While China continues to make things cheaply and quickly, many western countries see a decline in manufacturing. Sound like big industry? Well, yes, it is. But it also includes the manufacturing of musical instruments. The well-reputed, centuries-old classical instrument builders, particularly piano builders, are disappearing at an alarming rate.
For companies like the major Canadian piano builder, Heintzman, the solution for survival is either merge with a Chinese company or to close down entirely, as the French company, Pleyel, recently chose to do.
As of the end of 2013, Pleyel, the only brand of piano that Chopin would play, will no longer manufacture their instruments. What’s Pleyel’s story – and how does this change affect music around the world?
Pleyel et Cie: Pianos
Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731), a harpsichord maker in the court of Ferdinand de’ Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany, in Padua, Italy, built the first actual piano sometime between 1700 and 1710.
The rise of the middle class saw a greater demand for musical instruments, particularly pianos, in every household. By the end of the nineteenth-century and well into the twentieth-century, piano building was big industry. From 1890 to 1925, in Canada alone, there were over a hundred piano builders advertising the importance of a piano for every household. Piano building was big business.
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It was into this big business that Pleyel made its contribution and quickly developed a prestigious name for itself.
Pleyel developed the double piano in the latter part of the nineteenth-century. Image by Morn Gryffindor.
Composer Ignace Pleyel (1757-1831) founded Pleyel et Cie, the Paris-based piano manufacturing business, in 1807. His son, piano virtuoso Joseph Etienne Camille Pleyel, joined him in 1815. The partnership produced player pianos and introduced the upright piano to France. The company was so successful that they employed 250 workers by 1834 to manufacture over 1000 pianos annually.
According to 200 Years of Pleyel, these pianos were the instruments of choice for Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), Achille-Claude Debussy (1862-1918), Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), Joseph-Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), Manuel de Falla y Matheu (1876-1946), and Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (1882-1971), among many others.
Pleyel was once so successful that they were able to invest in instrument experiments like the Double Piano (patented as Duo-Clave) built in 1890. They were the first company to actually build two pianos into the same frame. It built a small number of these instruments between 1890 and the 1920s.
What Makes a Great Piano?
The quality of a piano, indeed that of any musical instrument, is as much a result of the quality of the formative materials as it is the craftsmanship and care of its creator. Pleyel was a leader in quality piano building, creating an excellent instrument with great acoustic qualities.
Making Pianos Affordable for Everyone
Pleyel closed its doors at the end of 2013. According to Eleanor Beardsley at National Public Radio (PR), former piano builder and current piano store owner Bruno Canac says, “Pleyel was an emblematic brand with 200 years of history.”
To survive, some think that piano builders need to work with China. Olivier Colin, a pianist and founder and CEO of Colmann, France’s one remaining piano builder, told Beardsley, “The key to success is selling pianos for the low market as well as the high. To do that, you cannot make your piano entirely in France, as Pleyel was doing. We need to work with China, because we don’t work with only rich people. We have to sell pianos to people who don’t have a lot of money. If we make the piano only in France, the piano will be more than double the price.”
Beardsley notes that Colin “started the company in 2004. He says it has become the top-selling brand in France, just behind Japanese success story Yamaha.” If one French company, and a newer one at that, can compete in the world market of fine pianos, then why can’t the historic names like Pleyel?
Pianos and the Changing Face of Music
Pleyel describes their pianos as “acquiring a special satisfying quality, the upper register bright and silvery, the middle penetrating and intense, the bass clear and vigorous.” Other pianos, including the Yamaha and the Kawai and other Chinese, Japanese and Korean makes, also describe similar qualities. The value of the piano’s sound and the quality of the instrument itself is not just in the nameplate attached. But history does bear significance.
In 2007, France’s Minister of Economy, Finance and Employment designated Pleyel a “Living Heritage Company.” In 2012, Pleyel was awarded the Prix de l’Excellence Française.
While piano virtuosos, teachers and students alike will lament the loss of Pleyel pianos, they treasure those that remain. Pianists will similarly appreciate other pianos for their fine qualities, but the loss of a big name like Pleyel in the piano manufacturing world is significant. Sadly, it is yet another example of excellence in industry being shuffled to areas where production costs are cheaper (at least for now).© Copyright 2014 Emily-Jane Hills Orford, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past