I have an autograph?
On a visit to the Steinway showroom in New York,
I saw Henry Steinway, the last member of the family to be connected
with the company, take out a felt-tip pen and sign the painted
metal frame of a piano for an enthusiastic customer.
It was like watching a baseball player sign a ball, or an author
his book, and seemed in keeping with our age of celebrity.
When I then visited the Steinway factory in New York, I asked
if employees sometimes signed the new pianos in unseen places.
‘Of course, we have no way of being certain’, the factory guide
told me, ‘and officially it's not encouraged. But there is a long
and informal tradition that seems to be current once again to
make a mark in a place that the customer will never see’.
My host seemed to hesitate between official censure at the thought
of unauthorized initiatives and respect for a practice that was
part of the highly personal world of the master craftsman.
He then told me a story that tipped the scale in favor of the
"A voicing apprentice came to work at the Steinway factory
one day to find his master, a man of great reserve, in tears.
The master was standing before the disassembled action assembly
of an old Steinway grand that had been sent back to the factory
to be reconditioned.
'What's wrong?' asked the apprentice.
'How can I help?'
The master then explained that when he had removed the action
assembly from the piano, he had found the name of another Steinway
technician hidden on the inside, the signature of his late father."
Now, the factory guide told me, master craftsmen were allowed
to apply an ink stamp with their initials in a hidden part of
He showed me one. It was rather like the calligraphy stamp that
one finds in the corner of Japanese prints: square, graphically
stylized, and understated.
I preferred the idea of taking out a pen and signing the wood
itself, an extravagant practice to be sure for those of us accustomed
only to paper.
But then how many of us are competent to shape and tune and voice
metal and wood into the intricate miracle that we call the piano?
For noble work, a noble gesture. What a precious discovery, like
finding a pearl in an oyster, to read the hand of someone who
cared for and repaired the instrument that he then sent back into
the world, a messenger with no certain destination and hearing
only one meaning of which we can be sure:
Pianoshop on the Left Bank, by T.E.Carhart, Vintage 2001
The Left-sided Piano