By Bruce Clark
Mason & Hamlin, as well as other deserving makes of fine pianos, are often overlooked today because of the strength of the Steinway name. Given the technical expertise and marketing acumen Steinway has displayed over the years, as well as a fortuitous combination of historical and market forces, it’s hardly surprising that the company has achieved such wide name recognition and market penetration. A century ago, however, Steinway was not nearly so dominant. Easily forgotten in the mists of time is the fact that in the early 20th century—the “golden age” of piano making—the company had a number of competitors in Europe and in the United States, and most prominent among the latter was Mason & Hamlin.
Compared to Steinway, the Mason & Hamlin pianos of the 1920s had more expensive bills of materials, required more labor, and were produced in much smaller numbers. Today, many rebuilders of high-end pianos say that the old Mason & Hamlins were better designed and more technically sophisticated. A hundred years ago, many considered Mason & Hamlin to be Steinway’s equal, or even superior.
Few would quarrel with the notion that Steinway made important contributions to the art of piano making, especially in the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, many others contributed to that development, including Chickering and Knabe. Between 1823 and the 1870s, Chickering & Sons led the world in piano design, while Wm. Knabe & Company pioneered the combining of European-immigrant craftsmanship with modern American manufacturing methods while maintaining high levels of quality—and much of this occurred well before the advent of Steinway.
Americans also tend to assume that the modern piano is largely a European invention. Many vaguely recognize that pianos were made in early America, but suppose that the role of American makers was peripheral—they were more followers than leaders. Not so. Although Europe led the world in piano making in the 1700s, and again after World War II, through most of the 1800s and up to the Great Depression, America led.
From the time Chickering was founded, in 1823, through the 1920s, the piano was the high-tech product of the era. An extraordinary number of patents were filed throughout Europe and the U.S., each detailing some variety of improvement to an aspect of piano making. Given this technical ferment, it’s not surprising that the modern piano pulled together elements invented in a variety of places and times throughout the U.S. and Europe. In fact, the modern piano was not so much invented as integrated, and primarily in the U.S., not Europe. And, as measured by design and quality of execution, between the 1820s and the 1920s the best pianos in the world were made not in Europe but in the United States.
The Piano’s Early Development
As envisioned by Bartolomeo Cristofori in the early 1700s, the piano was the next evolutionary step up from the harpsichord. At the time, the harpsichord was a highly successful musical instrument; however, it lacked an essential ingredient: expression, or the ability to play individual notes at various levels of volume.
The first piano was a harpsichord with a modified action (playing mechanism). Instead of a plectrum (pick) that plucked the string, a hammer was propelled toward the strings. The impact of the hammer set the strings vibrating, creating a musical sound. With this new instrument, to achieve “expression”—that is, to control volume—the player depressed the keys with varying force; thus the name piano-forte—literally, “soft-loud.” An escapement mechanism was invented to prevent the hammer from remaining pressed against the strings following impact and thus immediately damping their sound, the backcheck was invented to catch the hammer as it rebounded from the strings, and the damper required re-inventing, as the old system of a damper mounted on the plectrum was insufficient to the new action. In essence, the first piano was born by grafting a radically different action onto a harpsichord.
The resulting instrument, while providing a means of expression the harpsichord lacked, still left much to be desired. Harpsichords and the first pianos used brass wire for strings, and at the string tensions appropriate for brass, the sound that resulted was musically quite acceptable when plucked. Unfortunately, when struck with hammers, brass strings break entirely too easily; consequently, early pianists became far too familiar with string breakage. Beethoven was one of many who complained vociferously.
In response, from the 1700s to the late 1800s, piano makers steadily adopted stronger wire. This had the dual advantage of resisting breakage and enabling the instrument to play louder. The additional volume was demanded by and, in turn, inspired changing musical styles. Stronger wire, while more resistant to breakage, also requires more tension. More tension requires additional strength in the structure of the instrument; thus, pianos became steadily more massive. By the early 19th century, in response to higher wire tensions, piano makers began adding metal bracing to the structure to counter the additional stress on the frame. At first these were just additional bars bolted into place; later, metal braces were incorporated into the instrument’s very design.
Americans Take the Lead
Nineteenth-century Boston was a hotbed of musical instrument making. Chickering, founded in 1823, rapidly became the leading, and arguably the most important, piano maker in the world, a position it largely held until 1908, when the Chickering family sold the company into corporate ownership. During this time, some of the most important technological foundations of the modern piano were established by Jonas Chickering and two men closely associated with him, Alpheus Babcock and John Mackay. Together these three men brought to the market the one-piece cast-iron plate and the overstrung (or cross-strung) scale. At the time (1825–1840), these innovations were mainly applied to square grands. Later, in the late 1850s, Steinway extended these innovations to the wing-shaped grand.
By designing the piano around a one-piece cast-iron plate, Chickering made possible the use of strings made of steel instead of lower-tension brass or iron. The overstrung scale—stringing the bass at an angle, above the treble strings—allowed the bass bridge to be positioned more optimally on the soundboard, thus enabling steel strings, the bass in particular, to sound more musical while also resisting breakage. It’s hard to overstate the importance of these innovations—today, steel strings, a cast-iron plate, and an overstrung scale are central to the design of every piano in the world.
In the 1850s, the three leading piano makers in the U.S. were Chickering in Boston, Knabe in Baltimore, and Weber in New York. When the Steinweg father and sons emigrated from Germany to the United States, each went to work for one of these three leading American makers. Three years later, in 1853, after absorbing the best that the U.S. makers had to offer, they Americanized their name to Steinway, moved to New York, and founded their own rather famous company.
By the 1850s, while steel strings were commonly used, their sound was still in need of improvement. From 1853 to the early 1880s, Steinway developed the modern soundboard and bridge system, creating an instrument capable of a beautiful musical tone. Integrating the structural designs of Chickering and others, and a variety of other elements from around the world, Steinway completed the major design elements of what we know as the modern piano.
Enter Mason & Hamlin
The piano was essentially the first home entertainment center, and the reigning high-tech consumer product of its day. The important companies—Steinway, Chickering, Knabe, and Weber—competed intensely with one another to build the best piano, while the Europeans lagged considerably behind.
The piano itself did have competitors, however, the most prominent being the home organ. In 1854, in Boston, Mason & Hamlin was founded by Henry Mason and Emmons Hamlin as a maker of reed organs. Mason was the son of Lowell Mason, a prolific composer of church music whose hymns are still found in many hymnals. The Mason family was prominent in Boston, if not as wealthy as some.
Emmons Hamlin was the company’s engineer, and held a number of the early patents for reed organs and harmoniums. Mason & Hamlin reed organs rapidly gained acceptance as the finest in the world. Hamlin and Mason were innovative, brilliant, and good businessmen, and made elegant-looking products with exquisite craftsmanship. Much as Chickering, and later Steinway, became dominant in the piano industry, Mason & Hamlin became dominant in producing reed organs, a fact brought home when this small, relatively new company from Boston shocked the world by winning First Prize for its reed organs at the Paris Exhibition of 1867.
During this period, pianos and reed organs competed for public attention and market share. By 1881, Mason & Hamlin had essentially concluded that the piano had won and began making pianos, shipping their first instruments in 1883. They also continued making organs until 1911, when the organ business was sold to Aeolian Skinner, a pipe-organ company based in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
As was typical of Mason & Hamlin, their first pianos were exceedingly well built and technically innovative. This generation of Mason & Hamlin pianos is referred to as screw stringer pianos because of the system by which the tension on the strings was adjusted to tune the pitch. Instead of a traditional tuning pin—a threaded steel rod driven tightly into a wooden pinblock—Mason & Hamlin used a nut on a threaded rod to pull on the string. By turning this nut, the tuner could increase or decrease the tension on the string smoothly in minute increments, and thus tune the string to the desired pitch.
Tuners hated it.
When a tuner tunes a piano, most people think the essential skill is that of hearing the often-subtle phenomena that indicate when a note is in tune. While few would contest that hearing is important, the skill that takes the longest to develop is the ability to “set the pin”: that is, to control the tuning pin precisely enough that the tuner can get the pitch exactly where it needs to be—and, of equal importance, that notes don’t drift off pitch when the instrument is played rambunctiously. This touch with the tuning hammer is no small feat, and is the most difficult part of learning to tune a piano. The entirely different technique and tool needed to tune a screw stringer also required tuners to completely change their approach to tuning. It should come as no surprise that tuners rejected the screw stringer.
Most of today’s piano technicians acknowledge that the screw stringer system was in many ways superior and in fact worked quite well. The reluctance of piano tuners to embrace this new system was driven by the time and effort required to learn it, as well as the fact that pianos equipped with the screw stringer system were a tiny part of the market. The screw stringer system nearly bankrupted Mason & Hamlin.
In 1895, Mason & Hamlin hired Richard Gertz, of Hanover, Germany, as a scale designer. Gertz was a son of the famous violinist Wilhelm Gertz, who had been a friend of Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, and Theodor Steinway, and had long been a dealer of Steinway pianos and Mason & Hamlin organs in Hanover. While in his teens, Richard had learned the piano trade in his father’s store and, at the suggestion of Theodor Steinway, had experimented with designing piano scales and modernizing older pianos. He also learned the cabinetmaker’s trade, and in the evenings studied other subjects.
In 1881, still only 16, Gertz had been invited to work at Steinway’s New York factory, where he worked for two years as a forefinisher, or action installer, and in other positions. After Steinway, Gertz worked for Bollman Brothers, a St. Louis piano dealer. Over the next decade Gertz traveled between Germany and America a number of times, working in the U.S. for several piano dealers in sales and technical positions, and studying organ building and tuning at Mason & Hamlin. While in Germany he completed his studies, worked with his brother Emil, a distinguished piano maker, and designed his own pianos, selling them through his father’s store. During this time Gertz first experimented with the use of iron rods to help force crown (curvature) into a soundboard, an idea that would eventually become his Centripetal Tension Resonator (described below). After his father’s death, Gertz returned to the U.S., where, on a trip to Boston, he was asked by Mason & Hamlin to make some improvements to their pianos. A year later, in 1895, Gertz was offered the position of scale designer.
Mason & Hamlin must have thought very highly of Gertz—in a traditional piano factory’s division of labor, the scale designer holds a rare and desirable job. In 1895, Mason & Hamlin was not yet influential in the piano business. Gertz changed that. Over the next twenty years, he designed the Mason & Hamlin pianos we know today.
Many features of Gertz’s piano designs for Mason & Hamlin—a combination of best practices for high-end pianos and Gertz’s original ideas—have become essential hallmarks of the brand:
Distinctive grand-piano shape. The bass side of the piano was angled more than that of any competitor. This allows for longer tenor strings in the difficult “break” area where tenor strings yield to bass strings, and more soundboard vibrating area around the tenor and bass bridges, aiding low-frequency (bass) response. The overall soundboard area is somewhat larger than that of most pianos. It’s fair to say that the grand-piano shape defined by the models A and BB during the Gertz period has driven the design of all subsequent Mason & Hamlin models.
The rims were, and still are, the most massive found in any piano. The inner and outer rims were large, and made of flat-sawn, hard-rock maple, an exceedingly dense, strong wood. This is important—the rim’s mass and rigidity essentially define the upper limit of the instrument’s power and sustain. If the energy in the soundboard leaks off into the rim and causes it to vibrate, power and sustain are reduced. The mass and rigidity of Mason & Hamlin rims keep the energy in the soundboard, adding power and sustain.
The Centripetal Tension Resonator, patented in 1900, is a series of adjustable steel rods that join a rigid cast hub to the rim, going all the way around the piano beneath the soundboard. Since the amount of crown or curvature in a soundboard is both important and difficult to control, the idea was to be able to bend the rim in or out by tightening or loosening the rods, to allow the piano maker to calibrate the degree of crown. Tightening the rods would bend the rim in and increase crown; loosening the rods would allow the rim to bend out (from the stresses of crown and bearing that naturally cause the rim to spread), thus decreasing the crown. While Gertz’s original idea of calibrating the crown didn’t fully pan out, the Tension Resonator does help stabilize the shape of the rim, thus preserving the soundboard crown, and adding a level of rigidity to the rim structure matched by no other system.
Soundboard crown established by cutting the crown into the ribs. Some piano makers today use a method in which the soundboard is crowned by gluing straight ribs onto a soundboard while both are pressed into a deeply dished-out (concave) bellyboard, to force a curve into the ribs and soundboard at the same time. When the soundboard/rib assembly is removed from the bellyboard, the ribs, attempting to straighten, place the rather delicate soundboard spruce into a severely compressed state. Often this later results in pressure ridges, cracks, and premature loss of crown in the soundboard. Gertz chose instead to establish the soundboard crown by first cutting the exact amount of crown into the ribs, then gluing the pre-curved ribs to the soundboard by pressing both into a bellyboard curved to the same degree as the ribs. Because the glued ribs were not bent in the process, there was no reason for them to straighten, and thus no compression was introduced into the soundboard material. Mason & Hamlin pianos are famous among rebuilders for holding their crown almost indefinitely. While “cut-crown ribs,” as they’re often called, are not the only reason for t