For the third time this century the venerable firm of Steinway & Sons, maker of the world's most famous pianos, has changed hands. The transition inevitably marks a period of uncertainty for the revered marque at a time when the future of the American piano industry is clouded.
For most of this century, Steinway was a family-owned business whose products were synonymous with artistic excellence and hand-crafted quality. The Steinway piano was not only a fine musical instrument but a sound investment whose value increased steadily over the years.
Yet today the American piano industry, once the world's largest, a shadow of its former self. With the exception of Baldwin, most of its greatest names -- Mason Hamlin, Chickering, Aeolian -- have disappeared due to stiff competition from Japanese and Korean imports. Baltimore, once home to three piano companies, now has none.
Meanwhile, the market for pianos has shrunk dramatically, from 282,000 instruments sold in 1978 to fewer than 100,00 last year. At the turn of the century, Americans bought more than a million pianos annually. The decline reflects not only changing musical tastes but the electronic revolution that saw radios, television sets and stereo systems displace the piano from its privileged place at the center of the family hearth.
Yet Steinway, founded in 1853, remains a valuable property, with annual sales of $100 million. In 1972, the Steinway family sold the firm to CBS for an undisclosed price; CBS sold the company to a group of investors in 1985 for a reported $50 million. In April, Steinway changed hands again, merging with Selmer Co., maker of band and orchestra instruments, in a deal worth an estimated $100 million. The old saying that you can't lose money on a Steinway seems as true as ever.
Through all its vicissitudes, the company has retained its reputation for impeccable quality and the cache of being the instrument of choice for every great pianist from Rachmaninoff to Awadagin Pratt. Skeptics may quibble about whether today's Model M baby grand is as good those made 40 years ago, but it's still a living room favorite. Steinway's top-of-the-line Model D bTC concert grand, currently priced around $80,000, remains the standard by which all other pianos are judged. Times and tastes may change, but the venerable Steinway could well be around for another 150 years.