Monday, December 21, 2009


I don't get to see very many of these - a Grotrian-Steinweg upright, built in Braunschweig, Germany, in 1927.  This upright came here not too long ago from England.  It is in very good condition, beautiful ivories on the keys, a nice mahogany veneer with a quite dark red stain - it is almost black, like a really dark rosewood.  It has 85 notes.

The tone of this upright is distinct.  It has a nasal quality, but little of the higher frequencies associated with American pianos.  The soundboard has flattened, so there is little power, and the tone tends toward dark and lush. 

If the name after Grotrian seems familiar, that's no coincidence.  Heinrich Steinweg, a German piano maker, came to New York and established a company under his Americanized name, Henry Steinway.  With him were three sons, hence Steinway and Sons.  But another son named Theodore stayed in Germany and continued making pianos there under the original name Steinweg (pronounced "SHTINE-vaygh"), in partnership with Friedrich Grotrian.

Two of Henry's sons died in 1865, so Theodore came to New York to help his father.  Theodore was an amazing piano designer, and he ended up being responsible for many of the Steinway patents that helped the company become what it is today.  Theodore sold his company in Germany to three of his employees, including Wilhelm Grotrian, son of the late Friedrich.  They were allowed to continue using Theodore's name for ten years.  After that, the company started using the brand name Grotrian-Steinweg, and that's when the trouble started.  The lawsuits began in Germany, and ended up in the United States, and were fought off and on for a century.

It was eventually decided by the US courts in 1975 that Grotrian's use of the Steinweg name was a trademark violation, so now Grotrian makes pianos for export to the United States under the single name Grotrian.  They are quite lovely pianos, and are still being made in Braunschweig (which is sometimes rendered in English as Brunswick).

For more on the century of litigation, see Grotrian vs.  Steinway.
By the way, Grotrian has a cute musical game on their website called the Pianolina.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Bachmann, Berlin

This beautiful Bachmann upright was built in Berlin, Germany.  I can't seem to find any reference to this company anywhere, so I can't say for sure when it was built, even though I know the serial number.  It was probably built in the very early 20th century.

I looked all over the piano for a date.  Sometimes whoever worked on the keyboard will sign their names with a date on the first few keys.  I've even seen the signature of a manufacturer and a date proudly written on the inside of the case.  A hammerhead might carry a date, or the plate might have a date cast into it.  If the piano has been worked on by someone who knows when it was built, he might pencil the date on the plate, or on the keyframe behind the keyslip, or stamp it into some wooden case part.  In addition to serial numbers, there are also case numbers, used as reference in the factory before the serial number has been assigned.  If the action was made by a separate action maker, it could have its own serial number, or a date stamp.  Rebuilders sometimes switch parts from different pianos, creating great uncertainty about when a piano was actually built.  On this piano I found various numbers, but no date, alas.

Bachmann's name is carved into the veneer of the fallboard, something I'd never seen done before.  Usually the maker's name is attached as a decal, or sometimes inlaid.  Another name is carved into the keystop rail, beneath Bachmann's name; Rosen's, apparently a piano dealer in Cape Town, South Africa.

It is a typical German upright with a bird-cage action (like the Berlin-made Waldmann I posted about earlier, also from South Africa), and an over-strung bass section.  The keytops were probably originally ivory, but they have been replaced with ivorine.  The gorgeous veneer is book-matched walnut, with burled walnut panels.  There used to be candelabra attached to the two side panels in front.  The turned balls and collars on the legs are a nice touch.

Bird-cage action!