built 482 pi¬anos. The first piano pro¬duced by the company, num¬ber 483, was sold to a New York family for $500. It is now displayed at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Steinway’s unique qual¬ity became obvious early in the history of the firm, evi¬denced by its winning gold medals in several American and European exhibitions in 1855. The company gained in-ternational recognition in 1867 at the Paris Exhibition when it was awarded the prestigious “Grand Gold Medal of Honor” for excellence in manufacturing and engineering. Henry Steinway developed his pianos with emerging technical and scien¬tific research, including the acoustical theories of the renowned physicist Hermann von Helmhotz.
In the early 1890s, Steinway moved to its current location in the Astoria section of Queens, New York, and built Steinway Village. Virtually its own town, Stein¬way Village had its own foundries, factory, post of¬fice, parks, and housing for employees. Its factory today still uses many of the crafts¬manship techniques handed down from previous genera¬tions. Steinway produces ap-proximately 5,000 pianos an¬nually, worldwide, with over 900 prominent concert artists bearing the title of Steinway Artist.
Yamaha Corporation of America has sold pianos in the United States since 1960 and remains the preferred brand for top jazz and pop artists. But in the late 1980s, Yamaha chose to en¬ter the concert piano market in direct competition with Steinway. Developing grand pianos such as the CFIIIS provided Yamaha with the product offering to attack Steinway’s 95 percent mar¬ket share in concert sales. Yamaha created its Concert and Artist Service—similar to Steinway’s—to supply pi¬anos across the country.
Steinway was owned in the 1970s by CBS, and many concert artists complained that the quality had suffered as a result of that ownership. Pianists talked of the “Teflon controversy”, when Steinway replaced some fabric innards with Teflon (it now coats the Teflon with fabric). Steinway was sold by CBS in 1985, and many experts voiced the opin¬ion that Steinway’s legendary quality was returning. Larry Fine, a piano expert, argues that “a Steinway has a kind of sustained, singing tone that a Yamaha doesn’t have. Yamaha has a more brittle tone in the treble that some jazz pianists prefer”.
Even with increased competition, the Steinway Tradition continues. Every grand piano takes over a year to complete and incor¬porates over 1,000 details that set a Steinway apart from competitors. A tour of the Steinway factory is a trip back through time, as many of the manufacturing tech¬niques have not changed since 1853.
Recently, Steinway de¬veloped Boston Piano in an attempt to broaden its market. Boston pianos—designed by Steinway & Sons with the latest computer technology— are manufactured in Japan by Kawai, the second-largest Japanese piano maker. At first, Boston intended to ship all of its pianos to markets outside of Japan, but when Kawai expressed interest in distributing them throughout Japan,...