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Franz Liszt's C. Bechstein grand piano in Weimar
1860 - 1890
An event with a decisive impact on the life of the company occurs on 6 October 1860, when Franz Liszt buys his first Bechstein grand piano. The transaction appears in the sales ledger as delivery number 247, with the buyer listed in sober Prussian style as “Kapellmeister Liszt, Weimar”, without additional comment.
By the end of 1860, Carl Bechstein has built three hundred instruments, far fewer than his competitors. Feurig and Blüthner, two Leipzig-based piano-makers, have a considerably more significant level of production, the latter reaching the serial number “2500” as early as 1853; and Steinway, who built his first pianos in Brunswick and began production in New York in 1853 with the serial number “483,” has already delivered nearly three thousand instruments by this time. This illustrates that in the first chapter of the company history, the commercial success remains modest, which is not truly a problem as Carl Bechstein’s goal is rather to create a new sound. A letter that Bülow sends to Liszt in the autumn of 1860 confirms the piano-maker’s artistic and aesthetic success, as the pianist states that he recently played the Sonata in B Minor in Leipzig on an “ultrasublime Bechstein.” The Berlin-based piano-maker has thus paved the way, and in the next decades his instruments, with their very special voice, are to play a decisive role in the world of music as numerous noted composers choose them to express themselves.
Another milestone in the company’s history is the Great London Exposition of 1862. Carl Bechstein is awarded several medals although his British competitors have a decisive “home field” advantage. The jury states: “The remarkable features of Bechstein’s instruments are their freshness and freedom of tone, their agreeable playing action and their well-balanced registers. Moreover, these pianos can withstand the most vigorous play.” An official report by the special commission of the German Customs Union further indicates: “C. Bechstein, who is appointed to His Majesty the King [of Prussia], founded his business in August 1853. Within just six years, he encountered such a success that he now produces nearly three hundred instruments a year — including 140 grand pianos — with a staff of ninety and exports to America, Asia, England and Russia. He has sent two excellent grand piano models to London. […] We are pleased to report that these instruments fired the London public with enthusiasm, so that we can assume that both models are to sell very well in England.”
The modern piano has found its ultimate form by this time and all piano-makers endeavour to tie noted pianists to their brands. Bülow, for example, enjoys the extremely suave manners of Ludwig Bösendorfer, who is appointed to the imperial Court in Vienna. When he is touring Russia, he plays on a Becker grand piano made in Saint Petersburg and pays tribute to its sound and excellent action — even in front of Carl Bechstein. Theodor Steinway also makes various overtures to Bülow, but the pianist soon understands that the Brunswick manufacturer intends to take him over after he had praised a Steinway grand on the occasion of a concert given in Berlin. As of now, Bülow — who can be disarmingly straightforward — is to publicly affirm his preference for “Bechstein’s colourful piano,” even though he continues to speak respectfully of the Steinway instruments.
A flourishing business: C. Bechstein manufactory, around 1880
The Bechstein pianos and their very special voice are to play a decisive role in the world of music over decades.
Bechstein’s success story really starts in the early 1860s. When Perau dies in 1861, Carl Bechstein acquires his manufacture at Johannisstrasse 4 and even buys two adjoining plots and an old building to extend the production site down to Ziegelstrasse, while the warehouse is to remain at Behrenstrasse 56 until its transfer to Johannisstrasse 5 in 1867. But a few years later, a fire severely damages the factory and endangers the company’s future as Bechstein had borrowed money to finance his investment. With the help of true friends, including Hans von Bülow, the entrepreneur manages to put the company back on an even keel. In a letter of 24 August 1866, Bülow writes to Bechstein: “I currently do not need these two thousand thalers. For heaven’s sake, keep them and make the best of this money, until the devil leaves.”
A glance at the 1865 Bechstein catalogue shows the dimensions of the sum that Bülow lends to his friend Carl: an eight-foot concert grand with “continuous escapement, string holders and sounding posts” is listed at 700 Prussian thalers, while a short grand piano is invoiced at 450 thalers and an upright, 280. All prices are without packaging in a “sturdy wooden box provided with screws”, for which Bechstein charges seven or eight thalers depending on the piano model.
Meanwhile, the company’s fame continues to grow — in particular thanks to Hans von Bülow — and Carl Bechstein remains generous despite the fire and the resulting damage. On the occasion of Richard Wagner’s birthday, for example, he offers a grand piano to the maestro, who had fallen into disfavour in Vienna and had to flee to Bavaria’s Louis II in May 1864. In a letter of thanks sent from Munich on 25 May, Wagner states:
“Three years ago, as I returned to Germany after a first exile and spent a few days in Weimar with my friend Liszt, I discovered by chance a piano whose crystalline and delightful voice pleased and fascinated me so much that I asked my dear friend Bülow to be so kind and alleviate the sadness of the farewell by ensuring that a similar instrument could brighten up my new sojourn.”
The “dear friend Bülow” still ignores the fact that his wife Cosima and Richard Wagner have promised “to belong exclusively to each other” when they met in Berlin in November 1863. Isolde von Bülow, their first child, is born on 10 April 1865 while Hans premieres Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in Munich on 10 June.
Four C. Bechstein enthusiasts: Richard Wagner in a discussion with Cosima Wagner, Franz Liszt and Hans von Bülow
Richard Wagner: a new friend
By late 1864, Bechstein sends two pianos to Bülow, a short grand in oak and a “wonderfully beautiful” concert grand that the pianist plays on stage just before Christmas. After the performance, Bülow writes to Bechstein: “Your grand piano has a splendid voice, equally clear and full. Everybody agrees that such a sound was never heard in Munich before. I hope that the Augsburger is to report on this concert. This time, Steinway will not be able to bribe anybody to denigrate you.” Even before the pianos arrive in Munich, Bülow has written to Bechstein: “The king is to come at the beginning of next month. The first thing that Wagner and I intend to do is to grant him a concert with a Bechstein.”
Three years later, when Richard Wagner finally returns to Munich after a months-long involuntary sojourn abroad, Bechstein sends him something special: a “piano-secretary.” This is an upright with a secretary desk that proves to be very convenient for composing. This is not a gift, however, as Bülow states in a letter: “We are very pleased that Wagner’s piano is finished. This is an official order of His Majesty, passed on 22 May through my wife.” Although Cosima gives birth to Wagner’s second daughter, she officially remains his secretary and Bülow writes in another letter to Bechstein: “The maestro was very pleased with your divine piano-secretary. Did you receive the bust sent to express his gratefulness? By the way: has the Royal Office rewarded your masterpiece? Please let me know, so that I may immediately send a reminder note if it is not the case — and it will be successful.”
Bülow, who tirelessly promotes Bechstein’s instrument, is a very nervous person who has been suffering increasingly from headaches. His friend Carl welcomes him into his home anytime he is in Berlin. He often enjoys the piano-maker’s hospitality to recover from exhausting tours, with Bechstein considerately protecting him from importunate visitors — even those with the best of intentions. When Bülow goes back on tour, Bechstein provides him not only with the necessary concert grand piano, but also with newspapers, cigarettes… and even Jewish jokes. Indeed, Bülow cultivates a somewhat snobbish anti-Semitism that his Jewish friends, in particular the cello-player Heinrich Grünfeld and the pianist Moritz Moszkowski, stoically endure and sometimes answer with sharp-witted comments.
Living for the ideal sound
The friendship between the instrument maker and “his” pianist has no ulterior motive. Even when his business increasingly flourishes, Bechstein stays true to his musical ideal and remains warm-hearted and attentive, to foster harmony around him. This is the case in particular in July 1869, as Bülow, considering it “a matter of life and death,” asks his friend to find a lawyer who specialises in the Prussian divorce laws: his dear Cosima, née Liszt, the daughter of his venerated master, has been forcing him into a ménage à trois for many years, and now wants to divorce him and marry Wagner, whose wife Minna recently died.
Bülow leaves Munich one month later, relinquishing his Bechstein grand piano to his pupils. He henceforth lives incognito in Berlin at the home of his friend Carl at Johannisstrasse 5, where he writes a distraught letter to the composer Joachim Raff that ends with the words: “My personal business will be settled at the beginning of next week and then I shall be free — and exiled.”
Thus, Bülow is not only an influential friend, but also a complicated one. Nonetheless, Bechstein remains exceptionally modest as evidenced by a letter that he writes in late 1868: “I could be proud of my friendship with such an important person, an artist famous the world over. But humility obliges me to declare that I do not deserve such a friendship. I was simply very fortunate that a God of music was standing next to my workbench at the beginning of my career and helped to become what I an today.”
"Bechstein is for pianists what Amati and Stradivarius are for violinists."
Hans von Bülow
True greatness shines through when it comes to dealing with criticism
Their friendship continues even though Bülow sometimes makes cutting remarks to Bechstein. One day, for example, he complains sharply about a sluggish piano action. Another day, when he received an instrument for a concert to be given in Barmen, he describes the piano as “pitiful,” playing on the name of the city and the German word Erbarmen, which means “pity.” And as he sojourns in Florence after his divorce, he writes to Bechstein after a concert: “I cursed you and your miserable castrato box for good bargain. I could only play one piece, Liszt’s Ricordanza, before the bass strings began to rattle just like on a Perau.” The comparison with a competitor most likely upsets Bechstein, but we have no trace of his reaction on Bülow’s unkind comment. However, we can assume that just like any other piano-maker, Bechstein has by now understood that great pianists tend to cope with their emotional ups-and-downs by criticising their instruments.
Nonetheless, Bülow makes sometimes very detailed and useful remarks on piano action, for example when he advises Bechstein to add a spring at a particular place to improve the play. But he often complains about the double escapement “à la Érard” (a standard in modern pianos), as he prefers the traditional single escapement mechanism of the British pianos. Bechstein understands that Bülow expects not only a brilliant and rich sound, but also an action that facilitates the play. Therefore, he enlarges his product range and for a time builds both single-escapement and double-escapement pianos.
Neither insults nor praise alter the relationship between the two men, as evidenced by a letter that Bülow writes in 1872: “My friend Bechstein accommodates me like a prince. I have a personal servant with a white tie who waits on my orders and is instructed to turn back anybody who wants to see me.”
We cannot ascertain whether Bülow would have succeeded in his pianist career without Bechstein’s help. Just like Wagner’s Siegfried sings in The Ring of the Nibelung, his friend Carl is father and mother to him. Bechstein, in turn, values Bülow highly for his genius as he premieres such demanding piano works as Brahms’s and Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concertos, and directs the premieres of two operas by Wagner, Tristan and Isolde and The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. Moreover, Bechstein knows perfectly well that only an hypersensitive and nervous modern pianist like Bülow is able to fully develop the potential of his instruments.
In comparison, Bechstein’s relationship with Liszt seems to be ideally balanced. Every year, the piano-maker sends a grand to the Altenburg, so that the composer thanks him very warmly at the end of his life as he writes: “To judge your instruments means nothing else but to praise them. I have been playing your pianos for twenty-eight years now and they have ever confirmed their superiority. According to the opinion of the highest authorities who have played your instruments, it is no longer necessary to praise them, as this would only be pleonasm, periphrasis and tautology.”
C. Bechstein pianos are also played at the Court of the Chinese emperor
In the late 1860s, Bechstein considerably increases his exports, focusing on England and Russia, so that the Franco-German war of 1870/71 has practically no impact on the company’s turnover. On the contrary: in the first year of the war, Bechstein once again expands his production facilities and makes up to five hundred pianos. But with commercial success comes also the first counterfeits, and Bechstein’s solicitors go to law against clever men who build poor-quality instruments but hope to boost their sales by affixing names such as “Eckstein,” “Bernstein,” “Beckstein” or even “Bechstein” to their instruments when, by chance, the wife of the counterfeiter bears that name.
After the proclamation of the German Empire in 1871, the reparations paid by France following the Franco-Prussian war leads to a construction boom in Germany and particularly in Berlin, where a type of bourgeois apartments copied from Paris’s models appears: a servants’ door complements the main entrance, a maid’s room is laid out near the kitchen, and the living room (also called “Berlin room”) has to contain a grand piano, or at least an upright.
In 1877, a Bechstein upright with a height of 125 centimetres sells for 960 marks. (This new, nation-wide currency has replaced the thaler and the other German currencies.) A concert upright with a height of 136 centimetres, suitable for adornment by a bust of Beethoven or Wagner, is priced at 1275 marks. For just seventy-five marks more, one can buy a short grand, but a real concert grand with a length of 260 centimetres sells for as much as three thousand marks. In that year, Carl Bechstein makes 672 instruments, achieves revenues of more than one million marks, has a personal income of nearly eighty thousand marks — and can take pride in his success.
A second production site opens in 1880 in Berlin-Köpenick’s Grünauer Strasse and is to be enlarged six years later. By this time, Bechstein presents a golden watch to employees who have been with his company for twenty-five years. Still, in 1880 — or during the next year — Carl Bechstein realises his dream as he has a splendid neo-Renaissance villa built on the shore of Lake Dämeritz in Erkner near Berlin. The name of the estate, Tusculum, recalls Virgil’s Bucolics and Cicero’s villa, Tusculanum. With this reference to the golden age of ancient times, Bechstein also manifests the humanist education that he acquired as an autodidact. A legendarily sociable and hospitable man, he organises brilliant feasts in his villa and Tusculum soon becomes a favourite venue of Berlin’s high society. Among the guests are Eugen d’Albert, who spends the summer of 1883 here, composing his Piano Concerto in B Minor.
Of course, a vast park extends around the villa, while an electric canoe is available for tours on the lake, which underscores Bechstein’s interest in technical progress. (The estate housed Erkner’s municipal administration as of 1938, then was severely damaged by an air raid in 1944 and partially rebuilt after the war. A street in the neighbourhood is named after Carl Bechstein since German reunification.)