When the Schubert Club made the decision to add another Steinway to its collection, leadership agreed that having a German-made Steinway would offer visiting artists an interesting choice — they could opt to play a Steinway made in the original factory in New York City or a Steinway built in Hamburg.
In February 2023, Steinway Artist Leif Ove Andsnes, a friend of the Schubert Club whose first recital in Saint Paul was in 2002 with Christian Tetzlaff, was in Germany for a recital at the Elbphilharmonie. He agreed to meet Schubert Club’s Artistic & Executive Director Barry Kempton at the Steinway & Sons factory in Hamburg to help select a new Steinway. The new piano, a stunning Model D, will dwell in the Ordway Center, St. Paul, and feature regularly in Schubert Club recitals for years to come.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, as Henry E. Steinway and his sons were busy with their fledgling piano-building business in New York City, a wave of European immigration was hitting the American Midwest that would have a lasting impact on the region’s music. In Minnesota, in particular, an influx of newcomers from Sweden, Norway, and Germany — many of them wealthy fur traders with plenty of leisure time — established a cultural aesthetic that would shape Midwestern music-making for the next century and a half.
In the 1850s, Saint Paul, like its sister city Minneapolis, was beginning to become a center for art and music, mirroring the long-established culture of older cities to the east: New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. But popular demand for concerts and recitals in St. Paul soon outpaced logistics, since touring artists had no easy way to reach the city and since pianos had to be slowly shipped up the Mississippi. When a rail connection between St. Paul and Chicago was completed in 1867, public musical events including opera, symphony, and recitals in St. Paul enjoyed a healthy swell. (Never mind that the train journey between Chicago and St. Paul took thirty hours — rail transport was still quicker and more comfortable than steamboat or cart.)
The Schubert Club began as a series of informal salons in St. Paul homes during the 1880s and 1890s, when women interested in the city’s growing recital scene would gather to discuss and play music. In its infancy, it was known as the “Musical Society,” then the “Ladies Musicale.” In 1888, the club was formalized as the “Schubert Club.” Membership required payment of a fee and passing an audition.
The Schubert Club grew quickly. In its first forty years, a wide range of programming was added, including lectures, lessons, scholarships and “altruistic work,” which involved performances at orphanages, prisons, and other institutions. Later there was a boys’ chorus. But the Club’s central activity — then and now — has always been its recital series. Throughout the Schubert Club’s history, the group made it a priority to present very accomplished but lesser known emerging artists among the recitals of the established stars.
In 1898, the Club hosted the great Josef Hofmann for seven hundred fifty dollars: a fee comparable to around twenty-five thousand dollars today. The Club also saw the debuts in St. Paul of Louise Homer in 1902, Vladimir Horowitz in 1928, Isaac Stern in 1943, Leontyne Price in 1961, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in 1955, Mstislav Rostropovich in 1963, and Cecilia Bartoli in 1996.
Now, a hundred forty years since its founding, the Schubert Club has secured a prominent place in the history of musical organizations. It is one of the oldest arts organizations in the country, predated by the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and a very few others. The Club presents more than sixty concerts and recitals each year featuring guest artists and ensembles of world renown as well as distinguished local musicians. Its principal concert presentations are its International Artist Series (held at the Ordway Center’s Music Theater and Concert Hall), Music in the Park Series (held at St. Anthony Park United Church of Christ), and the “Accordo” string ensemble composed of present and former principal string players of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Orchestra (held at Westminster Hall).
One of the most fascinating offerings of the Schubert Club is its Music Museum in Landmark Center. Attracting over eight thousand visitors annually, this free museum features keyboard instruments from four centuries from sixteenth-century spinets to iconic twentieth-century electro-mechanical keyboards. A rare nineteenth-century Steinway is part of the collection. The museum also houses handwritten letters from famous composers among its exhibits.
“Schubert Club is not so much a club, but rather a community of music-lovers, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to presenting and supporting classical music and musicians, with a focus on solo recitals and chamber music,” says Barry Kempton, Schubert Club Artistic & Executive Director. “What keeps this one-hundred-forty-year old organization thriving? A passion for music and a sincere belief in the positive impact of music on the quality of life.”
When the St. Paul’s “Ladies Musicale” decided to rename its club to something more inclusive, it elected to honor one of the nineteenth century’s most prolific and diverse classical composers.
Though he lived only to age 31, Vienna-born Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote musical masterpieces across a range of genres. His piano works, which include duets, solo sonatas, dances, and the renowned Fantasie in F minor, have endured for centuries as some of the most lyrically melodic and rhythmically driving compositions in classical music history.
Schubert’s short life was difficult, however. With an unrequited love, a raft of financial and health problems, and a lackluster approach to self-promotion, he labored mostly uncelebrated throughout his life. Composers who followed him, including Mendelssohn, Liszt, Schumann, and Brahms, are to be credited with keeping Schubert’s legacy alive and ensuring his rightful place in the classical music canon.
In 1880, some twenty-seven years after Steinway & Sons’ founding in New York City, Henry E. Steinway’s oldest son, C.F. Theodore Steinway, returned to Germany to open a Steinway factory in Hamburg. Initially, pianos manufactured at this factory were made to the same designs and specifications as their cousins in New York. But over time, thanks to Theo’s tinkering and the availability of supplies, differences in manufacturing began to emerge between the two factories, resulting in a perceived difference in tone, touch, and appearance between a New York Steinway and a Hamburg Steinway.
Historically, the most notable differences between a New York and a Hamburg Steinway were:
Case design: For many years, Steinways built in New York featured sharply angled “Sheraton” arms (so named for eighteenth century furniture designer Thomas Sheraton), while Hamburg Steinways featured softly rounded arms. In recent years, however, New York has adapted its manufacturing to follow Hamburg’s lead, and all Steinways produced today now have rounded arm corners.
Finish: At one time, a key “tell” between Hamburg and New York Steinways was the piano’s finish.Until recently, New York Steinways typically featured an ebony satin lacquer finish, not as shiny as Hamburg’s black polyester finish. New York Steinways leaving the factory today feature the same highly polished look as their German cousins.
Hammers: Many Steinway afficionados maintain that, owing to differences in how the hammers are made, the tone of a Hamburg Steinway (bright and “shiny”) differs from the tone of a New York Steinway (rich and colorful). In Hamburg, hammers are hot-pressed and very dense. In New York, they are made at a cooler temperature and are much softer. This means pianos made in each factory must be voiced differently to achieve the desired tone. But again, the differences between Hamburg and New York manufacturing have dwindled over time. Today, both New York and Hamburg factories use a less-processed wool for hammers, which helps produce a clear, consistent tone for pianos from both factories.