My Musical Journey with a Bechstein Upright

“On June 8, 1847, the incomparable [pianist and composer] Franz Liszt came to Constantinople, on a side trip from his Russian tour, his final  one for a long while.” So chronicled the concert pianist and linguist Arthur Loesser in his fascinating social history book entitled “Men, Women and Pianos” published in 1954.

And that event in which Liszt regaled the Grand Turk  with his transcriptions of operatic tunes on a fine Erard piano, which had been set up and tuned for him, was the forerunner of that Western instrument’s becoming not only a Sultanese institution, but something other nations further East aspired to, including the cosmopolitan cities of South and Southeast Asian countries and eventually Japan.

Enters Bechstein, a German manufacturer of pianos, established in 1853 by Carl Bechstein.The upright pianos became more popular after the war, and C. Bechstein was successful with its upright pianos Model-8 and Model-9, both of which have been considered the finest upright pianos. Indeed, Carl Bechstein set out to manufacture a piano able to withstand the great demands imposed on the instrument by the virtuosi of the time, such as Franz Liszt. In 1857, Hans von Bülow (Liszt’s son-in-law) gave the first public performance on a Bechstein grand piano by performing Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor in Berlin.

By 1870, with endorsements from Franz Liszt and Hans von Bülow, Bechstein pianos had become a staple in many concert halls and private mansions. By that time three piano makers, all of which were founded in 1853, became established as the industry leaders across the world: Bechstein, Blüthner and Steinway & Sons.

The years from the 1870s through 1914 brought Bechstein its most dramatic increase in sales. In 1880 a second Bechstein factory was opened in Berlin, and the third factory opened in 1897 in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Production reached 3,700 pianos annually in 1900, and 4,600 in 1910, making Bechstein the largest German manufacturer of high-end pianos. At that time, about three quarters of production went to international markets, especially Britain and the Commonwealth, and Russia.

India, as part of the Commonwealth, had a number of musiacl instrument stores like A. Godin & Co. of New Delhi, that imported pianos including Bechstein uprights, and my parents thought it time after the War to acquire one for me. However, In 1945, allied bombing raids destroyed the Bechstein piano factory in Berlin, along with the firm’s stores of valuable wood, including the precious Alpine spruce used to make soundboards. The war also cost the company many of its experienced craftsmen. For several years after the war, Bechstein could not resume full-scale production of pianos and made only a few pianos per year.

The C. Bechstein Company began to produce pianos again in 1948, and in 1953, the centennial of Bechstein was celebrated by the Berlin Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwängler and Wilhelm Backhaus. Many entertainers and concert pianists, such as Leonard Bernstein, Jorge Bolet, and Wilhelm Kempff, favored Bechstein pianos.

The State Ministry of Culture of the Soviet Union made a contract to supply major state philharmonic orchestras and concert halls across the USSR with three brands of pianos – Steinway & Sons, Blüthner, and Bechstein!

Concert pianists, such as Dinu Lipatti, Shura Cherkassky and Sviatoslav Richter, among others, often chose Bechstein pianos for their studio recordings.

As for my own long connection with the illustrious firm, it was in 1955 that my parents presented me with a gleaming Bechstein upright, which I played on assiduously right through my teen years.

I sorely missed it during my studies in London, but was happy to be reunited with it when I returned to India and began working with a British managing agency company in Calcutta.

Then, came the big move in 1975 with my family to the United States, when despite all odds we were able to ship the instrument by sea to New York and by rail on to Rochester in Upstate New York, where I had been hired by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra as its new Assistant General Manager. Despite all necessary precautions the soundboard of my upright suffered from a crack in unloading at its destination that required a great deal of attention to put right. It never quite regained its pristine tone, but it served me well through my subsequent move to Miami, Florida when I took over the Florida Philharmonic as General Manager.

Postscript:
During my university days in London, my favorite concert auditorium was Wigmore Hall. The latter began as Bechstein Hall and was built in 1901 by the German piano firm of Bechstein next to its showrooms on Wigmore Street.

The Hall was intended to be grandly impressive while remaining intimate enough for recitals. It opened with two gala concerts on 31 May and 1 June 1901, featuring the Italian pianist Ferruccio Busoni, the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, the Ukrainian pianist Vladimir de Pachmann and several others.

Afterword:

  • Four musicians who composed on Bechstein pianos: Edvard Grieg, Alexander Scriabin, Maurice Ravel, Béla Bartók.
  • Sviatoslav Richter grew up studying piano on a Bechstein and remembered his experience with that piano as stimulating and rewarding.
  • Claude Debussy said “Piano music should only be written for the Bechstein”
  • For his studio recording of the music of Chopin and Beethoven, Dinu Lipatti used a Bechstein piano.
  • Oscar Peterson played and owned a Bechstein throughout much of his career, publicity contracts with rival manufacturers notwithstanding.

References: My Diary; Wikipedia

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