"Satisfying to the point of sensuousness."
-The New York Times Book Review
Like no other instrument, a grand piano melds the magic of engineering with the magic of great music. Alone among the big piano companies, Steinway & Sons still crafts each of its pianos largely by hand, imbuing each one with the promise and burden of its brand.
In this captivating narrative, James Barron of The New York Times tells the story of one Steinway piano, from raw lumber to finished instrument. Barron follows that brand-new piano-known by its number, K0862-on its journey through the factory, where time-honored traditions vie with modern-day efficiency. He also explores the art and science of developing a piano's timbre and character before its debut, when the essential question will be answered: Does K0862 live up to the Steinway legend? From start to finish, Piano will charm and enlighten music and book lovers alike.
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James Barron is a staff reporter for The New York Times. Over the past twenty-five years, his writing has appeared in virtually every section of the paper and has ranged from breaking coverage of the September 11 attacks and the 2003 New York City blackout to The Gates public art installation in Central Park. An accomplished amateur pianist, he lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
By These People, in This Place
Steinway No. K0862 on its way to becoming a concert grand
The piano being a creation and plaything of men, its story leads us into innumerable biographies; being a boxful of gadgets, the piano has changed through time and improved at ascertainable moments and places.... Indeed, for the last century and a half, the piano has been an institution more characteristic than the bathtub—there were pianos in the log cabins of the frontier, but no tubs.
Eighty-eight keys, two hundred and forty-some strings, a few pedals, and a case about the size of—yes—a bathtub: every piano has pretty much the same curves outside and the same workings under the lid. But the biography of a piano is the story of many stories. It is the story of the fragile instruments from which all pianos are descended. And it is the story of contrasts. It is the story of nineteenth-century immigrants who struck it rich making pianos, and of more recent immigrants from Europe and Central America who are paid by the hour. It is the story of the family that virtually invented the modern grand piano, of brothers and cousins who drank, who hated the United States, or who dabbled in bulletproof vests and subways and land deals and amusement parks and the earliest automobiles. It is the story of a few workers who have exceptionally good ears and many who have never read a note of music or set foot inside Carnegie Hall. It is the story of men with a passion for motorcycles who have taught themselves snippets of Beethoven and Chopin and of others who tack photographs of Frank Zappa above their workbenches. It is the story of workers who have brought in special radios that receive the audio portion of television broadcasts so they won’t miss their talk shows while they drill out the bottoms of keys and shove in tiny lead weights. It is the story of the place where they work, of factory floor camaraderie, of pleasant, unhurried work.
This book is the biography of one piano that was made by these people in this place. It is a concert grand that was built at the Steinway & Sons factory in New York City in 2003 and 2004. The main character will not make a sound for months. A big supporting cast—the most experienced workers in a factory with a payroll of 450—will fuss over it and fume at it.
Like all Steinways, that main character goes by a number, not a name: K0862. Like all other newborns, K0862 comes with hopes for greatness and with fears that it may not measure up to the distinguished family name it wears, and not bashfully. On its right arm the Steinway name is stenciled in big gold letters that an audience cannot miss; on its cast-iron frame the name is stamped in black letters that a camera closing on the pianist’s face cannot miss. There is no mistaking K0862 for a Baldwin or a Yamaha or a Bösendorfer.
Yet K0862 looks just like every other Steinway concert grand. It is eight feet, eleven and three-quarters inches long. It contains the same bewildering assortment of moving parts, thousands of tiny pieces of wood and felt and metal that bend and twist and rise and fall on command.
Pianists always say that a good piano has "personality," but the workers know that a piano is a machine, or the eighteenth century’s idea of one. Talented tinkerers refined it later on—improvisational wizards of hand tools who, little by little, made a good thing stronger, tougher, and, above all, enduring. But the piano remained an invention from an earlier time. Nineteenth-century inventions had mechanized guts and world-changing goals, like doing in an hour what human hands took days to do. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Eli Whitney had invented the cotton gin. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Robert Fulton made his steamboat, Cyrus McCormick his reaper, and Isaac Merrit Singer his sewing machine. No one would say that a sewing machine has a personality. It is just a machine.
What a different machine is a piano: a machine with emotions, if that is possible, or at least emotional attachments. There are pianists who kiss their pianos every day, who touch the case as tenderly as they would touch a lover’s cheek, who talk to their pianos in a way they talk to no one. Musicians regularly talk about the individual characteristics of this or that piano, the traits that make one a pleasure to play and the one next to it an agonizing slog. They dream of one that can deliver what Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny called a "holy, distant and celestial Harmony."
Even before its first note sounds, the question hanging over K0862 is the question that hangs over every Steinway: How good is it? Will it be a lemon or the piano-world version of a zero-to-sixty delight? Will it sound like celestial harmony or "a squadron of dive bombers," as the pianist Gary Graffman said of a Steinway he hated on first hearing (but came to love)? Will it surprise the Bach specialist Angela Hewitt, who considers Steinways made in New York to be "powerful but rather strident, and in my opinion, clumsy"? Will it match the piano that was the onstage favorite of Rachmaninoff and later Horowitz and, after retiring from concert life, became the living room piano in Eugene Istomin’s apartment? Will it be anything like the piano that Van Cliburn discovered during a late-night practice session before a concert in Philadelphia? That piano so captivated him that he offered to buy it then and there. Steinway told him to wait—it was booked for at least nine months. He waited, and took it home in February 1990.
Will K0862 be good enough for a place in Steinway’s stable of concert pianos, the three hundred or so instruments that dominate the nation’s concert stages and recording studios? Will it be good enough to spend five years on a very fast track with a different rider every night?
A Steinway’s life begins far from center stage, in the gritty complex of red-brick factory buildings that was laid out when Ulysses S. Grant was president. The factory is dingy, just as it always was. At quitting time, the workers track sawdust home on their shoes, just as they always have. Many of the machines are older than the men who operate them—and most of the workers at Steinway are men. The factory floors are so worn that everyone has memorized where the dips are. If they open the grimy back windows, the workers can watch the airplanes taxi into position, nose to tail, at La Guardia Airport, on land that the Steinways once owned. A real estate ad would note that the factory has "partial rvr vus"—a narrow channel leading to the East River is just beyond the runways. Something a real estate ad would not mention is that New York City’s largest jail is on an island a quarter of a mile from the shore.
The windows on the other side of the factory look toward Manhattan, a few miles away. Just inside those windows are the workbenches of the bellymen, called that because the only way to do their work is to climb inside a piano on their stomachs. The bellymen talk about how they watched the twin towers of the World Trade Center burn and collapse on the morning of the 9/11 attacks. The bellymen remember it as one of the few days when the world beyond their windows intruded on the timelessness of the factory.
In so many ways, the factory is a dusty leftover from the days before computers, televisions, even recordings—scratchy old 78s, not compact discs or MP3 downloads. It is nothing like the huge television soundstages that have filled the shells of old factories a few miles away, or the
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