Changing Traditions at Steinway

November 22, 1991

The big news in musical circles these days concerns Steinway. The pre-eminent American piano maker has struck a deal with Kawai, which has begun producing a new piano using Japanese materials, manufacturing techniques and Japanese workmen but with this imprint: "Designed by Steinway & Sons."

Kawai hopes to market the new hybrid piano, dubbed the Boston, in seven upright and grand styles against such Far Eastern assembly-line pianos as Yamaha and Young Chang, which have won great popularity in recent years through their flexible pricing. But some critics see the development as a reflection of recent ownership and management changes at Steinway, which in recent months have produced a flurry of articles questioning the quality of the firm's pianos.

If it were not for the Steinway name, its deal with Kawai would probably go unnoticed. After all, stencil pianos -- brands carrying a name other than the manufacturer's -- have existed for almost as long as pianos have been made commercially. As the number of American manufacturers has shrunk, the survivors -- Baldwin and Wurlitzer, among them -- have stocked up on the names of discontinued independent brands.

"The Boston never would have been made by the old family firm of Steinway & Sons, which from its founding in 1853 repeatedly rejected proposals for a 'cheaper' line," Edward Rothstein writes in the New York Times. "The Steinway was just too important: not only is the piano used by nearly every major concert artist, its design has defined the very character of the modern piano."

This changing philosophy mirrors the thinking of Steinway's corporate leadership, particularly of Daniel Koenig, a former General Electric steam turbine engineer, who is now heading the Long Island, N.Y., piano factory. He views the piano as essentially an engineered and manufactured product. "I get uptight about advertising hand craftsmanship and things like that," he has been quoted as saying. "To me it doesn't indicate quality but a stubbornness, holding on to the past."

Yet such a stubbornness forged the Steinway reputation into a worldwide mystique. It is sad that it may now be endangered by executives who seem to think of Steinway as just another piano.

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