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History Of The Piano — George Steck

Walt ‘Whitman first delivered the “Death of Lincoln” lecture at Steck Hall in New York on April 14, 1879, [ to an audience of 60 to 80 people ] to reflect upon the meaning of Lincoln’s death to an American nation pressed to reunite and heal from the wounds of the Civil War.’ The evening began with a musical performance, proceeded by prose, and ended with the famous mourning poem to the president, “O Captain! My Captain!”

Library of Congress

George Steck – A Short Biography (1829 – 1897)

George Steck was born on July 13, 1829 in Hesse Cassel, Germany. A “piano maker of the old school,” [ 1 ] he honed his skills while as an apprentice under Carl Scheel (1813 – 1892), an enterprising man who had once worked for the prestigious French piano manufacturer Sébastian Érard (1752 – 1831) between 1837-1846. Scheel, who also hailed from Cassel, left Érard in 1846 to start his own company.

During this time, Steck harnessed every opportunity to study piano manufacturing; his natural talents were well disposed to the instrument, showing an early mechanical genius and expert scale draftsmanship.

George Steck, 1856, Age 27, Daguerreotype2

In 1853, Steck left for New York to replicate his mentor’s success, working for several years in “the best shops,” and in 1857, formed a partnership with William Grupe to create the firm Steck & Grupe on Elm St. from 1858 to 1860.

By 1860, owing to Steck’s celebrity and the renown of his pianos’ qualities, the business changed to George Steck & Company and expanded production, moving to Walker Street before requiring a factory on West 34th Street. With seven floors and 90 to 100 employees, eighty to ninety thousand dollars of raw materials were incorporated into the production of 500 pianos annually.

With slow but steady production, the company produced a line of pianos that would earn Steck’s reputation for enhancing the instrument’s “tone and sound production.”

The love for music grew each day. With a boy of his own age, as devoted as himself to music, four-hand works of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, as well as pieces by Weber, Hummel and Czerny, were played almost daily. The greatest ecstasy was caused by the arrival of a Steck piano at the Schumann home, which showed that father Schumann endeavored to further his boy’s taste for music.

Harriette Brower From The World’s Great Men of Music

The Bell-Metal Plate

A patent was rewarded in 1865 for the invention of a specialized bell-metal plate, or bridge, attached “where the agraffes and string-holders are fastened in,” allowing for a conducting current to ‘impart a more equal, sonorous, clear, bell-like, and vigorous tone to the piano. This modification would be “used in all of George Steck & Co’s pianos, and in no others.”

Steck Grand Piano – Style 13

During this same year, a gold medal was given for ‘the best square piano’ at the National Exhibition of the American Institute in New York, as a direct corollary of the invention of the Bell-Metal Plate in Agraffe Pianos.

By 1860, owing to Steck’s celebrity and the renown of his pianos’ qualities, the business changed to George Steck & Company and expanded production, moving to Walker Street before requiring a factory on West 34th Street. With seven flours and 90 to 100 employees, eighty to ninety thousand dollars of raw materials was incorporated into the production of 500 pianos annually.

Many of Steck’s “scale [drawings] for both grand and upright pianos [would be] industriously copied by makers of commercial pianos” [ 4 ] for many years.

Steck Hall

By 1865, the company opened retail warerooms at No. 11 East 14th St. amidst the theatre district brimming with music halls and piano shops. Adjoining this establishment was the stately forty-by-sixty foot Steck Hall, “where his concert grand pianos were played by the leading artists of the day.”

Steck Pianos on 14th Street, New York5

As business grew, demand facilitated the opening of a larger Steck Hall in 1871, which would become the headquarters for many years.

Steck Pianos had many nicknames, among them: “The Little Giant” (upright that sounded like a grand), “Old Reliable,” and “The School Piano.”

As Illuminated In The Volumes Of The Music Trade Review

The Independent Iron Frame

Another significant invention at this time was “his independent iron frame for uprights, grands and squares (Patent No. 100,948, in 1870),” which in “winter or summer” increased the durability of the piano and kept it in tune longer, “defying climatic changes.” This made the Stecks especially well-suited for institutions of learning.

G. Steck Independent Iron Frame Patent No. 100,9486

Over the next two decades, the self-supporting, independent iron frame would be perfected with concurrent patents (1879, 1881, 1890, 1891, 1893, 1894) for improvement on the original 1870 design.

The Triumphs At Vienna & Philadelphia

Having lost entrance in the Great Paris Exposition of 1867, due in no small part to being outwitted by the monopolization of two other American firms, the action of which was highly censured by the press, George Steck & Company would soon find itself victorious.

Steck Piano-Forte Medals7

In 1873, Steck pianos won the first prize (and only awarded medal) at the Vienna Exposition for tone, design and construction; and in 1876, received the first medal and diploma at the International Exposition held in Philadelphia.

Wagner’s Apotheosis & The Endorsement Of Liszt

Poster Touting the Composition of ‘Parsifal.’ 8

“It was in 1876 that the greatest genius of modern times, Richard Wagner, was using a Steck piano, and extended a letter full of unqualified praise to George Steck & Co., of New York. During this time he was writing that work destined to be the apotheosis of all his labors—Parsifal—and in 1886 When George Nembach was visiting in Europe, he enjoyed the honor of meeting the great master and of having visited him in his own home. The American public will be interested to know that our country contributed somewhat to this musical triumph, and that the piano on which Wagner worked all these years in composing ‘Parsifal’ was a Steck.” – The Saunterer’s Column from The Music Trade Review

Wagner at Bayreuth (w/Liszt playing piano) by Gustav Friedrich Papperitz. 9

From a letter from Wagner in Bayreuth: “The fine grand piano of George Steck & Co., of New York, which I have obtained, is everywhere acknowledged to be excellent. My great friend, Franz Liszt, expressed the liveliest satisfaction after he played upon it. The magnificent instrument has taken up its useful abode in my home, where it will ever serve for my pleasant entertainment.” [ 10 ]

The Concert Grands of Messrs. George Steck & Co., of New York, which I lately had an opportunity of hearing, are unparalleled for the majestic singing quality of tone which they possess.

Pauline Lucca, Austrian Born Operatic Soprano, Feb. 9, 1876

The Man Who Had No Enemies

George Steck, Piano Manufacturer, by Eugen Kegel, 1883. 11

A shrewd but fair-minded businessman, Steck became an early adopter of profit sharing and gave a great deal of stock to his employees, incorporating in 1884. He engendered trust and loyalty from his workers, and upon retirement in 1887 shifted responsibility entirely to his new successors: George Nembach, who for seventeen years led the business as President; with managing director, Robert C. Kammerer, and factory superintendent, Fred Dietz.

For the last 10 years of his life, Steck dedicated himself to the invention of a piano that would remain permanently in tune; alas, to no avail.

His last public appearance was as a judge of musical instruments at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

He died in 1897.

Acquisition By The Aeolian Company

In 1904 Aeolian Piano acquired the “old reliable” Steck company, investing the largest capital in the industry thus far (an astounding $10,000,000), adding another highly desired piano to “The Aeolian Line,” and expanded production to the UK, France, Germany, and Australia.

Munck-Steck Gotha Plant in Germany, 191412

The Gotha Plant (purchased from the piano firm Ernst Munck to manufacture the European Steck) produced the highest quality pianos and pianola pianos (in the early years manufacturing 3,500 annually), rivaling the Pre-Aeolian Steck, until c1924 when a financial blow forced Aeolian to sell the factory and refocus interests at home.

The Rugged Steck Pianola Piano

The Steck Pianola Piano,
Aeolian company advertisement, London, c. 1910. 13

High-quality pianola pianos originated from the Gotha factory, and continued production throughout the 20s. In this diagram, a glut of levers and other devices aided the player in his/her musical performance:

A: The Automatic Sustaining Pedal
B: The Themodist
C: The Metrostyle
D: The Soft Pedal Lever
E: The Loud (or Sustaining) Pedal Lever
F & G: The Graduated Accompaniment Levers
H: The Tempo Lever
I: The Silent Lever

Along The Neponset River

Rendering of the Steck Piano Factory on Neponset River. 14

In 1926, Aeolian Co. took over the manufacturing plant along the Neponset with dock access to Boston Harbor. It’s chief purpose was to increase production for Steck pianos. The factory (formerly the Hallet & Davis Piano Co.) employed four hundred workers and boasted a lumberyard with enough storage for 1.5 million feet of piano grade wood.

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Steck Of Today

In 2004, Steck was licensed to Sejung until 2012 when at that time Parsons Music acquired Sejung. The Steck pianos are now being made by Nanjing Moutrie Piano Company in Nanjing, China and distributed by Welkin Sound Inc. in Ontario, California.

George Steck Grand Piano G212TD EBP.

The G212TD Grand Piano comes standard with exceptional features: slow close system; core spruce laminated soundboard; sostenuto pedal; all imported materials for action components (Germany, England, Japan); German Roslau strings; high quality German Beech wood pin block; silver hardware; and matching adjustable bench.


George Steck spent “the last 10 years of his life […] devoted entirely to his pet scheme of constructing a piano which would stand permanently in tune. His experiments in that direction were very interesting, but he could not see the fulfillment of his dream.

Men Who Have Made Piano History