Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Cool Consoles - Introduction

Every piano manufacturer has been proud of its big pianos - the cabinet grands, the parlor and concert grands, even the square grands back in the day.  But the piano-makers' bread and butter since the 1920's has been the small pianos - the baby grands, and especially the consoles and spinets.  It was in the 20's, as smaller homes and apartments were being built, that the American consumer, especially the American housewife, began to turn away from the big pianos, particularly the tall, boxy upright player pianos that had been so popular.  The newfangled radio, for example, was smaller, and prettier besides.

In response, manufacturers tried to make their uprights less imposing by scaling down and simplifying the design.  But it was still a big brown ugly box.  Even when they started making smaller uprights, about 48" tall, they were nothing more than miniaturized versions of the big uprights.  Fortunately, as upright sales plummeted in the 30's, the baby grands had become very popular, and kept the industry from collapsing altogether during the Depression.

In 1934, the Swedish piano company Lundholm designed a small upright piano that was completely different from the regular uprights.  It was very short, the cabinetry was attractive and not boxy, and the action was redesigned to fit the smaller space.  The Associated Piano Co of London immediately bought the rights to the design and began manufacturing them as Minipianos.  In 1935, the Minipiano was licensed to Hardman, Peck & Co in the United States.  At the same time, both Haddorff and Winter & Co introduced their console pianos, and within months the industry had completely changed.  Baldwin and Wurlitzer introduced their console designs, and every manufacturer joined the race to create as many different furniture styles as possible with the new design.  These minipianos were an instant hit with consumers in spite of their failings as instruments.

The small pianos came to be called spinets.  Historically, spinet was the name for a particular kind of small harpsichord (possibly, but not definitely, after Spinetti, the name of an Italian maker).  It now means a small upright with a drop, or indirect-blow, action.  What this means is that the action is below the level of the keys, and the keys pull up on the wippens to move the hammers.  This is different than a direct-blow action, which sits above the keys, and the keys push the wippens up.

The name console was coined by the French maker Henri Pape in the 1820's to describe his design of a small upright.  This was at a time when uprights were seven or eight feet tall.  So any small upright is a console upright, and spinets can be said to be a kind of console upright.  After the introduction of the spinet in 1935, manufacturers also began making small direct-blow actions in decorative consoles slightly taller than the spinets.  The larger of these console uprights came to be called studio uprights, and the smaller, which employ a compressed version of the action, are now simply called consoles, in a way meant to distinguish them from spinets and studios.  For this series of postings, however, I will use the word console to mean any small console upright, including spinets.

The furniture styles of consoles range from the sublime to the ridiculous, from elaborate reproductions of historic styles to space-age modernism.  I really love them, the more outlandish the better.  As instruments, however, they leave much to be desired.  Studios eventually became serious instruments, but the consoles are really too small to have high-quality sound, especially in the bass.  The bridge design and placement sometimes results in poor tuning stability and sound quality.  The compressed direct-blow actions are not very responsive, and the drop actions require short keys whose leverage is all wrong.  When manufacturers began cutting corners to cut costs, especially in the late 60's and 70's, the consoles with their inherent design compromises and flaws suffered tremendously.  Still, at their best, some of these consoles wound up sounding pretty good, and playing quite adequately.

Wurlitzer, under the Baldwin name, was the last US manufacturer to make spinets, in the mid 1990's.  Consoles, however, are still quite popular, and are actually better made now than they were 20 years ago.  Sadly, the furniture styles have boiled down to a handful of not very inspiring quasi-historical designs.  When I do encounter a cool console, though, I will document it in a posting here.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Cool Console #1 - Krakauer

This lovely spinet is a Krakauer made in 1946.  Krakauer Brothers of New York City was one of the few mid-sized piano companies to avoid being swallowed up by one of the large piano conglomerates in the 1920's and 30's.  It wasn't until 1980 that Kimball took control of the name.

This piano was designed to look less like an upright and more like a small square grand, a common design approach for the time.  The ribbed bowed sides are meant to disrupt the necessary vertical box holding the plate and strings, and draw attention to the flat horizontal box holding the keyboard and action.  The veneer is a lovely walnut, with vertically oriented grain on the keyslip, the stretcher above the fallboard, and the pedal stretcher.  The bottom board has a fake lyre above the pedals.  The medallion above the fallboard has the name Krakauer stamped into ivory-colored celluloid.  The inlaid daggers above the legs are an especially nice touch.