88 Keys: The Making of a Steinway Piano
While Henry was the grand patriarch and founder of the dynasty, it was the next generation of Steinways, particularly his son William, who had the business acumen that secured the company's success and solidified its enviable reputation. He understood the value of celebrity endorsements, and through his marketing genius the company associated itself with pianistic legends of the time, including Anton Rubinstein, Ignace Paderewski, Josef Hofman and Sergei Rachmaninoff, who would play no other instrument in concert. It was as much through a well-devised combination of promotional tours and advertising as its inherent quality that the Steinway piano came to be known as the "Instrument of the Immortals." A full page illustration captioned "An Unsolicited Testimonial' shows a facsimile of a short letter from Thomas Edison to Steinway & Sons, dated June 2, 1890. It reads: "Gents, I have decided to keep your grand piano. For some reason unknown to me it gives better results than any so far tried. Please send bill with lowest price."
Although fifty grams of pressure is the standard amount configured for the depression of a piano key, Chapin also drops other big names to show that Steinways can be crafted for individuals. Vladimir Horowitz, we learn, liked a light, responsive touch, while Arthur Rubenstein wanted a more resistant touch and a darker overall sound. Glenn Gould wanted altogether different feels for different musica harder touch for his Bach interpretations versus what he called a "shallow" touch for other composers like Richard Strauss.
Another contradiction: while a mere two ounces of pressure on a key will sound an ultra-quiet note, the strings and their supporting structure must be able withstand 70,000 pounds of tension. The quantum leap that made this possible was the replacement of the wooden box frame with a cast-iron "harp." Although Steinway at one time forged its own harps, this process is now outsourced (although the master casting mold patterns are the company's exclusive property); keys, strings and felt are the other finished components for which it relies on outside suppliers.
Chapin sprinkles in other historical factoids that will probably be a revelation even to many knowledgeable pianists. The piano did not always have eighty-eight keys spanning seven and one-quarter octaves. Its "compass" has ranged from as few as four and one-third octaves in Cristofori's day to as many as ninety-seven keys. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, "quarter tone" music was all the rage, resulting in keyboards with more than the standard twelve semitones per octave; the extra keys were usually red and brown. Another now-extinct color variation popular during the 1700s was the "skunk's tail" keyboard featuring black keys with a white stripe down the middle. A Hungarian piano maker, Paul von Janko, hoping to make playing the instrument easier for small-handed individuals, devised a piano with six ranks of knobs instead of keys. A number of them were built, but they never caught on with the public.
Chapin's closing chapter gives tips on buying, maintaining and restoring pianos, followed by a useful glossary that provides key definitions for technical terms.