The legs of a Steinway & Sons Louis XV grand are nothing short of miraculous: those gently curved lines, impossibly smooth, reaching up to join the intricately-carved floral motifs that make up the crowns. The impeccable carving and fitting of the wood give the illusion that the legs and the case are one piece, a masterpiece of both design and engineering. Due in large part to these legs, the instrument appears almost organic — almost alive with the spirit of the eighteenth century French king from whom it takes its name. So it's understandable that the responsibility for finishing these gorgeous legs and the case to which they are fitted is a serious duty indeed.
Enter Santé Auriti, Steinway & Sons master craftsman and casemaker. Together with a team of highly skilled craftspeople, woodworkers, engineers, and artists, Santé is tasked with finishing the legs and cases of not just the Louis XV grands, but also the sleek English-inspired Chippendale grands, all Limited Edition Steinways, and the entire production line of Steinway & Sons ebony grands. Basically, if a grand has come out of the factory within the last thirty-six years, there's a good chance it's been touched by the magic hands of Santé Auriti.
His prowess in wood is legendary, and in fact Santé is no stranger to publicity concerning his long and illustrious career with Steinway & Sons. He’s been profiled in print and on film in the United States and his native Italy, as well as in Sweden and South Korea. Plus, he’s taken the show on the road, so to speak, several times — demonstrating his craft with onsite expositions and showcases of the casemaking process. But each time Santé tells the story of his career with Steinway, his eyes light a bit and his voice takes on a hint of reverence, a hint of incredulity that he's even telling the story at all.
"Strong and Gentle"
Abruzzi, Santé’s home region, is a striking area in east-central Italy known for its lush greenscapes and national parks. The diplomat Primo Levi once described Abruzzi as “forte e gentile,” (strong and gentle), which has become the motto of the region. And it’s a motto Santé must have somehow deeply assimilated before he left Italy in the late 1970s. Here in the United States, his job as Steinway & Sons master craftsman calls upon those historic qualities in equal measure, and Santé delivers: his strength upholds the iron-clad integrity of Steinway manufacturing, and his gentleness preserves the exquisite artistry for which the legendary company is known.
When he first left Italy as a young man, Santé worked in Germany in the textile industry. He came to the United States in 1979, and, on the urging of relatives, looked up a man from his home town who was working as a foreman in the rim department at the Steinway & Sons factory. “I talked to him, I put in my application, and there it was,” he says. "I started working with Steinway on May 14, 1979.” He remembers the date proudly, almost reverently. It’s the day, he says, that his life with Steinway began.
It didn't take long for Santé’s skills and adaptability to be recognized by factory foremen. A ten-year journey through the factory ensued, with Santé being moved from department to department — first rim-bending, then veneers, then soundboards— to apply his skills, with each move teaching him more about the year-long process of building a Steinway. He savored the experiences and accepted each new position willingly. “Every time they needed somebody new on the floor, they asked me, ‘Santé, can you do this? Can you do that?’ Whatever anybody asked me to do, I did it. And I tried to do it really well,” he says.
“I build the world’s best piano.”
Indeed he did. He remembers the day of his last promotion, which occurred more than two decades ago, very clearly. "My supervisor Andy came to me and said, ‘Santé, I want to talk to you,’” he remembers. “Andy said, ‘You know we have one guy up there in the case department who works on the most special pianos, the Louis XV and Chippendales, right?’ I told him I did. And next he said, ‘Do you want to go up there and work with him, learn from him?’ And of course I said yes to that.” The die was cast. Santé moved up to the casemaking department and set about learning his craft. And after just a little over a decade with the company, Santé worked himself up to become one of the most revered and rare of piano-builders: a Steinway & Sons master casemaker.
The "Other" Piano Man
Santé is known as “The Piano Man.” And while it’s a moniker some might associate with a certain other Piano Man, Santé has absolutely earned the title as well. He’s built his professional life around Steinway, and in the process has become an integral part of an iconic American brand. The instruments Santé lovingly crafts will outlive all of us, he points out. The cover image on his Facebook page of a Steinway & Sons staff T-shirt reveals Santé's pride: “I build the world's best piano,” it says simply.
Santé’s passion is so infectious, in fact, that he's been sent out on "tour" more than once to demonstrate to the world the careful process he uses when finishing the piano cases. He’s built Steinways in the window of Steinway Hall on 57th Street, in Steinway Piano Gallery Chicago, during the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) annual conference in midtown Manhattan, and even at a shopping mall in Long Island. “Customers would come in and ask me questions, and I’d explain to them how I do the case, how I do the legs,” he says. “I think it’s very interesting for them to see the process first-hand. They learn something about the craft, and I’m very happy to be able to show them.”
When he's not working on Steinways, Santé is cooking, hanging out with friends and family, or heading out for long walks in New York's parks. “That's what I love to do,” he says. “Walk the parks. I go upstate, I go to Long Island, sometimes to bike, or sometimes just to walk, walk, walk. Sometimes I go up to Caumsett State Park and it's amazing, because there won't be anybody there. You walk for such a long time and you see nobody, see nothing. That’s what I love the best.”
Santé figures he’s still got years ahead of him in the business. He admits it's hard to imagine a life without the daily feel of piano parts in his hands, the smells of sawdust and the sounds of careful hammering, cutting, sanding. The Steinway & Sons factory is a mere two blocks from his house, and it's fast-approaching forty years since he first walked into the factory yard. “They have my history,” he says about the company. And indeed, Santé has a part of theirs, as well.