Steinway & Sons’ latest grand piano, the Sunburst, is a bold move from a heritage brand. Created in association with German rock band BAP, it firmly anchors the company in the 21st century with its modern design. While the world-famous piano maker looks forward to the future with zeal, its origins go back a long way
At the heart of the Steinway story lies a tale of two cities: New York and Hamburg. In 1850, Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg, a German piano and cabinet maker, emigrated to New York, where he changed his name to Steinway and founded Steinway & Sons. Thirty years later, Steinway & Sons reconnected with its German roots: 1880 saw the creation of a workshop on Hamburg’s Schanzenstrasse, followed by a new factory on Rondenbarg during the 1920s.
To this day, Hamburg and the Rondenbarg factory continue to serve as the European headquarters where pianos for all markets besides the United States are created. On average 1,200 pianos – each consisting of more than 12,000 parts – are meticulously made here each year, from the drying of the wood through to the fine tuning of each finished instrument.
Walking through the different sections of the Hamburg factory, it soon becomes clear quite how meticulous and skilled the process of making a Steinway & Sons piano actually is. Carefully sourced planks of wood are piled high in warehouses before being taken into the factory to be painstakingly bent, treated and assembled with numerous other parts, before the piano is lacquered, polished and tuned. After having passed through the hands of the countless workers, each specialised in one particular task, it’s hardly surprising that no two pianos are the same. Consequently, whether you opt for a classic style or the new Sunburst, choosing a Steinway piano is a highly personal process, as Guido Zimmermann, vice-president and managing director of Steinway & Sons Europe, explains: ‘Every Steinway & Sons piano is unique, each handmade in Hamburg, so every grand piano will have a slightly different “feel”. My advice is to visit a Steinway hall near you and play as many models as you can until you have found the right piano for yourself.’
There’s very much a family spirit running through the company, something that is much in evidence in the Hamburg factory offices. Not only are there portraits of some of the thousand-odd pianists – from classical to jazz and pop – that belong to Steinway & Sons’ roster of artists roster on the walls; the names of loyal employees who have worked at the company for years are also on display. While 10 years is the norm here, 20 to 30 years is also far from unusual. The palpable enthusiasm and sheer skill is constantly being passed on to a future generation of artisans, the trainees who are learning the skilled craft of making pianos.
Long-standing employee Susan Kenagy, senior mechanical engineer, joined Steinway in 1988. Based in New York, she has played a pivotal role in forming the Steinway group. The group, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, includes Steinway & Sons as well as the Boston and Essex lines. This diversification was aimed at offering different price categories, as Kenagy explains: ‘The company wanted to invite more people into the Steinway family and to do that they needed pianos that more people can afford.’
First the Boston, then the Essex lines were introduced, the Boston level being designed as a halfway point between the Essex and Steinway & Sons. Both feature certain design elements of Steinway & Sons models thanks to Kenagy’s methodical approach: ‘I learned everything I know about pianos from working for Steinway. I spent a year just studying the Steinway piano, not doing anything else; then at the end of that year I started working to design the Boston.’ Since Steinway & Sons’ pursuit of excellence has been carried through to the two entry-point piano lines, it’s hardly surprising that these have become great favourites with families and budding pianists worldwide.
The creation of the Steinway group 25 years ago already signalled Steinway & Son’s attitude to the future. The new Sunburst is the brand’s latest innovative approach. In a bid to show that Steinway & Sons is far more than just classically orientated, the Sunburst references the world of rock: this striking model was created in association with German rock band BAP and is limited to a mere 69 models in reference to 1969, the milestone year which saw Woodstock, the release of The Beatles’ Abbey Road album and other significant music events. It features a use of colour reminiscent of the sunburst finish on electric guitars. Zimmermann says: ‘The iconic sunburst colours have adorned guitars beloved by the greatest names in rock such as Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton – so it seemed only natural to bring such an iconic design together with the iconic Steinway & Sons pianos.’ The result is an eye-catching instrument.
Zimmermann highlights how the brand stays in tune with the times: ‘There are different ways to stay contemporary – Sunburst is a very good example, as is Spirio, the world’s finest high-resolution player piano featuring the company’s proprietary software.’ Unveiled in 2015, the Spirio uses state-of-the-art technology: hundreds of pieces performed by various Steinway artists are played with the same skill and emotion as if one of the world’s most talented artists was present in the room. Using special software, the keys move magically up and down, recreating pieces by Bach, Chopin, Bernstein and more.
More than 150 years after its New York beginnings and over a century after founding its factory in Hamburg, Steinway & Sons continues to celebrate craftsmanship and quality while nurturing a deep sense of pride within the company. Firmly anchored around the notion of family – one that encompasses everyone from its employees to top-class artists and customers – Steinway & Sons has found the recipe for success: no wonder its pianos increase in value as they age. As the company moves ahead with its forward-thinking attitude, concert halls and homes around the world will inevitably continue to be the setting for pianos that have been made in Hamburg and bear the prestigious Steinway & Sons hallmark.