The name Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg may not be familiar. In the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, it deserves only a two-line entry. However, the musical landscape would have had a completely different look if he had not been there.
Einrich was born in 1797 in a village in the woods on the slopes of the Harz Mountains in northern Germany. He was just a teenager when his father died and he moved to the nearby town of Goslar to learn a trade.
His apprenticeship was interrupted by an appeal to the Allied forces who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, so he did not complete his course as a cabinetmaker. He moved on to organ building, then set up a piano workshop.
He was only supposed to repair instruments, but he wanted to build them himself. Back in his house, he set about building his own grand piano in the only place where there was room to do so: the kitchen. Steinweg experimented with his own ideas. His innovative approach would eventually earn him many admirers.
When he was finally able to sell his pianos, he found a ready market. After his instruments won him a gold medal at the state fair, his business took off.
Still, it was a local business and opportunities for expansion were limited, so in 1849 he sent one of his sons to New York to check out the lay of the land there. When he returned a favorable report, the decision was made to leave for new pastures.
The following year the family emigrated. They settled in Lower Manhattan, where the city’s piano workshops were based. Father and son got a job, ready to embrace their new surroundings. After two years of learning American tricks, they were ready.
On this date, March 5, 1853 – young William Steinweg’s 18th birthday – he, his brothers Henry and Charles and their father formalized their partnership, anglicizing their names. Steinway & Sons was born.
They adopt the cast iron frame, first used by Pleyel as a much more stable alternative to the wooden frames used before. These did not warp, so the Steinways were assured of a richer, more resonant sound.
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In no time, the Steinways were in demand, even though they were hard to come by. The manufacturing process was meticulous, with assiduous attention to detail.
The pianos featured technical innovations. The company has been awarded patent after patent (their website lists it at “over 135”). Among them, they developed this metal frame and a central third pedal – the sostenuto – which allows performers to sustain specific notes while leaving others unchanged.
The accolades soon followed. They won medals at international fairs in London and Paris and found favor with high-flying artists.
They knew how to promote themselves, sponsoring tours – Rubinstein and Paderewski were what would now be called the Steinway Artists – and showcasing examples of their craft at the White House. For a journey that began with a carpenter in a forest in rural Germany, this has been quite a journey.
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