Arts journalist and actor Chapin is unusually well qualified to write a book on the Steinway: His great-great-grandfather founded the company that produces it. But unfortunately, Chapin's efforts fall somewhat flat. The making of a grand piano is a complicated process. When that piano is going to bear the name Steinway, the process is even more laborious—the Steinway is one of the few pianos in the world that are still completely handmade. It takes over 500 people and several years to make one, and in the 150-odd years since the company's founding, the process has changed very little, as Chapin emphasizes repeatedly. Henry Englehard Steinway began his career in piano-making in southern Germany. Fleeing the political and economic upheavals of the 1840s, he arrived in New York City in 1850. Drawing on his own skills and those of his sons, he made the Steinway the benchmark of fine instruments. (The family finally sold its interest in the firm in 1972.) As Chapin readily admits, at least some of the firm's success was the product of marketing genius, as the company associated itself with the pianistic legends of the time: Anton Rubinstein, Ignace Paderewski, Sergei Rachmaninoff. Chapin takes readers through the long process by which wood and other materials become a vehicle for music. Along the way, he sprinkles interesting bits of piano history: Hungarian piano maker Paul von Janko devised a piano with knobs instead of keys; ivory is the one component that has been replaced by modern plastics; the instrument must withstand 70,000 pounds of tension from its strings. Rodica Prato's elegant drawings evoke a Victorian era in which every living room held a piano. Regrettably, Chapin recounts his tale in rather pedantic prose, all the while puffing for the Steinway company. The result is an occasionally interesting volume that reads too much like an oversize advertising pamphlet.
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