Diaries In The Key Of Steinway: A Piano Builder's View Of 19th-Century New York

William Steinway, photographed in 1882 i i

William Steinway came to New York to build pianos in 1850. His 2,500-page diary is now available online. Courtesy of Henry Z. Steinway Archive hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Henry Z. Steinway Archive
William Steinway, photographed in 1882

William Steinway came to New York to build pianos in 1850. His 2,500-page diary is now available online.

Courtesy of Henry Z. Steinway Archive

About the time Robert Schumann was finishing his third symphony, in 1850, another industrious German journeyed to the new world with his family, settled in New York, and resumed the family business of manufacturing pianos.

As it turns out, William Steinway — the fourth of patriarch Heinrich Steinway's five sons — did a lot more than build pianos in New York with his brothers, as you can discover in a new online exhibit of his diary, presented by the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Beginning today, you can peruse through all nine volumes, some 2,500 original pages, of the piano builder's diary, painstakingly researched, scanned and transcribed (with spelling quirks intact). Steinway started writing in April 20, 1861, just three days before his wedding, and continued making diary entries until November 8, 1896, about three weeks before he died. He wrote about everything from the family business to civic activism and candid scenes of tenderness with his wife.

A page from William Steinway's 2,500-page diary i i

On March 27, 1892, Steinway writes about work and a Paderewski concert. Courtesy National Museum of American History hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy National Museum of American History
A page from William Steinway's 2,500-page diary

On March 27, 1892, Steinway writes about work and a Paderewski concert.

Courtesy National Museum of American History

William Steinway was 15 when he and his family landed in New York from Braunschweig, Germany. A few of the Steinways worked in local piano building shops until 1853 when they formed Steinway & Sons. William joined the partnership three years later and soon took the lead in marketing and finance.

Anna Karvellas, managing editor of the museum's Steinway project, says the diary not only chronicles the growth of the iconic American Steinway piano firm, but presents a fascinating account of 19th century New York — from Steinway's nights out with Grover Cleveland to the violent protests against Abraham Lincoln's Civil War conscription.

William Steinway's diary at the National Museum of American History i i

Entries from Sept. 1872 in piano builder William Steinway's massive 2,500-page diary. It's online and on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of National Museum of American History hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of National Museum of American History
William Steinway's diary at the National Museum of American History

Entries from Sept. 1872 in piano builder William Steinway's massive 2,500-page diary. It's online and on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Courtesy of National Museum of American History

"I have to say that I find the Draft Riots passages on July 13-15, 1863, to be some of the most riveting, but also poignant passages for me," Karvellas says. "They reveal the fear on the streets as well as his own — an honest account of it — fear from what he is seeing and experiencing but also the fact that they may lose everything for which they have worked since arriving."

July 13th Monday.Terrible Excitement throughout the City, resistance to the draft. Row of buildings on third Ave. burning down, also on Lexington Ave. Various other buildings fired by the mob. About 5 P.M. they appear before our factory Charles speaks to them and with the aid of Rev. Father Mahon they draw off towards Yorkville where late in the eve. many buildings are fired. Father Charles & I stay in the factory office til 1 A.M. then go to bed. It rains heavily all night. During his stay with the mob Charles gave the ringleaders $30-40 inc/ Money and one a check for $30. It was a terrible scene and we were of course all much exercised at the prospect of having the factory destroyed.

Also intriguing to Karvellas was Steinway's commanding mix of business, social life and civic efforts. He was a member of several German singing societies, and was friendly with many of the city's influential leaders. Below he writes about his appointment as chairman of New York City's Rapid Transit System in 1890. He would later become instrumental in developing plans for the city's subway system.

April 14th Monday. At Mayors Office and hand him the following letter of acceptance as Rapid Transit Commißioner. In eveg at 5 P.M. meet my wife at 67th str. 3d Ave, we visit Mrs. Groverland Cleveland at her lovely home No 816 Madison Ave. meet a number of dinstinguished ladies there. My wife is almost overwhelmed with the commanding beauty and amiability of Mrs. Cleveland. Home in evg working

Naturally, Steinway was influential in musical circles. In 1866, the company opened Steinway Hall on East 14th Street (it has since moved to West 57th Street), and began booking concerts and promoting musicians.

In 1891, Steinway organized the American tour of the famed Polish pianist (and politician) Ignaz Paderewski, who naturally made it a point to play Steinway instruments. Below is a recording Paderewski made later in Camden, N.J. in 1923.

Paderewsk plays Liszt: Concerto Etude No. 2 "La Leggierezza"

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Along with the complete online diary (within which you can perform searches) the museum is showcasing several volumes of the diary in the exhibit "A Gateway to the 19th Century: The William Steinway Diary, 1861-1896," which will be on view to the public through April 8, 2011.

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