A pleasant coolness is welcoming me in the showroom of the Bösendorfer piano manufactory in Wiener Neustadt on this warm day in June. After having entered, I find myself surrounded by several handcrafted, black polished grand pianos and a musical expert is giving me an audio sample of what is arguably the world’s most beautiful piano sound.
Many people probably do not know that these marvels of sound are produced here on site during in many hours of work by hand. However, the company has actually been part of the YAMAHA group for several years.
“We are self-sufficient and can operate very independently”, I am told.
I am intrigued and embark on a journey that began with Ignaz and Ludwig Bösendorfer in Vienna in 1828.
Large amounts of timber are piling up at the company premises. Primarily spruce – which was harvested during winter at an altitude of over 800 meters in European forests and which dries in the open air for at least 5 years before it can be processed. Beech and maple are also processed whenever specific material properties are required.
The 280VC is the showpiece of the Bösendorfer Concert Grands. 280 indicates an instrument length of 280 cm – a considerable size which is substantially influencing the sound quality. VC stands for Vienna Concert – but we will come back to this later…
We pass through the drying rooms and workshops of the joinery where the wood is being cut and glued several times. Great care is taken to ensure that the material does not warp; every cut and hole must be positioned with millimeter precision so that everything fits.
We continue and I am surprised to be confronted by a considerable number of frames made from sand casting under a roof in the open air. Those frames have been lying here for six months and will later be the instrument’s skeleton. I had always thought that, aside from the strings and small parts, wood was primarily used in the construction.
And then the moment comes where we find out that these frames which have curved shapes and appear slim actually weigh a great deal and withstand the added string tension load of up to 22 tons.
And speaking of strings – Bösendorfer likes to rely on its own expertise in craftsmanship and produces the bass strings in house. Depending on the pitch, copper wires of different strengths are spun around a steel core. I could watch this for hours, but we have to move on….
What I notice in the carpentry workshop and box assembly are the hundreds of screw clamps which fix the freshly glued boxes. Unnecessary screws are also avoided for the connections here and numerous wooden joints are favored.
Every instrument is unique – every millimeter is remeasured several times so that the parts fit together seamlessly.
The strings are clamped in a piano in the next room – a noisy activity; the dedication to proper order is something appears to be on everybody’s mind. The strings and pins are positioned with millimeter precision. You can sense that every artisan around here is committed to the famous Bösendorfer Sound.
At the beginning, I have mainly seen men in the carpentry workshop, working on the frames so far – now we encounter experienced female employees who are assembling and adjusting the mechanics of the keyboard ensuring that hammer felt and keys are in their ideal position. This involves meticulously drilling holes and carefully applying bone glue for adhesions.
Slowly the surrounding instruments start to look like a grand piano. Every instrument is accompanied by a routing slip that documents every step of the process.
The tuning is also performed several times and is flawless – as far as I can tell. The pianos are reaching their perfect tones – attention and a good ear is required here. I ask whether the employees have to be music lovers and find out that every apprentice receives piano lessons and that the employees are offered various courses.
I would like to know what the artisans at Bösendorfer think about design and technology. There is a group of specialists from interdisciplinary fields who are breaking new ground in piano making technology together. These specialists are developing a kind of secret formula to reflect the most minor changes in sound and to determine which materials are even better to use. The letters VC mean Vienna Concert and are a type of seal of approval for sound. In conjunction with the Bösendorfer lettering, they stand for outstanding craftsmanship and quality.
As far as the appearance of the instruments is concerned, there are dedicated departments which take care of elaborate gilding, inlays and coloring of the instruments. Every customer can order “their own” special grand piano.
And speaking of customers – who actually buys an instrument from Bösendorfer? Vienna’s oldest manufactory sells primarily to Europe, Asia and North America with an equal distribution. This not only includes world-famous pianists, but also universities, music schools and private customers who are fulfilling their lifelong dream. It seems they have the right instrument for every purpose.
The last stop is the dispatch department – this is where everything is perfectly packaged and the shipping crates are labelled. Shipping has its own separate chapter and requires a great deal of expertise.
When I’m next in the flagship store at the famous Vienna location on Bösendorfer Straße at the Wiener Musikverein, I will listen again to this great, handcrafted sound of the Bösendorfer Grands.
The quality of this unique Viennese sound is worth the journey!