Feb 152017

Today is the birthday (1797) of Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg, anglicized name Henry Engelhard Steinway, who  made pianos in Germany and the United States. He was the founder of the legendary piano company Steinway & Sons. He was born in Wolfshagen im Harz, Duchy of Brunswick in the Holy Roman Empire. He attended public school in his home town. At the age of 8, he was ostensibly orphaned on the death of his mother, and thrown upon his own resources, until his father and brothers, once thought to have been killed in action, returned and claimed him. Then, at 15, he was orphaned this time genuinely on the death of his father, and he joined the German Army. In 1814, he joined the Schwarze Schar, the volunteer corps of Frederick William, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel in the war against Napoleon’s occupation of parts of the German states but remained in the garrison throughout the Napoleonic  campaign of the Hundred Days in 1815.

He left service on 23 June 1822 and began work as a carpenter, and later he became an apprentice to an organ builder in the town of Goslar. During this time he developed a love for music and became a church organist. He started building instruments, though hidden in the kitchen of his house because of the strong rules of the instrument builders’ guilds. In Braunschweig (Brunswick), he started by building guitars and zithers, and then graduated to pianos, of small proportions initially and gradually increasing in size.

In 1835 he made the first square piano, which he presented to his bride Juliane at their wedding. In 1836 he built his first grand piano in his kitchen in the town of Seesen. This piano was later named the “kitchen piano”, and is now on display at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art with a Steinweg 1836 square piano. In 1839, he exhibited three pianos at the state trade exhibition in Braunschweig and was awarded a gold medal.

Because of the unstable political climate following the revolutions of 1848 in the German states and the limited economic opportunities for a man working outside a guild, Steinweg decided to leave the country. He emigrated from Braunschweig to New York City in 1850 with five of his sons, but before leaving he gave the company to his son, Christian Friedrich Theodor Steinweg. Later in New York, he anglicized his name to Henry E. Steinway upon advice from friends, who concluded that the German surname Steinweg would be disadvantageous for doing business. Steinway and his sons worked for other piano companies until they could establish their own production under the name of Steinway & Sons in 1853.

The overstrung scale in a square piano earned the Steinway Piano first prize at the New York Industrial Fair of 1855. In 1862 they gained the first prize in London in competition with the most eminent makers in Europe; and this victory was followed in 1867 by a similar success at the Universal exposition in Paris. Certain piano giants such as Franz Liszt and Anton Rubinstein praised Steinways to the skies for their durability, action, and tone-quality helping to make Steinway a household name in pianos.

This short infomercial about the Steinway product pretty much sums things up. The action and tone of  Steinway pianos are their most marked features:

It’s not at all sensible to give you a YouTube video of a Steinway in action because of the limited tone qualities of the recordings.  You need to hear one live. At Purchase College (SUNY) where I was a professor of anthropology and dance for 35 years, Steinways were everywhere. Every dance studio in the dance conservatory (claimed to be the largest in the U.S.), had its own Steinway, for example.  I might argue that this is a waste of great instruments given that neither the dance students nor their teachers were especially interested in the tone of the music they were dancing to, but the practice musicians enjoyed the experience (for the most part). One once complained to me about the “famed Steinway action” as an impediment to his playing style, which is near blasphemy and might be a comment on his capacities as a musician more than on the pianos themselves. I don’t play piano, so I will remain neutral.

The elevators in the music conservatory at Purchase College were designed to be large enough and sturdy enough to accommodate a grand piano because the instruments had to be shunted around quite frequently for rehearsals and performances, and the Steinways proved to be durable enough to be up to the task (with a piano tuner on call all the time).

Steinway’s home of Brunswick or Braunschweig gives its name to the eponymous Braunschweiger, but things are a little complicated. The name has never been subject to any kind of copyright, patent, or formal region of origin status, and hence is used indiscriminately for a variety of different sausages in different regions. In Germany Braunschweiger usually refers to a variety of Mettwurst that is made of coarsely ground fatty pork with flavorings added, then smoked, and is spreadable. In Austria, Braunschweiger is a type of Brühwurst that is cooked, while in the US Braunschweiger is a type of liverwurst.  Let’s focus on German Braunschweiger Mettwurst. You may have to travel to Germany to find it.

Legends abound concerning the original maker(s) of Braunschweiger Mettwurst, none of them trustworthy – like pretty well all stories about origins.  Best guess is that a version of Braunschweiger appeared in Brunswick in the 1830s and has evolved over time in Germany and elsewhere.  Garlic is the most common flavoring.  For my money you can’t do any better then spread Braunschweiger plain on coarse German bread, but it’s also tasty with the addition of sauerkraut and mustard.  This is really where you have to decide for yourself – raw onions? tomatoes? cheese?  Your choice.