Short Biographies of Selected Quality Piano Builders
Mason & Hamlin
This Boston, Massachusetts, firm was founded in 1854 by Henry Mason and Emmons Hamlin. Originally they made reed organs, but it was their American Cabinet Organ that won them great acclaim, and the success of this instrument in 1881 led the company to produce pianos. The company's instruments were of an extremely high quality, both pianos and reed organs, and soon Mason & Hamlin became one of the most prestigious US brands, although around the year 1900 their output of about 700 instruments per year was not large by American standards. Most would consider their pianos to be equivalent to any other of the highest quality instruments made anywhere.
Carl Buckstein was born in Germany in 1826 and while still young was taught by his stepfather to play piano, violin and cello. One of his sisters married a piano-maker, Johann Gletiz, and as Bechstein reached maturity it was decided that he was to become a piano-maker and would serve an apprenticeship with Gletiz.
Following his apprenticeship he traveled, mainly in France learning from some of the top French piano builders of that day, such as Erard. He studied how to get more volume and also the commercial side of the piano. He made great friends with the pianist Hans von Bulow, who subsequently praised the Bechstein instruments. Like Bosendorfer, Bechstein set out to build a piano that was tougher, more resonant, and would appeal to the finest concert pianists of that day. Although Carl Bechstein was perhaps not a great innovator, his forte had been to utilize the best ideas from other quality builders and to put them together to make a truly great instrument. His pianos have the highest respect throughout much of the piano world today.
The world's best known piano firm was established in 1853 in New York city by Henry Steinway, a German immigrant. In this year Henry and his brothers, encouraged by a strike at the then leading piano manufacturer in New York, took advantage and with their own saved capital launched their own company. Within ten years they were running the world's largest piano factory. When the Steinways set up their new facility they took the opportunity to introduce completely new designs and working methods, and became truly innovative in their approach to piano construction. Their first success were improvements upon the square piano, the reigning domestic piano of the day. In 1855 they received universal acclaim for their newly designed square piano at the World's Fair, putting the name of Steinway clearly on the map. In 1860 the company produced the piano that was to be the basis for the modern grand piano; this was the over strung concert grand piano; the forerunner to today's concert grand pianos. Through the years improvements continued to be made and quality stayed at the top; two ingredients that usually assure success. Concert artists the world over rate this firms instruments in the very top group of quality pianos because of their singing quality and responsiveness. They are among the finest.
Jonas Chickering lived in the Boston area and was apprenticed to Benjamin Crehore around 1815 to learn instrument making. It was here that he developed his skills as a piano builder. After working for another builder and acquiring experience he began his own business in Boston in 1823. From the very first Chickering's pianos were of superb quality and design and coupled with a partner who was good at marketing his pianos became known throughout all of North and South America. In 1843 he incorporated his concept for a cast iron frame in a concert grand piano, and an improved version of this piano received unparalleled praise at the first International Exposition held in 1851 at the Crystal Palace, London, winning the top awards. In 1852 Jonas made his three sons Thomas, Frank, and George partners in the firm. In 1867 following the great Paris Exposition of 1867 Frank Chickering had the Imperial Cross of the Legion of Honour, then one of the world's most prestigious non-military awards, bestowed upon him by Emperor Napoleon III for services to the art of music. The Chickering pianos built up until around the Second World War are considered to be second to none and some of the concert grands built around the period of the late 1800's to around 1925 have some of the most powerful and rich sounds possible, especially in the bass.
The firm began by William Knabe in 1839 was established in Baltimore, Maryland. He was a German immigrant who studied the English language and piano building for six years prior to his beginning his own business. He built instruments of very high regard and his pianos were very popular in the southern US. The American Civil War hurt his business and he died in 1864 leaving his company to his sons. After a somewhat shaky economic time after the war his son, Ernest Knabe got the firm back on sound financial ground by making a dramatic sales trip to the northern and mid-western states. It was a big success and that assured the company's future. Knabe's pianos were very highly regarded by pianists such as Camille Saint-Saens, an enthusiastic user, and by 1900 the company was making around 2000 instruments per year. The Knabe piano is known in some circles as "a singer's piano" because of its somewhat more mellow tone than many of its contemporaries.