Ideas & Issues


One of the world's oldest, iconic piano makers, Pleyel, will close its factory doors in Paris at the end of this month. The French press characterized the bankruptcy as inevitable in the face of cheaper competition from China. But many disagree. They say Pleyel could have survived by adapting better to the times.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sends this report from Paris.

BRUNO CANAC: (Foreign language spoken) Pleyel.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: That's Bruno Canac, a piano store owner and former piano maker, tickling the ivories of a Pleyel piano designed in the 1920s when the company was in its heyday. He says the loss is a blow to France.

CANAC: (Through Translator) Pleyel was an emblematic brand with 200 years of history. It was not only the favorite of Chopin in the 19th century, but it was identified with French impressionist composers in the early 20th century, such as ravel and Debussy.

BEARDSLEY: Pleyel was founded in 1807 by Ignaz Pleyel, a composer and music publisher who studied with Franz Joseph Haydn.


BEARDSLEY: The company became a leader in acoustic innovation in its day, making instruments for music greats such as Frederic Chopin, who only played Pleyel pianos in France.

Pleyel pianos graced European royal residences and Paris salons. Like other piano makers, Pleyel was hurt by two world wars and the Depression in 1929. In the last 60 years, Pleyel changed ownership repeatedly and in the last four years, production plunged to about one piano a month.

Back in his piano store, Canac blames Pleyel's demise on the financiers who most recently bought the company. He says there wasn't even a musician at the top anymore. Plenty of European piano makers are still in the game, says Canac.


BEARDSLEY: He sits down to play an Italian concert piano by Faziolli.


CANAC: (Through Translator) Faziolli is a very recent brand, but it has put all of its financial, technical and human capacity into making the best piano possible. If Pleyel had done this, instead of wasting money on communications and renovating its Paris showroom, it would still be a very successful French piano maker.

BEARDSLEY: There is one remaining French piano maker, Colmann, and its founder and CEO, Olivier Collin, drives me to one of the last stores in Paris that actually has a Colmann in stock this time of year. They sell out so fast, it's the second leading brand in France.


BEARDSLEY: As we make our way through traffic, Collin takes a call from a distributor. When are we going to get a shipment, he asks. I've got dozens of customers waiting.

Collin says the key to success is selling pianos for the low market, as well as the high. And to do that you cannot make your piano entirely in France, as Pleyel was doing.

OLIVIER COLLIN: Actually we need to work w China. Why? Because we don't work with only rich people. We have to sell piano to people who don't have a lot of money. If we only make the piano in France, the price will be more than double. That's why you have to use China to help you to make the piano, but you keep the French know-how.

BEARDSLEY: Collin says Pleyel made another mistake by failing to evolve with the times. He says pianists today want a good acoustic piano, but one that also has modern capabilities such as recording, and silent playing with headphones.


BEARDSLEY: Arriving at the shop, that last Colmann piano we were hoping to see has just left in a moving van.


BEARDSLEY: The company's technical director, Michel Labord used to make pianos for Steinway. He says what makes the difference between a good piano and a mediocre one is the calculating, tuning and harmonizing that's done once the instrument is put together. Labord says Colmann does all that in France.

MICHEL LABORD: (Through Translator) All the big German and European piano makers still do part of the instrument making, like the assembly work, in China. But the real skilled finishing work, the sound work, is done here with a European ear.

BEARDSLEY: These piano makers and specialists believe Pleyel could've survived in today's many-tiered piano market. They say you just have to know how to play it.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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