Dechwitzer St. 12
Blüthner instruments can sing, certainly the best you can say about a piano.
Julius Blüthner Pianofortefabrik GmbH is a family-owned and -operated maker of Blüthner and Haessler grand and upright pianos, considered some of the best models in the world. Based in Grossposna, Germany, the company has a rich heritage dating back to the mid-1800s, but during the second half of the 20th century it was taken over by the East German government. Only since the fall of Communism and the reunification of Germany has the business returned to the ownership of the Blüthner-Haessler family and the company has been able to regain its international prominence. The company offers six models in its line of grand pianos, including full concert grands. The Supreme Edition line offers seven models with more styling than the grands, featuring design elements such as rich carvings and gold leaf. Blüthner also produces five upright piano models, including the Franz Schubert with its more ornate case. All models are available in eight to ten finishes.
Piano Origins Dating to 16th Century
The piano grew out of the harpsichord in the early 1700s; its development was credited to Bartolomeo Cristofori of Italy. It would not be until the middle of the century, however, before the piano gained in popularity and began to supplant the harpsichord as the primary keyboard instrument. The upright piano was created by an Austrian named Johann Schmidt around 1780, and 20 years later Englishman Thomas Loud greatly improved the upright by arranging the strings in a diagonal pattern. In the 1800s most of the great piano makers, including Baldwin and Steinway & Sons, launched their lines. Julius Ferdinand Blüthner was among their number.
Blüthner was born in Falkenhain, Germany, in 1824. He learned the craft of piano making and then broadened his knowledge by drifting from one craftsman to another until November 1853 when he set up shop in Leipzig, Saxony, with three journeymen helpers. In the first year he built ten pianos; the first was sold to a professor at Leipzig University. Blüthner quickly established a reputation for his decorative cases, including distinctive veneers and the use of mother of pearl and gold leaf.
Like other craftsmen, Blüthner marketed his pianos by showing them at fairs and exhibitions where awards were given for the best instruments. In 1865 he took his initial first place prize, awarded at a nearby fair in Merseburg. He quickly graduated from local fairs to international competitions, where his pianos garnered their share of medals and ribbons, including first place recognitions at Paris in 1867, Vienna in 1873, Philadelphia in 1876, Amsterdam in 1883, Antwerp in 1894, and Leipzig in 1897. Benefiting from the acclaim, Blüthner became the official supplier of pianos to a number of European royal courts, including the King of Saxony, the German Kaiser, Queen Victoria of England, the Danish king, the Russian Tsar, and the Turkish Sultan.
Early on, Blüthner sought to tap into foreign markets, at a time when other piano makers were content to do business in their home countries, where they were protected by customs barriers. In 1876 he established his first foreign outpost in London. Others would follow, as Blüthner developed an international distribution network. His instruments would become especially popular in South America, Australia, the Philippines, India, and Bangkok. Increased demand for his pianos led to the enlargement of his Leipzig factory in 1876. He also sought to improve productivity by introducing high technology of the day: a central steam engine that used a series of leather belts to drive the plant's different machines. In 1888 he opened a sawmill outside of Leipzig to produce the different types of boards needed to make his instruments. An expansion of the assembly plant followed in 1890. As a result of these efforts at marketing, distribution, and increased production, Blüthner by 1885 was the largest piano manufacturer in Europe, and by 1897 was producing about 3,000 pianos a year, employing some 700 people.
Second Generation Assumes Control in 1910
Blüthner groomed his three sons--Robert, Max, and Bruno--in different areas of the business in order to carry on the family business after his departure. Robert studied law and would handle business affairs, while both Max and Bruno focused on the production side. Max headed production, and Bruno focused on the piano-making craft itself. Bruno also was dispatched to Boston in the United States where he learned modern production techniques at Chickering & Sons, one of the most respected piano manufacturers in the world, credited with the first use of a cast iron frame in a concert grand. Upon his return to Leipzig, Bruno was put in charge of construction and continued the family's tradition for innovation in piano design. All three sons were ready to take over the running of the business when Julius Blüthner passed away in April 1910.
Although Blüthner was surpassed as the largest European piano maker in 1905, it continued to prosper in the new century. The company was little impacted by World War I, the depression that hit Germany in the years immediately after the war, or the economic difficulties that ensued after the U.S. stock crash of 1929. Blüthner grand pianos were used by concert artists around the world, and the company continued to build on its reputation for innovation.
In 1932 a son-in-law, Rudolph Blüthner-Haessler, joined the company and took charge. It was during the 1930s that Blüthner was commissioned to build a lightweight piano that could be used aboard the airship Hindenburg. The company's technicians managed to cut the weight by casting the frame from a special aluminum alloy. Blüthner then received untold publicity when the baby grand, covered in pigskin, was used in a piano concerto held on the Hindenburg's first Atlantic crossing, broadcast live around the world by more than 60 radio stations. On May 6, 1937, the great airship erupted into flames as it was landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey. There would be no further need for more of these lightweight pianos, as the disaster doomed the commercial viability of airships.
Blüthner suffered its own disaster several years later as World War II consumed Europe and led to vast destruction. To aid Nazi Germany's war effort, Blüthner was forced to cease the production of pianos. Instead, it assembled ammunition boxes at its factory located in the heart of Leipzig, close to a number of high-value military targets such as aircraft factories and a "buzz bomb" plant. In one bombing raid conducted by the British in December 1943 the Blüthner facility, including all of its equipment, was completely destroyed by fire.
After the war came to an end in 1945, Blüthner-Haessler was urged to return to making pianos. Hence, a new operation was established in the company's sawmill and in 1948 the first piano was produced and ready for sale. Unfortunately for Blüthner, Leipzig was located in the eastern portion of Germany and fell under the control of the Soviet Union. A Communist regime was installed and private companies like Blüthner had to contend with increasing interference from the government. Nevertheless, Blüthner was able to ramp up piano production and regain its place as a world-class maker of pianos; soon demand for new Blüthner pianos far exceeded the company's ability to produce them. "In the fifties," according to Director, "as pressures on private industry grew, the family considered moving the business to West Germany. The idea was rejected because of the difficulty of persuading large numbers of skilled workers to go with them." Blüthner-Haessler was convinced that Communism would soon fail and the company stayed put. Instead, East Germany closed its borders to the West and when he died in 1966 the company he brought back to life was steadily being taken over by the state, which had taken a stake in the 1950s and built upon it year by year.
Blüthner-Haessler was succeeded by his son, Ingbert Blüthner-Haessler, the great-grandson of Julius Blüthner. Not yet 30 years of age, he had learned the craft of piano making as an apprentice, spending a year of his apprenticeship in England at Welmar Pianos, whose ties to Blüthner dated to 1876 when Welmar's parent company began importing Blüthner pianos. Business was strong enough (in some cases customers had to wait a year for delivery) to warrant the building of a new plant, which opened in 1970 and greatly increased production capacity. The polishing and spraying departments, in particular, could now take advantage of new methods to speed up production times.
The government took complete control of Blüthner in 1972, but according to Director, "Nationalization brought no great changes except that Julius Blüthner Pianofortefabric became VEB Blüthner Pianos." Blüthner-Haessler, who stayed on to run the business, noted, "The extent to which a private owner had been able to operate as an entrepreneur in the planned economy was very limited. Wages, prices of materials and selling prices were fixed. You were only a production manager." The government also added a harpsichord factory to the operation. These were all disturbing developments for Blüthner-Haessler, who recalled, "After we were nationalized, the thought that I would be the last Blüthner connected with the firm oppressed me. And that seemed inevitable, because my sons were not Communist party members, they were opposition-minded."
1990 and Beyond: Return to Family Ownership
Rudolph Blüthner-Haessler's prediction about the Communist government finally came to pass in the late 1980s. The Berlin Wall, the symbol of Communism, was pulled down and East and West Germany began the process of reunification and the privatization of government-owned businesses like Blüthner. Ingbert Blüthner-Haessler quickly took steps to reacquire the family business, achieving restitution in September 1990. It was a process not without difficulty, however. "He took back the firm under the terms of the Modrow law," Director reported, "and so was able to leave behind old debts, but now feels he should have waited. ... 'Lawyers here didn't really know what they were doing. Those who waited, and reprivatized under solid laws and legal knowledge, were better advised.'" To reclaim the Blüthner name, the company had to retire the original company from the trading register in order to rename VEB, which was technically a different entity. A notice was placed in the newspapers announcing Julius Blüthner Pianofortefabric was in "liquidation," leading many to believe that Blüthner would no longer produce pianos, a misunderstanding that would cause problems for the next couple of years.
In the early years after the Blüthner-Haessler family reclaimed control, the company hoped to merely reestablish a foothold in the market. Under Communist control Blüthner had sold about half of its pianos to hard-currency countries, overall a plus, but an economic downturn in the early 1990s made selling to these markets difficult. In 1991 Blüthner generated sales of about DM 5 million and did about the same amount in 1992. The company had to trim its workforce, which was cut from 140 to 80, and for a time there was some consideration given to adding income by making furniture or wood items for the construction field. Blüthner had to raise prices on its instruments, but because wages paid in the former East Germany still lagged behind the West, Blüthner was able to scrape by. Another point of difference between Blüthner and many of its rivals, in particular Steinway and Bechstein, was that because of its isolation for the past half century it did not follow the trend of a harder, metallic sound. Rather, it offered what was described as a warm, more romantic tone. "I think you can see a turn back to pianos of the traditional character among music-lovers," Blüthner-Haessler told Director in 1992, "and in any event, I hope the fact that I offer an alternative will give me a market niche."
Blüthner-Haessler was helped in rebuilding the company by his two sons, Knut and Christian. A trained engineer, Knut took up the craft of piano making, working in all areas of production before earning his diploma as a master piano maker in 1999. He would play a key role in the development of a lower-priced piano that avoided using cheap material or shortcuts in construction, or even the borrowing of someone else's design. According to Music Trades, Knut Blüthner-Haessler "approached the project from the ground up. The end result is a completely redesigned piano and a totally new production process. The Haessler piano features a continuous bent inner and outer rim that provides a strong foundation for better tone and precise string placement."
Also joining his father, after completing his studies in medicine and economics, was Dr. Christian Blüthner-Haessler. He would oversee sales and finance. By the mid-1990s Blüthner had gained its feet. In 1996 the company opened a new factory in the Leipzig suburb of Stormthal to meet the rising demand, and a year later opened a new exhibition hall where its pianos could be displayed and small concerts held. The new line of less expensive grands and uprights was used to pry open the U.S. market, and as Blüthner progressed in the 2000s, it firmly reestablished itself as one of the top five piano makers in the world--along with Bosendorfer, Bechstein, Baldwin, and Steinway. Blüthner had made 150,000 pianos in its history, and in all likelihood it would produce many thousands more in the years to come.
Blüthner Piano Centre Ltd.; Blüthner Pianos (U.S.A.); Blüthner Pianos (Russia).
Baldwin Piano, Inc.; L. Bösendorfer Klavierfabrik GmbH; Steinway Musical Instruments, Inc.