The European piano-building tradition goes back hundreds of years, with more historical territory and context than any other region can claim. This explains why so many discussions about pianos often focus on European methods and brands, and to what degree this lineage is preserved. In fact, the modern piano inherits centuries of keyboard innovations, a prolific evolution advanced by the confluence of extraordinary composers, performers, and piano builders—all laboring to extend the sound and range of the instrument.
Since its invention in 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori, the piano (originally named the fortepiano) evolved quite rapidly, adopted many styles and modalities, and attracted many industrious individuals as craftsmen. Those instruments having the best reputation for quality hailed from Germany, Austria, and Italy, where the likes Stein, Streicher, Walter, Ritmüller, Brodmann, Bösendorfer, Bechstein, and Schimmel emerged as exceptional brands.
Many of these early, magnificently adorned works grace the collections of museums around the world.
Though declining in practice, the old trade union tradition of people spending a lifetime honing construction methods is still employed by many manufacturers today, but with erratic success.
Excepting a brief period during the 1980’s, European pianos were priced well beyond the purchasing power of an average piano buyer. Over the years, a number of attempts have been made to combine high quality with affordability. Some American companies even purchased prestigious German and Austrian manufacturers and brands to capitalize on their public perception. Unfortunately, these attempts met with very little gain.
In the 1970’s, Japanese manufacturers came to the United States with good-quality instruments, copying the models and high-polish finishes found in Europe. For years, their efforts paid huge dividends as they dominated the mid-range piano market.
In the 1980’s, Korean piano manufacturers seeking market share arrived, hoping to duplicate Japanese success. Their initial efforts left much to be desired. Korean labor union demands forced most piano building out of Korea and into China.
Finally, in the 1990’s, these Chinese pianos began arriving in the United States in large numbers. The first generations were of relatively low quality, copies of European styles and finishes, and poor ones at that.
Much has changed in the last twenty years, though. Chinese piano manufacturers—flush with cash—have invested in their own future, hiring the finest piano designers and builders, foreign and domestic. And the quality of Chinese manufacturing has improved dramatically, taking tremendous steps forward from what were essentially cheap imitations.
Today, an estimated 90% of new pianos are made in China, even some famous brands, many of which would surprise you. While most of these are copies of European designs, they are appreciably better than previous attempts.
An interesting but relatively unnoticed development is the rise of the euro-hybrid. Some Chinese companies are now producing high-quality instruments, importing critical parts (soundboards, action parts, strings, etc.) from Europe.
Several firms employ German engineers during the construction phase to ensure everything meets European standards. For instance, the Pearl River Piano Group enlisted designer Lothar Thomma to re-engineer the precision of old German craftsmanship in the new Ritmüller Premium, combining the latest technologies with quality materials from Germany—including Röslau strings and Louis Renner premium hammers.
The hybridization of piano manufacturing, combining European standards with Chinese labor, has resulted in a formidable market presence of simultaneously high-quality and moderately-priced pianos. Blind comparison tests performed by professional pianists, pitting Chinese- and European-produced pianos against one other, have elicited embarrassing results for several famous brands.
As always, the true test of a piano is how it performs. To the trained ear, the sound alone conveys whether or not the legacy of the European tradition exists. When listening, for instance, to the rich tones of a Mason & Hamlin (one of America’s most respected manufacturers), the use of Renner action parts from Germany as well as soundboard materials found in the Hamburg Steinway firmly establishes the link to its pedigree.
For a more in-depth perspective on the importance of the European piano-building tradition, select a brand you’re interested from one of our Piano Tours.