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Steam for a Steinway

Raymond Cooke, overleden in 1995, oprichter van KEF (Kent Engineering and Foundry) en ontwerper van vele succesvolle luidsprekers heb ik meerdere malen ontmoet. Net als hij ben ik een uitgesproken pianoliefhebber en we deelden een bijzondere waardering voor de pianist Solomon. Op één van onze ontmoetingen, samen met Jan Kool bij de introductie van de KEF 105, bood ik hem de door mij opgenomen LP van het Trocadero Salonorkest aan. Hij keek op de achterzijde van de hoes en zag dat er behalve de Nederlandse tekst ook Engels op stond. Vervolgens dekte hij met de hand de Engelse tekst af en las de Nederlandse tekst in het Engels voor. Jan en ik waren stomverbaasd. We wisten dat hij een paar jaar op het NatLab van Philips in Eindhoven had gewerkt, maar niet dat hij daar een behoorlijke kennis van het Nederlands aan over had gehouden. Raymond Cooke was een bijzonder mens die een evident stempel op de audiowereld heeft gedrukt. Ik denk er nog vaak aan terug. Mede daarom is het goed zijn verrassende verhaal “Steam for a Steinway” – of anders gezegd “de invloed van de opkomst van transportmiddelen op de muziekwereld”, nog eens in de belangstelling te brengen.

Armand van Ommeren, december 2012

Steam for a Steinway
by Raymond E. Cooke, O.B.E.

Originally conceived as a musical presentation and first given at the Torbay Musical Weekend, Palace Hotel, Torquayon 19th November 1989.

During a visit to New York a few years ago I came across an interesting little book by David Grover on the history of the piano. I bought it as a gift for my friend David Kirk who is a keyboard enthusiast and constructs harpsichords as a hobby. On the return flight I read a good deal of the text and one sentence in particular fired my imagination. “Much railway construction was undertaken in the 1840s and trains speeded artists and often their pianos from concert to concert.” I at once realised to what great extent the arrival of effective public transport must have influenced music and musicians. For many years I collected evidence to support my idea. Each new fact reinforced my original belief. During the planning of the Torbay Musical Weekend -a unique annual conference devoted to music and records -I casually mentioned my secret subject to colleagues of the organising committee. They were immediately so enthusiastic that I agreed to prepare a presentation, with musical examples, for the following year's event. The presentation was a great success and so many people expressed interest in the unusual subject that I decided to revise the text into a pamphlet to extend the usefulness of my researches.

Raymond E. Cooke
Tunbridge Wells, November 1989

Raymond Cooke op een AES bijeenkomst in de Wisseloord Studio ca. 1980.
Links Jan Kool en rechtsonder nog zichtbaar Henri H. van Hessen en zijn vrouw.


Superficially there may seem to be no connection between the sound of a steam locomotive and a virtuoso piano work. However the introduction of steam railways to England in 1825 and their subsequent rapid spread throughout Europe and North America profoundly influenced the musical arts. The increased mobility of musicians and their instruments brought the romantic movement to full maturity in the second half of the nineteenth century. The impact of technology completely altered the development of music making in virtually all its aspects.


Let us go back to the beginning of the eighteenth century. Mozart had been dead just nine years. Beethoven was already thirty. 1, Rossini was eight years old. The birth of Berlioz was three years away. The world would wait for Chopin another ten years, Liszt eleven years, Wagner and Verdi thirteen years. Transportation still depended solely upon the horse. Almost everybody rode in those days. It was the only way to get about. There was very little in the way of roads of course – just dirt tracks which turned to a sea of mud in winter as Napoleon found to his cost when he tried to visit Moscow in the early part of that century. In the summer when it dried up, roads were full of ruts guaranteed to rip off the wheels or break the axles of any carriage. Mail coaches had only recently been introduced into England in 1784. It was the proprietor of the theatre at Bath who first had the idea of running a regular service between Bristol and London and he decided to carry letters with the permission of the authorities. Shortly afterwards in 1785 a regular service was started between London and Exeter and that, believe it or not, was the first public transport in the whole of Europe. The word “coach” is derived from its place of origin in Hungary at a place called Kocs. This was later corrupted by the French to “coche” and came down to us, anglicised as all good French is, to “coach”. It consisted of a crude conveyance with four wheels, elementary springing and a roof. A large four-in-hand carried four to six people inside with some reasonable protection from the weather and about eleven outside sitting on the box and on the roof of the coach, including of course the coach crew. A journey anywhere was always a hazardous undertaking. The first consideration was the weather of course, especially for the outside passengers who were alternately fried alive in the hot sun or made very cold and miserable by the wind and rain. They had to sit for interminable hours on very hard seats sometimes with their backs to the wind if they were feeling particularly cold and sometimes facing into it, but with very little freedom of movement. Accidents were frequent due to the poor state of the roads and long delays resulted from broken axles, wheels and other failures, even overturnings. Very little could be done to protect the passengers from highwaymen who were prevalent everywhere. The speed needed to escape a galloping horse was absolutely unattainable.

These were the frightful conditions in which early musicians such as Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Paganini undertook their tours. Having regard to the circumstances, it is a wonder they ever set foot from home at all. Two years of concert tours in Germany brought Paganini rich rewards which he needed but ruined his health. Travelling conditions were absolutely atrocious. A contemporary of his wrote “We would advise anyone who does not have a chest of iron, intestines of copper and buttocks of platinum to avoid the journey in the ordinary post chaise”. Paganini wrapped himself in furs even during the summer months for fear of catching cold. He was on a strict diet because of his lack of teeth – he lost all his teeth at an early age – and on arrival in a city he would rush to an orchestral rehearsal during which he was exacting and irritable and after each concert he was totally exhausted looking as though he had suffered from an epileptic seizure. In March 1828 Paganini set out in a specially built coach from Northern Italy to Vienna. The journey involved crossing the Alps and took ten days for a distance of only 900 km. But musicians then as now, were obliged to travel a great deal. If they stayed in one location they rapidly exhausted their audience. Even the great composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin had to earn most of their income by performance. In those days there was little other income to be had except from teaching, not much from publishing – publishers were real skinflints. Knowing the impecuniousness of their clients they settled for one-time fees which were a pittance. Recording royalties were still very much in the future. Those who chose to travel very little, such as Beethoven, paid a very high price by being for ever on the poverty line and having to exist on charity.

At the turn of the century the pianoforte as we know it today had not reached its maturity. The development of keyboard instruments hovered between the harpsichord which had by then a long history, and the newer fortepiano exemplified by the Viennese school of manufacture. It was towards the fortepiano that Mozart had directed his attentions. In fact Mozart played a critical role in the development of the piano because having discovered Stein – not Steinway but Stein – in Vienna in 1777 he abandoned the harpsichord altogether and henceforth only wrote for the fortepiano. He was charmed by its silvery tone, its easy rippling action and its smooth, evenly regulated touch which made it easy to shade from soft notes to loud. He wrote to his father in about 1777: “When I play vigorously, whether I leave the finger down or lift it up, the tone is finished the moment I sound it. I can attack the keys in any way I want, the tone will always be even, it will not block. It will not come out too loud or too soft, or perhaps even fail to sound; in one word everything is even.” So Mozart composed the rest of his keyboard music for piano and thus became the first great composer to abandon the harpsichord completely. In the closing years of the 18th century, the harpsichord vanished altogether. For example Broadwood in England who was already in business at that time, stopped making the old instrument in 1793 and soon afterwards the firm refused to accept any more harpsichords in part exchange for their pianos, claiming that, “from their almost total disuse they are unsaleable”. In other words, people had not played them for such a long time the mice and the moths had got at them – they were pretty well defunct. The Stein fortepiano was the perfect instrument for elegant Viennese society with its intimate round of chamber music soirees, which, in deference to the Stein's fragile construction, avoided thunderous chords and huge crescendos. The Stein certainly lacked power, but it had unmatched clarity, distinctive sparkle and brilliant tone. Its action was very light and the notes could be repeated quite quickly. The virtuoso Johann Hummel wrote of his Stein pianoforte: “It allows the performer to impart to his execution every possible degree of light and shade, speaks clearly and promptly, has a round flutey tone which, in a large room, contrasts well with the accompanying orchestra,” – the orchestras were small, maybe thirty players at most – “and does not impede rapidity of execution by requiring too great an effort”. The influence of the Stein piano can be heard today in the graceful, elegantly flowing music of Haydn and Mozart which in deference to the Stein's fragile construction avoided thunderous chords or huge crescendos.

Composers of the day wrote within the limitations of available instruments. Meanwhile significant developments in piano construction were in the offing. Broadwood was endeavouring to make a far more powerful instrument with thicker strings, heavier and bigger hammers and a much sturdier action than the Viennese fortepiano. It used three strings per note instead of two, as in the case of Stein and thereby its carrying power was significantly increased. Broadwood were already experimenting with bracing to withstand the increased pressure demanded by thicker, heavier and more numerous strings. Elsewhere in Middle Europe another quiet revolution was taking place and that was in Beethoven's head. He began writing vigorous new music full of passion and dynamism through which he expressed his emotions. When Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1792 all under the auspices of Count Waldstein, the piano was seen almost exclusively as a graceful singing instrument. The style of playing had changed little from the earlier period of the clavichords and the harpsichords. Beethoven on the other hand, bore down relentlessly on the piano and wrung out of it crescendos that some of his audience found downright frightening. One listener likened his playing to a great fountain spewing forth clusters of notes. Another remarked that he 1ooked 1ike “a wizard overwhelmed by the demons who he himself has called up”. This was Beethoven writing out of his imagination. There is a popular misconception that his assaults on pianos were due to his deafness. In fact he was experimenting with an entirely new style of music which his contemporaries did not understand. No pianos of the day could withstand his crashing attack. On one occasion he asked Anton Reicha who was a well-known composer and teacher of the day, to turn pages for him at a recital. Reicha reports that “I was mostly occupied in wrenching the strings of the pianoforte which snapped while the hammers struck among the broken strings. Beethoven insisted on finishing the concerto and so back and forth I leapt jerking out a string, disentangling a hammer, turning a page – I worked harder than Beethoven”. Beethoven was writing for an instrument which did not exist. He was in fact writing for the 20th century Steinway and bringing an unprecedented influence to bear on piano design. In fact you could almost say in the piano trade that piano making can be divided into two separate eras “BB” (before Beethoven) and “AB” (after Beethoven), for that composer single-handedly changed the future of the piano's development just as much as he changed the future of classical music. Beethoven was experimenting with dynamics. From the Waldstein sonata of 1804 onwards the dynamic contrast is far more extreme. This was real pianoforte. There are long crescendos followed by startling silence, sharp accents, harsh dissonances and overwhelmingly tempestuous chords. Nothing like the three mighty C chords of the Appassionata Sonata (1804) which usher in the coda of the first movement had ever been heard before.

Beethoven was one of the first composers to mark down precise pedalling instructions. Whereas the early music from Haydn and Mozart required little pedalling, the pedal is critical to Beethoven. By sustaining bass notes throughout entire passages, or blurring together rapidly articulated sounds Beethoven created stunningly sonorous new effects. Czerny, who was Beethoven's pupil, reported that Beethoven wanted to create a kind of wash of indistinct reverberating sound as if speaking in a cave. The formidable Hammerklavier Sonata, composed in 1820, storms across the keyboard in the first two movements sinking into an otherworldly dread in the slow fugal movement. This marks the piano's metamorphosis from a charming chamber instrument into the modern leviathan capable of sounding monumentally alone in the largest concert hall. It was also during this period that the piano makers first began to solicit endorsements by famous artists, supplying them with free pianos. In 1818 Broadwood heard that Beethoven was dissatisfied with his pianos. He was always breaking them. They made him a gift of their newest and largest grand. But how to get it to his home in Vienna? The piano was put on a ship in London whereby it travelled to Trieste and there it was offloaded onto a mule-drawn cart to cover the remaining 580 km over the Alps to Vienna. You can imagine what a time it took with the cart moving at not more than 6 km per hour and often a good deal slower when going uphill. But Beethoven's demands on this instrument and his physical prowess were clearly too great even for the Broadwood. During a visit sometime later, Johann Stumpff reported that the composer complained of the imperfection of the grand piano – they fell to talking about pianos generally and Beethoven said, well, they're all a bag of rubbish really – he said he hadn't yet found one on which he could perform forcefully and effectively. He said: “I myself possess a London instrument which however does not live up to my expectations. Come along, its in the next room in a most miserable state”, and Stumpff goes on to say that when he opened the Broadwood the upper registers were quite mute with the strings lying broken in a tangle, like a thornbush, whipped by a storm.

A few years would pass before these problems were overcome but by then the old composer would be dead. He had already done his work. He had written his music for an instrument of the future and that is why it is nonsense to invoke bigoted argument in favour of performance on original instruments. Turn-of-the-century fortepiano construction may well replicate the sounds which Beethoven and his contemporaries heard when their music was first performed, but it was certainly not what they wanted to hear. That is the point. Beethoven put up with the instruments available to him. They were not to his liking, however. I think a short summary of the first Quarter of the nineteenth century would suggest that music making had a good future, but was still far from maturity. Clearly a catalyst was needed.

1825 The catalyst came from a completely unexpected direction – the steam railway. The first viable passenger line opened between Stockton and Darlington on 27th September 1825. This is normally thought of as a momentous day in the progress of the industrial revolution, but its effect on musicmaking was to be even more dramatic. A second line was opened between Liverpool and Manchester five years later on 15th September 1830. By 1834 England and Wales had a network of almost 3600 km of track, stations and all the necessary supporting facilities. The effect on public transportation was enormous. In an instant the average journey time between Liverpool and Manchester, a distance of 50 km, was cut from 5 hours to 90 minutes at an average speed over the track of 32 km per hour. This was in 1830. That average speed was to climb steadily to 95 km per hour within a relatively short space of a few years as locomotives, rolling stock and track design improved. A famous pianist of the day, Ignaz Moscheles (Pragha, 23th May 1794 – Leipzig, 10th March 1870), was a pioneer railway passenger in 1831 and he has left us a very graphic description of his first railway journey one year after the Liverpool – Manchester line opened:
“On 18th I went by rail from Manchester to Liverpool. The fare was five shillings. At 1.30pm I mounted one of the omnibuses which carried all the passengers gratis to the great building called the station. Eight to ten carriages each about as long as an omnibus are: joined closely to one another; each carriage contains twelve places with seats like comfortable armchairs; at a given signal every traveller takes his place which is marked with the number of his ticket and the railway guards lock the carriages. Then, and not before, the engine is attached to the foremost carriage. The motion, although one seems to fly, is hardly perceptible.... Words cannot describe the impression made on me by this steam excursion on the first railway made in England and the transports I felt with an invention that seemed to me little short of magic.” Magic it certainly was.

The French started their own railway system in 1832 followed by Germany in 1835 and with the rest of Europe closely upon their heels a pan-European network was in place by 1850. The age of the stage coach was over. It had lasted only 65 years. In the piano industry huge changes were also afoot. Businessmen replaced craftsmen at the head of manufacturing firms. Commercial considerations became much more significant in marketing. Communications were influential. Trains were able to speed artists, together with their pianos, from concert to concert in safety.

Hitherto, a musician on tour faced greater hazards than the stage coach journey alone. Because of the travelling times involved, short tours of a few weeks were totally impractical. Tours to distant countries meant being away from home for many months, perhaps even years. Most, like Mozart, would go off for two years. Paganini went to Germany for two years. Pianists in particular were very much at the mercy of the instruments they would encounter en route. Pianos were not distributed internationally. It was impractical to ship a piano weighing 300 – 400 kg. Famous pianists like Chopin and Liszt could ask for a Broadwood, an Erard or a Pleyel to be made available. But there were no guarantees and no replacements. The railways changed all that. Pianists could take their own pianos on tour. The greats like Paderewski toured with a private coach containing his own piano, his entire family, his servants, his nursemaid, private doctor, masseur and even the family parrot. Paderewski also had an arthritic condition in his hands which necessitated an instrument with a specially light touch. It is doubtful whether he could have played properly on a standard piano. The new means of transportation was an important influence on goods traffic because it promoted factories with large outputs and favoured industrial nations over the non-industrial. Previously Erard had exported pianos along canal and river, but now they were able to send by rail to neighbouring countries and even across to England. They actually started up a branch office in London.

The Development of the Piano

This was a very far cry from earlier days when lightweight, square pianos were carried by porters directly from the factory to the customer. The boom was underway. The leading makers in France were Erard and Pleyel. Both firms used Erard's 1821 patented invention of the double escapement repetition action. This was modelled on an earlier invention by Broadwood who had developed a direct lever action for their grands. Erard retained the layout of the English action, but included some small extra levers and springs to enable the hammer to rebound not to its original position of rest, but to a point closer to the string where it remained until the finger either released the key totally or propelled a hammer against the string a second time. The speed of repetition was greatly improved because for a repeat note the hammer travelled less than half the initial distance. Intense competition grew up between the French makers and the English because by now both sides had the capability of exporting to the other's territory. Development work was absolutely frantic to increase the speed of repetition of the action, improve the touch and more importantly to increase the volume. In 1821 the tension on a six-octave grand was about 6600 kg, that is roughly six and a half tons, all on a wooden frame. By 1844 the tension on the pace-setting French grands made by Erard, Pleyel and rape had reached 10.650 kg, that is about ten and a half tons. This was still insufficient to prevent strong blows breaking the strings. In other words you could play Mozart on it but you couldn't play Beethoven. The patent literature is full of inventions intent on improving matters and in particular towards reducing the rate of string breakage. As the century neared its mid-point things were moving in a direction which Beethoven had predicted, but even then the piano was not yet fully mature. In a desperate effort to steal a march on competitors Erard was giving away grand pianos right, left and centre. Liszt was one of the first recipients and indeed he was loyal enough to promote its virtues widely and he always insisted on playing Erard at his recitals. Liszt persuaded Erard to give one of their instruments to Wagner, but that was unfortunately sequestrated by his creditors following one of his frequent moonlight flits for political or financial reasons. However undaunted by this tiresome incident Bechstein were soon persuaded to step into the breach with a suitable replacement.


At mid-century, a new wave of German pianos appeared to contest the; European dominance of the French and the British who, up to that, time, had had the scene to themselves due to lack of suitable transport. Several famous brands, still on sale today, joined the ranks of the favourite instruments. These include Blüthner, Bechstein and Bösendorfer. Hans von Bülow inaugurated the first Bechstein piano at a festival concert in 1856 where he played a Liszt sonata. The significance of this is that piano companies began to engage pianists to promote their products. Bechstein employed Hans von Bülow and rewarded him handsomely for playing exotic pieces to show off their Bechsteins at concerts, and exhibitions. Bösendorfer however claims an even more impressive public debut, because at a recital in Vienna Liszt, who was by that time a legendary destroyer of pianos, was obliged to perform on three instruments in turn as one after the other they succumbed. In desperation he turned to the Bösendorfer, which was completely unknown at that time, and it finished the evening completely intact which thereafter ensured its reputation.

Iron Frames

Broadwood had for some time been using extra bracing to withstand the increasing string pressure. In 1825 however, a Boston manufacturer named Alpheus Babcock took matters a step further. He cast a one-piece iron frame for a square piano which fitted over the sound board and was bolted directly to the case. This allowed the strings to be stretched to a previously unheard of tension and the volume of his piano increased tremendously. European manufacturers had long been suspicious of adding iron to the pianos. They felt that this would spoil the tone. But the Americans, practical creatures that they are, had a vast continent to deal with, with extremes of temperature and humidity. They required durability above all other properties. The ultimate triumph of the new iron-framed pianos proved them to be absolutely right. In 1867 the Chickering company which had been founded in Boston, won a Gold Medal at the annual Paris Exposition of piano makers with its iron-framed grand. This was their first victory against the long-entrenched European makers. Liszt as usual copped a free one shortly afterwards and pronounced it “lordly”.

The Advent of Steinway

Heinrich Steinweg who founded the now famous piano-making dynasty was the son of a forester in Braunschweig in the Harz mountains. He began his working life as a cabinet maker and then switched to piano manufacture, exhibiting his first piano at the State Fair in Braunschweig in 1839. About ten years later when civil unrest swept through Austria and Germany following the February revolution in Paris, his piano business went under and so he and his four sons set out for America. There he adopted the new spelling Steinway and the family worked for several years in various established piano businesses until they decided to set up on their own in 1853. For the first three years Steinway produced only unpretentious square pianos. They were entering the market with an unknown brand and square pianos were much more affordable than grands, just as uprights are today. More importantly they fitted easily into the covered wagons of the settlers going out west. Even the Steinway square piano had special qualities. It combined a one-piece iron frame with a technique known then as cross-stringing where the bass strings and the middle strings overlap. This produced rich overtones because of the sympathetic vibrations of unused strings with the struck strings. The recognition of Steinway came very swiftly – again almost by accident. In 1855 a piano jury at the American Trade Fair in New York had all but decided on that year's winner when one judge happened to see a nondescript instrument bearing an unfamiliar label – Steinway. He put his hands down and struck a few chords which were so arresting that the rest of the jury went running over and the placement of the prize was no longer in doubt. That early victory was followed by a Gold Medal at the same Paris exposition at which Chickering had triumphed. With the Steinway therefore, the ideal piano that Beethoven had envisaged had arrived. He had written the music for it. Steinway produced the instrument on which to play it. There it was with a round, ringing tone, huge volume, all but indestructible and yet it was capable of producing a cloud of soft overtones surrounding each struck note. Hector Berlioz praised the Steinway's noble sonority and Rossini is said to have described it in the exaggerated style of his day as “a nightingale cooing in a thunderstorm”. Steinway gradually strengthened their pianos even more. They built up the tension of the strings from 22.000 kg and eventually up to 30.000 kg which remains today's standard. By the 1870s Steinway had surpassed the older Chickering company in America, turning out 2.000 pianos annually, and after acquiring a sister plant in Hamburg, which is still in operation, it began to challenge the hold of the reigning Bechstein and Blüthner pianos in Europe's concert halls. The age of the Steinway had arrived and Beethoven's master plan was complete.

Pianos and the Teleqraph

An interesting technical aside is that the high tension stringing and reliability of pianos generally in the second half of the nineteenth century also owes something to the railways. Almost concurrently with the introduction and development of the railways, the American inventor Samuel Finley Breese Morse patented and developed the first electric telegraph and of course the legendary Morse code. He conceived the idea whilst returning from Europe to America on the packet ship Sully in October 1832. The idea was prompted by a conversation about Faraday's 1831 publication on magneto-electric induction. Morse concluded that if the presence of electricity could be detected in any desired part of the circuit it should be possible to record signals instantaneously by opening and closing the circuit with a key. Before the ship arrived in New York on October 13th Morse had designed his telegraph recording-instrument and laid down the principles for his dot-dash space code based on the duration or absence of electrical impulse over a circuit. Transmission was made along wires supported above ground by wooden poles spaced 30 – 60 m apart depending upon the terrain. For convenience and access these were located close to and following the line of a railway so that the equipment could be reached for maintenance by a simple locomotive or a hand propelled vehicle coming from the nearest station. This provided convenient access, even across rough country, sometimes through mountainous regions and deserts. The insulated copper wires which carry the telegraph signal are supported over long spans by high tensile galvanised steel wires. These steel wires have to be extremely strong and durable because the tension over long spans can exceed 8.200 kg. The technical methods and production equipment which were developed to meet this demand were also ideally suited to the production of what we nowadays call piano wire. That is to say, tempered high-tensile steel wire produced to a high dimensional accuracy. It is an essential feature of a good piano that the wire used for its strings is exceedingly uniform in diameter and physical characteristics. Prior to the introduction of the telegraph, the demand for that sort of material was so inadequate that it could not support the research and development required to produce satisfactory wire. With the coming of the railways and the telegraph there was a ready supply of high grade wire for stringing pianos. Here again is an aspect of science and industry coming to the aid of art.

Wagner on Wheels

Many musicians found the relative tranquillity and isolation of a railway journey very conducive to meditation and even composition. Wagner visited Venice in November 1861 staying at the Hotel Danieli which is still in business today. His fortunes were then at a very low ebb and most of his friends had abandoned any hope of his future success. On his own admission in his autobiography "Mein Leben" he says he was feeling very apathetic. His creative powers seemed to have deserted him. He went to visit, curiously enough, the merchant Wesendonck who was living in Venice at that time with his wife Mathilda. She was the girl with whom he had a steaming relationship during the composition of Tristan. In an effort to drag him out of his doldrums Wesendonck took him to see Titian's Assumption of the Virgin in the great hall of the Doges. Wagner had visited Venice many times. It was one of his favourite cities. He had passed the Doges Palace frequently but never had the wit to go in. Wagner writes in his memoirs that Titian's painting “made a most exalting impression, so that by this inspiration 1 found my oId creative powers awakening within me with almost their original power”. Then he simply notes on one line in his autobiography “I decided to write Die Meistersinger”. He was now so exhilarated that he wanted to get back to Vienna. He decided to return by what he called the roundabout land route, by train from Venice to Vienna. He writes that during this journey: “I first thought of the music for Die Meistersinger, the poem for which I had retained in my memory only in its earliest form. I conceived the main part of the overture in C major with the greatest clarity.”

The Great Orchestras

The example of pianists and pianos neatly illustrates the impact of nineteenth century industrialisation and technology on music- making. However the railways had a similarly beneficial influence on the many symphony orchestras which were founded around that time. In the course of that century many great orchestras were founded -the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Concertgebouw, the Hallé Orchestra, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Pittsburg Symphony, the Budapest Philharmonic, the Scottish National Orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Of those which remain today only the Dresden Staatskapelle and the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester were founded earlier. All of these orchestras were inaugurated during the railway age. They would not have been viable earlier because an orchestra cannot live entirely in one location. It must export itself to increase its audience and revenues.

Britain's first permanent orchestra was the Hallé founded in 1858 by Charles Hallé, one of those foreigners of genius to whom British musical life owes so much. In the latter half of the nineteenth century he revolutionised English musical taste, paving the way for Henry Wood. The Hallé Orchestra based in Manchester is his living memorial just as the Promenade Concerts in London are Sir Henry's. Like most successful musicians he was an inveterate traveller. He was also thoughtful enough to leave us some notes of his experiences whilst travelling. In his excellent autobiography he speaks of travelling from Darmstadt to Paris in 1836. This was before the railway network had reached that area. He was therefore obliged to travel by coach or diligence as it was then called. He reports: “I left Darmstadt and my dear old master with sincere regret in the autumn of 1836 travelling by diligence via Metz and Chalons, sleeping at each place by order of the doctor for I was even then not very robust and such a journey was at that time a formidable undertaking. A great disappointment awaited me after having crossed the French frontier and finding myself in the interior of the diligence with four Frenchmen. At school I had been considered a very fair French scholar, reading and even speaking the language with a certain amount of fluency. Great therefore was my astonishment when I didn't understand a word of the conversation of my fellow travellers although I was all attention and I arrived in Paris very crestfallen. It took a long time before my ear got accustomed to the unfamiliar sound but then my former studies proved to be a great advantage. I may relate here that when two years later I paid a visit to Hagen and met my old teacher of French he addressed me joyfully in what he believed to be that language but I no longer understood him and he finally left me fully convinced that I had forgotten all that he had ever taught me.”

Hallé's first visit to England in 1843 was not a success. Although he had several letters of introduction to prominent persons he was not readily admitted into musical circles. It is therefore all the more surprising that he returned five years later in 1848 and eventually made England his home. Initially he based himself in London where he came to know a great many interesting and influential people. But his income was uncertain, mainly from stray pupils during the winter months. His relocation in Lancashire came about almost accidentally, through the brother of a friend, who proposed that he should take up residence in Manchester, which he contended was “quite ripe to be taken in hand”. He knew nothing about Manchester beyond that it was a large rich town with a flourishing German colony. However he decided to give it a trial, having turned down a similar offer from Bath. Within a year Hallé was offered conductorship of the “Gentlemen's Concerts” which he accepted on condition that the band should be dismissed and its reorganisation left entirely to him. This procedure was a forerunner of Barbirolli's reorganisation of the Hallé Orchestra at the end of the Second World War.

After nearly eight years of successful concert promotion, Hallé's old orchestra was about to be disbanded in October 1857. To prevent this Hallé undertook to give weekly concerts during the following winter, at his own risk. The series started on 30th January 1858 with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony before a scanty audience. The early events sustained heavy losses until about halfway through the series of thirty concerts, audiences became more numerous and more appreciative. By the end of the last concert, there was a small overall profit of 30 pence, which Hallé's managers brought to him symbolically as ten brand new threepenny bits. From then on there was no looking back for this remarkable man who knew Berlioz, Brahms, Cherubine, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Paganini and Wagner – to name but a few. The newly formed Hallé Orchestra played all the leading provincial towns around Manchester and in addition to their regular subscription concerts at the Free Trade Hall they made frequent visits to London and tours to Edinburgh, Glasgow and across to Ireland, to Dublin and Belfast, always by train. He travelled incessantly and many a time he would travel, say from Manchester to Edinburgh, conduct a rehearsal in the afternoon, a concert in the evening and return to Manchester the same night, reaching home at four or five o'clock in the morning. After a few hours' sleep he would be quite fresh and ready for the next day's work.

His son C. E. Hallé reports a number of interesting anecdotes which his father relished. On one occasion he was snowed up in a train in Scotland with very few passengers. He and two or three other fellow travellers were nearly starved. They were out of food and had been there for hours. There was no food on board and then the guard remembered that there was a fine pig in the guard's van, so this unfortunate animal was promptly butchered and converted into pork chops and cooked over the engine fire to provide supper. The only thing that upset Charles Hallé was when the trains didn't keep to time.


One hundred years on, things have changed radically and permanently and not always for the better. Air travel now dominates long-haul routes. The age of steam has passed. Railways still operate, but are no longer cost effective nor are they particularly cheap. Road transport satisfies the majority of local needs, both public and private.

The development of musical instruments has virtually ceased. The manufacturers are now in the hands of big business groups. Most of the great innovative companies have disappeared, Erard, Gaveau, Pleyel are no more. Ibach was sold and completely moved to China. Bösendorfer is owned by Yamaha now and on the way back. Steinway was for some years a subsidiary of CBS but passed in private hands when Sony acquired the latter. Sadly though, there is no longer a member of the founding family on the present board of directors. Fierce competition comes everywhere from Asia, Mainland China, Taiwan, Korea and especially Japan with Yamaha now the largest manufacturer of pianos. Classical composers no longer write music beyond the capabilities of available instruments. The more imaginative settle for brutalising standard pianos as a means of producing different sounds. If an advance is being made, it is probably in the field of pop music. Innovative composers employ electronic keyboards, synthesizers and tape recorders to create new effects. Regrettably few of them show much musical ability, there are no Beethovens in sight. The last of the great romantic pianists who always travelled with his own piano died in New York on 5th November 1989. His name was Vladimir Horowitz. Mr. Horowitz used two Steinway model D concert grands; one for concerts, the other for his last recordings. He liked a brilliant bass, a very round and mellow lower treble and gradually increasing brilliance towards the upper treble. The special voicing of his piano together with his prodigious technique produced the distinctive Horowitz sound. Steinway continue to ship pianos all over the world, nowadays by truck and airplane. Air freight is quicker, cheaper and less stressful to the instrument over long distances. At the present rate of progress, Steinway may well go supersonic by the year 2000.


Although nothing radically new has been unveiled by commercial piano makers in many years, experimentation is not entirely moribund.

At Bonn, not far from Beethoven's birthplace, two young brothers run a warehouse selling secondhand pianos. The younger, David Klavins has lately developed an interesting piano intended to give greater sonority and power. The instrument is unusual in appearance and construction. It is called simply Model 370.

It employs a very large soundboard which stands vertically like an upright piano. Stringing is vertical and parallel to reduce sympathetic resonances. The keyboard is a conventional type by Renner with 88 notes covering 7 1/4 octaves. The bottom note A (27,5 Hz) is the same as a standard piano, but due to the special construction we hear a much greater proportion of fundamental.

Only one prototype exists so far. It stands 3.70 m high and is played from a platform 2.17 m above the floor. It weighs 2 metric tons and the total string tension is 21 kilonewtons. The longest bass string A, (27,.5Hz) is 3.03 m.

The prototype is not for sale but if replicated it would cost over £ 100,000. The inventor has plans to develop a more conventional instrument with a rectangular soundboard 3.2 metres long, mounted horizontally with a conventional grand piano action.

Recordings, made under some difficulty due to the unsympathetic acoustics of the industrial building in which it is housed, testify to the improved sonority of this remarkable instrument. It is to be hoped that funds will be made available for its commercial development.


Grover, David S. "The Piano"
pub. Charles Scribner & Son, New York, 1976

Gaines, James R. Ed. "The Lives of a Piano"
pub. Holt, Rinehard & Winston, New York, 1981

Encyclopaedia Britannica
pub. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chicago, 1947

Schwarz, Boris "Great Master of the Violin"
pub. Robert Hall, London, 1984

Unger-Hami lton, Cl ive, Ed. "The Great Symphonies"
pub. Sidgwick & Jackson, London, 1988

Hallé, Charles "The Autobiography of" Ed. Michael Kennedy
pub. Paul Eick, London, 1972

Wagner, Richard "My Life" (English translation)
pub. Cambridge University Press, 1983

Moscheles, Charlotte "Life of Moscheles"
pub. Hurst & Blackett, London, 1873

Musical Examples

The original presentation was illustrated by musical examples taken from commercial recordings on CD. The following list identifies the extracts used, with their timings. The numbers correspond with those in the foregoing text and indicate the points in the narrative at which they were played.

The Age of Steam

Liszt: Grand Galop Chromatique
Decca 410 115-2

Mozart: Sonata in G K 330
Philips 412 616-2

Beethoven: Sonata no 23 "Appassionata"
CBS MK39344

Liszt: The Instruments of Franz Liszt, Jeno Jando
Hungaraton HCD 31176

Wagner: Die Meistersinger
DG 415 278-2

Klavins, Model 370
Klavinsmusic KM 001

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