Move over Steinway; Pleyel and Erard Got There First, Gaveau Too, Wasn’t That Far Behind
Recently Google published a doodle to mark the 360th birthday of Bartolomeo Cristofori, the Venetian credited with inventing the pianoforte, an instrument that today serious pianists are likely to know only as a Steinway.
But while the famous German-conceived black concert grand that now dominates classical performances in top-class halls around the globe, is to piano what Frigidaire is to fridge, other European piano-makers remain just as well known to aficionados, even though few still survive.
Some of their well-preserved and rarer instruments are indeed still preferred for their very specific qualities and are considered best-suited for performing the works of certain composers. This indeed is where Pleyel, Erard and Gaveau, three well respected French piano builders — or facteurs — come into their own.
Today 300 years after Bartolomeo Cristofori’s first instrument made its appearance, the piano has become a symbol of a music civilisation obsessed with power and the sonorous, a rhinoceros among musical instruments, writes Emmanuel Tresmontant in France’s Marianne magazine.
(Bartolomeo Cristofori was born in Padua in 1655 in what was then the Republic of Venice and as a recent report in the London’s Guardian newspaper noted: “the instrument Cristofori invented was during his lifetime known as a harpsichord that is a keyboard playing both soft and loud. Hence its name — the pianoforte — more commonly known as the piano or in Italian, the “gravicembalo col piano e forte.”)
In his piece Emmanuel Tresmontant asks why all the best classical pianists today insist on concert grands made by Steinway & Sons and sets off to find an answer from French music critic Alain Lompech whose knowledge of the piano and 2oth century pianists is said to be encyclopaedic.
Lompech’s response is unequivocal: “The domination of Steinway & Sons has been unchallenged since the post-war period. Nine out of 10 pianists perform on Steinways. All the world’s major concert halls have their own Steinway, from Carnegie Hall to the Berlin Philharmonic. Why? Because these pianos are just the best in the world, period!”
Steinway pianos date from 1820. The firm’s first piano maker — Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg — was born in Wolfshagen, northern Germany and built his first string instruments aged just 20 while 140 years later in 1988, Steinway made its 500,000th piano.
According to the company’s official history on its website: “In 1853, German immigrant Henry E. Steinway founded Steinway & Sons in New York City with the goal of building the best piano possible. In the pursuit of that goal, he began one of the great American success stories. Many things have changed outside the walls of the Steinway & Sons factory over the course of more than a century and a half, but most important things have remained exactly the same… Steinway pianos continue to be handcrafted in New York City. Steinway & Sons continues to employ a skilled, local workforce that uses many techniques which have been passed down for generations in creating these magnificent instruments. The original vision and goal of Henry E. Steinway to build the best piano possible continues on as the goal and vision of many.”
But Steinway was predated by at least two French facteurs: Pleyel and Erard while Gaveau wasn’t too far behind. (Today the Salle Pleyel concert hall on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris, is home to the Orchestre de Paris).
According to Wikipedia Pleyel et Cie was founded by the composer Ignace Pleyel in 1807. Pleyel pianos were the choice of composers such as Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Ravel, de Falla and Stravinsky. Pleyel pioneered the Pleyela line of pianos, often very small pianos of a very unusual design. Around 1815, Pleyel was the first to introduce the short, vertically strung cottage upright piano, or “pianino” to France, pianos that were such a success that by 1834 the company produced 1000 pianos annually.
Sébastien Érard (5 April 1752 – 5 August 1831), born Sebastian Erhard, was a French instrument maker of German origin who specialised in the production of pianos and harps, developing the capacities of both instruments and pioneering the modern piano. Erard built his first pianoforte in 1777 in his Paris factory relocating 15 years later to premises in London’s Great Marlborough Street to escape the French Revolution – several commissions for the likes of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette having placed him at risk!
Gaveau of Paris was established in 1847 Gaveau pianos generally have nicely crafted cases (the wooden cabinet that houses the playing mechanism). In 1960, Gaveau merged with Erard and in 1971 was absorbed by Schimmel. In the 1980s, the Pleyel company bought out Schimmel and thus Erard and Gaveau. Pleyel continued to manufacture pianos through to 2013, under the corporate auspices of the Manufacture Française de Pianos.
Érick SATIE a famous French composer is reported to have said: “Pianos, are like cheques, they give pleasure only to those who touch them (or are touched by them)”.
Different European piano makers developed different instruments, styles and traditions, building pianos that were ideal for the works of certain composers and untenable for others. That is not the case today and if Steinway is criticised for one thing, it is the homogenisation it has wrought on pianos used for the great classical pieces as Emmanuel Tresmontant makes clear.
“According to Philippe Copin, a professor at the Paris National Conservatory of Music and Dance, the Austrian piano-maker Bösendorfer was once known for its round, mellow deep tone and was the favourite of the great German pianist and pedagogue Wilhelm Backhaus (1884 –1969). As pianists resented the lack of power in a Bösendorfer, the brand decided to strengthen its strings and introduce heavier hammers and thus Bösendorfers became hard and metallic sounding pianos. Paolo Fazioli (born Rome 1944) whose Fazioli Pianoforti turns out some 100 handcrafted and very expensive concert pianos a year and the older German piano-manufacturing company Blüthner, founded in 1853 in Leipzig Germany (chosen by the great Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev) are acknowledged to be producing excellent modern pianos today. (Along with Steinway & Sons, Bösendorfer and Carl Bechstein, Blüthner is frequently referred to as one of the ‘Big Four’ in piano manufacturers).
” ‘But the only factor really able to compete with Steinway’, says Copin, ‘is Yamaha with its new CFX model. Behind a curtain, it is impossible to distinguish between them but on a modern Steinway, Chopin and Beethoven as originally scored, are impossible to play authentically.’
“For the musicologist Ziad Kreidy, if Steinway has become the ‘immortal piano reference’ today, it is because the power of grand pianos has been increasing for more than a century, and in this Steinway far exceeds the power of all its competitors. Moreover, to meet demand worldwide, the ‘manufacturing of the piano has become extremely automated and standardised’ . We have, he says, ‘lost the warmth, clarity and naturalness that made the reputation of Erard and Pleyel pianos, handcrafted as they were by passionate artisans, repositories of knowledge that is completely lost today …’ As a consequence says Ziad Kreidy, ‘Modern pianos, have a low heavy, rich sound and it has become impossible to play the pedal indications in the score of, for example, some of Chopin’s Nocturnes.’
“To avoid making an incomprehensible noise, there is only one solution: to betray the notes on the score! The same applies in the second movement of Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3: ‘On a modern Steinway, Beethoven’s instrumentation is impossible. A too insistent resonance blurs the sound and it becomes a cacophony. On a Pleyel of the (Beethoven) period, however, one simply follows the pedal instructions and the melody emerges naturally.’
“Alain Planès, described as French poet of the keyboard, confirms the concerns expressed by Ziad Kreidy: ‘Some of Chopin’s score indications, relating to the pedal, that is to say, the resonance, cannot be complied with on a piano today. They are, however perfectly possible on a period instrument, such as this Pleyel 1836 I was lucky enough to find, a totally authentic instrument that sounds exactly as Chopin wanted his music to sound.’
“Introduced to older instruments by conductor Philippe Herreweghe, Alain Planès has gradually moved away from modern pianos, described by Alfred Brendel as increasingly ‘shrill and percussive’. ‘Finding this old Pleyel that was once owned by Chopin and this beautiful Bechstein 1897 with which I recorded Debussy’s Preludes, was like a thunderbolt to me. With these rare and fragile instruments we enter another poetic world. The sound is natural, round and golden as amber. The vibrating wood even creaks sometimes…’ With his Chopin Pleyel Planès says he is able to produce a warm, medium, low, rounder and lighter sound obtaining harmonious effects from the pedal as the composer wished.”
As Jacques Bon, a flaneur who writes an intermittent and eclectic personal blog — the Café du Commerce — notes: “Some of my best musical emotions are those that are stirred when I come across a piano. Many French pianos can still be found in homes across France, the homes of so-called ‘good families’ who treasure the wonderful instruments, pianos made by Pleyel, Erard, Gaveau. These are instruments from a time when Japanese and Korean-made pianos were unknown; in reality today most of these old French pianos are slumbering in their French salons and most often they will be out of tune. For the time is long past when every educated young lady learnt how to play piano. Today in these houses it is likely that no one plays at all. But as a piece of furniture the instrument remains a solid testament to good taste and good education, and therefore tends to stay put until say the need to move home brings with it a sad decision to discard the bulky piano.
“Lift the lid, let your fingers touch the ivories, stroke the piano, its always a magical experience … Today it is a 1902 Pleyel (No. 127506) that shares my life, and this magical experience is repeated every day, even for one who is as poor a musician as I am. My Pleyel is a little hoarse, rather afraid of draughts and changes in the seasons, it now takes a somewhat firm hand to extract a pianissimo from the chords… but it vibrates, it lives, and each pearly note emerging from its depths carries with it a hundred years of history – something that the best of modern pianos sorely lacks.
“Yet, unlike a violin, a piano does not improve with age, to the contrary. Pianists generally prefer (good) modern instruments. However, if the basics are sound, a vintage piano can be well restored and again become an excellent instrument. A bit like an old sailing ship — perhaps not the ideal ship to travel the world, but it offers a much better idea of the sea, than any of today’s ‘shells’ ”.
“Luckily there are dozens of these old piano masters available on Ebay and at second hand outlets, and they are not necessarily very expensive. Certainly they are not easy to accommodate (I knew a pianist living in a tiny studio who slept under his Pleyel baby grand …).
“Not exactly easy either for a layman to know he is getting a healthy instrument, rather than a nightingale that will poison his existence because it is unplayable or drain his bank account via an expensive and uncertain restoration. Nevertheless a Pleyel, an Erard or a Gaveau at home, makes for a beautiful dream, as well as being a heritage worth preserving …”
Looking for more about French pianos? Try here:
“Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1831) was active as a composer, music publisher and piano builder. He founded the firm of Pleyel et Cie in Paris in 1807.”
Gérard Fauvin’s domaine of music at Pétignac in the Charente;
Pianos Letellier in Paris for vintage pianos
Antique Pianos from the Period Piano Company, restorers of keyboard instruments.
Here is a general explanation of how pianos are made.
Returning to Emmanuel Tresmontant’s piece the reporter notes that the modern piano is not like the ones that filled fashionable and cultured salons of Paris in Balzac’s day. For in those times Paris boasted more than a hundred different piano makers. Indeed some of their pianos were shaped like pears, cubes, pyramids and one even resembled a giraffe…
“Then too”, he writes “these Parisian piano makers had a good knowledge of piano mechanics things like the double escapement feature on grands which allows for very quick note repetition, felt covered hammers (for shock absorption); crossed strings (longer than those arranged in parallel) fixed to a cast iron frame (designed better to withstand the tension of the strings), these were all innovations delivered by our Parisian piano makers where designer diversity reigned. Chopin played a Pleyel (preferred for its singing tone), Liszt chose Erard (more fireworks and a more spectacular performance). Each country, in fact had its own pianos and styles: there was Broadwood in England; Streicher, Graf, Bösendorfer and Schantz in Austria; Bechstein, Blüthner and Steingraeber in Germany; Chickering in the United States.”
So how did all this diversity disappear and end up favouring just one firm? “The genius of Steinway & Sons, founded in New York in 1853 by the German Heinrich Steinweg , says Alain Lompech, is that he took the best inventions of all the other piano makers and integrated them into a harmonious whole. From the first World Exhibition in Paris in 1867, Steinway won three gold medals from right under the noses of Erard and Pleyel.
“The most incredible aspect of the whole story is that Steinway pianos manufactured today are the same as those they made in 1880! Nothing has changed since the patents were filed. This is absolutely a miracle,” he adds.
Emmanuel Tresmontant continues: “Philippe Copin, the Paris Conservatory professor, is the only European to have spent ten years training at the heart of Yamaha factories in Japan. His tuning and technical expertise, his ability to obtain the colour and tone corresponding to the sound range desired by the interpreter has earned him a career tuning pianos for such world names as Sviatoslav Richter, Alfred Brendel, Martha Argerich, Maurizio Pollini …
” ‘Steinway pianos’, Copin says, ‘are distinguished by their resonance. They are able to project sound into halls with 3,000 seats, which had never been done before. Steinway was the first piano maker to meet the requirements of composers such as Liszt, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov who needed more percussive pianos, — a fortissimo (ff) in a Prokofiev piece is not at all the same as one in a composition by Mozart or Beethoven… ‘
“For Philippe Copin, there is a very recognisable Steinway sound: bright, clear, rich with bright treble bells. But Steinway’s supremacy probably has another explanation: ‘With the exception of Alfred Brendel and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, most pianists are unaware of their instrument. They do not know how it is made and what it is that gives it its timbre. Above all, they all ask the same thing: they want their piano to be versatile and allow them to play very pianissimo and very fortissimo, percussive and legato, etc. Only one brand has managed to meet all these conflicting demands, and that is Steinway! Add to that the fact that a large concert grand piano costs €140,000, whatever its brand and it is easier to understand why there is so little diversity’. “
Read our earlier report about a modern concert pianist who has made his home in an acoustically perfect former French church.
Story: Ken Pottinger