"You know," said Henry Steinway, looking down 14th Street from a window in the National Press Building, "in the piano business we have a kind of folklore. We say that there are good piano towns and bad piano towns. Washington is a good piano town. Baltimore is not."
The two senior Steinways in Steinway & Sons -- John, 63, who is senior vice president, and his brother Henry, 65, who is retiring as company chairman -- were in Washington last week for a sort of Steinway festival sponsored by Jordan Kitt's Music Co. The events included performances, social get-togethers and workshops for piano teachers and technicians.
For John Steinway it was virtually a family reunion. He talks about pianos as though they were relatives. It's a big family -- more that 470,000 and still growing -- and he is on intimate terms with a remarkable number of them, including those in Washington.
"first of all," he says, "there is the White House Steinway -- the official White House Steinway, in the East Room -- and there are two others. There is a grand on the second floor in the presidential quarters, and a vertical that normally lives on the third floor -- I think Amy uses it for practice, but I'm not sure. The last time I was there, the Marine Band was using it down in the Grand Foyer.
"Just across the street, the Renwick Gallery has a fine old Steinway, and there's one at the Corcoran, around the corner. The Smithsonian has several that it uses, besides the ones that are just on display. It owns and uses the Paderewski Steinway that we gave him for a concert tour in 1892. All of the universities here have Steinways. The Organization of American States has a Steinway, and so do many of the embassies, the Library of Congress, the Kennedy Center . . . ."
Henry interrupted him: "You remember the World's Fair Steinway that we haven't been able to locate, the one that was used at the 1939 World's Fair in New York? I've tracked it down in the Department of Commerce auditorium." He pointed, through the window, toward the Department of Commerce. "We were talking about that the other day," said John. "I thought that's where it was."
Besides the White House and the embassies here, the Steinways do a brisk trade with foreign heads of state. "A Steinway grand was one of the first things the Communist Chinese bought in the United States after the thaw in relations began," John Steinway recalls. At the other end of the political spectrum, they have been by special appointment purveyors of pianos to all British heads of state since Queen Victoria, who ruled when the company was born, and they display the British royal patent with special pride in their New York showroom.
"We have supplied pianos to most of the crowned heads of Europe over the last century and a quarter, "John Steinway says. "Czar Nicholas and Kaiser Wilhelm were both customers of ours -- but of course, they're out of business now."
If any name in the American music industry has acquired an aura of its own.
It is Steinway.
At their showroom in New York, Steinway & Sons proudly display gold medals won at international exhibitions beginning in 1855 (when the company was 2 years old), testimonial letters from composers ranging from Wagner to Prokofiev, Victor Herbert to Sibelius, and practically every well-known pianist of the past century, from Paderewski to Jimmy Durante. One exception is Victor Borge, who used to open his concerts with the announcement: "The Steinway people have asked me to announce that I play a Baldwin piano."
Company records go back to 1853, when the first Steinway piano was built in this country, three years after the family migration to America had begun. "We still have all the books," says John Steinway, "and I can read about that piano in the handwriting of my grandfather, who was 15 years old at the time. The first piano had serial number 483, because my great grandfather had made 482 in Germany before coming here. He was a master cabinet-maker and began making pianos originally as a sideline."
Besides the details of manufacture and sale for each piano, succeeding generations of Steinways jot down records of the pianos' later careers next to their serial numbers. "It's a constant source of information and helpful in public relations," says John Steinway, who is in charge of the company's advertising and promotion. "Many people write or call to say things like "Grandma has Steinway No. 106,753. Can you tell us when it was made, how much it cost and how much it may be worth now?'
"I remember once my father had a call from a friend named Borden -- one of the Fall River Bordens, Lizzie Borden's family. And he told my father, "Theodore, we have had a fire and two Steinways were destroyed. I'll need an evaluation of them for the insurance company! I got the assignment. It turned out that we had sold 14 Steinways to that family. But by the process of elimination, I was able to figure out which two had been lost and supply all the necessary details to the insurance people."
Last year, Americans spent $301 million for 1.9 million fretted instruments (mostly guitars, though there were a few banjos, ukuleles, mandolins, sitars and ouds in the total). In contrast, the 275,600 pianos sold in this country cost $452 million. This figure does not include electronic instruments, only the ones some musicians now quaintly call "acoustic pianos." John Steinway flinches slightly when he hears that term applied to his family's product. "I prefer to call them natural pianos, if I have to make that distinction," he says.
The Steinway company is no longer family-owned -- it became a subsidiary of CBS in 1972 -- but it continues to act as though it were, producing Steinways at a rate of about 4,000 per year with no reference to market demand, and spending a full year on the production of each piano. "Production is up about 10 percent this year," says company president Peter M. Perez, "and some years it goes down a little. But that depends on the availability of materials and the work we feel our people can do, not on the market demand. We currently have 12 to 16 months of back orders for concert grands, slightly less for uprights."
Of the Steinways now in production, about 2,000 are grand pianos, 100 to 200 are the Concert D model, the ones most used in public performances, and 1,500 are uprights. The price range is about $5,000 to $22,000, and the expensive ones are the hardest to get. (The most expensive Steinway of all time is the one called the Alma-Tadema Steinway, which was originally sold for $1,200 in the 1880s to Henry Marquand, a partner of J.P. Morgan and president of the Metropolitan Museum. Marquand had it decorated by a leading painter and inlaid with semi-precious stones. Last March, Sotheby-Parke Bernet auctioned it for $390,000 to an undisclosed buyer.)
The American market for concert grands has approximately doubled since 1969 -- from 11,000 per year to 21,000 last year. Steinway now has about 10 percent of that market and other brands' sales have been booming. In volume, the largest American manufacturer is Kimball, which sells a mass-market grand piano at about half the Steinway price, and also brings in the major prestige import item, the Boesendorfer, which is manufactured in Austria and sells about 100 grand pianos per year in the United States at prices about 50 to 75 percent higher than Steinways. Baldwin, the major domestic competitor for Steinway's market, has a price range approximately the same as Steinway's.
There have been Steinways in and out of the White Houst since the administration of Andrew Johnson, who bought a square piano from Steinway & Sons. But that was not a state piano, nor was Margaret Truman's Steinway grand, which broke through an upstairs floor, launching the major White House renovation during the Truman administration, or the one that was given to Grover Cleveland as a wedding present by William Steinway (1836-1896), who was a personal friend. "That was Cleveland's piano, not the nation's" says John Steinway. "It left the White House when he left, and it came back when he came back. The Cleveland family still has it."
The first state piano was given to the White House by Steinway & Sons during Theodore Roosevelt's administration in 1903. The current state piano was installed and the old one retired to a Smithsonian display in 1938, during another Roosevelt's administration. The White House piano is a splendidly ornate instrument with legs carved in the shape of eagles and side inlaid with scenes of American music-making in shaded gold leaf. The 1938 model began showing its age a few years ago -- not only in sound and keyboard action, but in the cowboy's hat.
The cowboy is one of the gold-leaf figures symbolizing American music that decorate the side of the piano. Standing next to a tall cactus and strumming a guitar, he is strategically located at the bend in the piano's case, where singers like to stand during a recital, and the top of his hat has been rubbed out by the backsides of generations of singers. The insides of the piano showed comparable wear, and the steinways offered to replace the piano with a new one. But the old piano has achieved status as a sort of national treasure, and Rosalynn Carter decided to have it rehabilitated rather than replaced.
"We brought it to our factory and kept it under special guard," John Steinway recalls. "Usually, when we are working on it, a piano is moved from one place to another as various technicians do their specialized work, but this piano stayed in one place and the technicians came to it. All of our top craftsmen were involved in the work, and I must say they were all interested and excited to be working on this instrument. After the piano was turned to the White House, President Carter sent a personal note to each of the men who had worked on it. I know that at least one of them has had the note framed and it's hanging in his living room."
Some pianists apparently are less enthusiastic about the White House piano -- or perhaps they're just more set in their ways. When Vladimir Horowitz or Rudolf Serkin perform at the White House, they use their own pianos, which are on more or less permanent loan from Steinway. This policy of loaning pianos is a Steinway tradition, although the company sometimes loses track of an instrument -- at least for a while.
The state piano bears serial number 300,000. "We wanted to do something special with the round number," recalls John Steinway, who was in college when the piano was built. "Right now we're trying to think up something special to do with No. 500,000."