A Pleyel was Chopin’s favorite piano; he once said, “when I’m feeling energetic and strong enough to find my own sound, I need a Pleyel piano.” Ignaz Pleyel, a student, friend and confidant of Franz Josef Haydn, began producing pianos in 1807. His innovations include the first upright pianos in France, the “sustained” sound and metallic frames. In addition to Chopin, such luminaries as Stravinsky, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Ravel, Liszt and Grieg made Pleyel pianos their darlings too. Watch pianist Janina Fialkowska introduce and play a 1848 Pleyel grand piano:
Pleyel closing the Saint-Denis Workshop
After more than 200 years producing 250,000 of the highest-quality pianos in the French tradition, Pleyel will be closing the doors of its one remaining factory. Undercut by “business is war” tactics from Asian piano makers, Pleyel’s insistence on producing hand-crafted, tailor-made works of art instead of mass-produced models failed. The company’s spokesman and manufacturing head, Bernard Roques, announced the closure of the Saint-Denis location and cited “recurrent losses and a very weak level of activity.”
Located just outside of Paris, it opened its doors in 1865. Ever since then, according to deputy head of the workshop Fabrice Perret, it has produced the “Ferrari of the piano world.” Each Pleyel piano is lovingly crafted of more than 5,000 parts and requires 1,500 or more man-hours to build. Perret lamented the demise of both the shop and the company as he knows them and wistfully stated that they used to deliver to the yachts of Arab emirates and other far-flung places, such as Australia. Pianists the world over gave in to the lure of low-priced pianos from Chinese and Korean manufacturers rather than the timeless craftsmanship of Pleyel, which, as a result, sold only 20 pianos last year.
Reactions From the Musical World
Pianists from all countries have noted that, despite the bargain-basement prices, Asian piano makers have improved the quality of their instruments over the last few years. Realizing this, the head of the musical conservatoire in Paris, Françoise Levéchin, was nevertheless stupefied by the development. She stated: “It’s unthinkable that it can’t be supported, that this very old house which is a great French maker and is part of piano history cannot be saved.” In a cruel twist, the Pleyel factory succumbed to business pressures on the eve of a 380-million euro bailout plan from the French government designed to prevent closures of this type.
French Job Losses Make it Tough All Over
In addition to the 14 employees of Pleyel’s Saint-Denis factory, tens of thousands of other French workers stand to lose their jobs in the coming months. Industrial Recovery Minister Arnaud Montebourg hopes the bailout package will keep struggling companies viable and on the path to prosperity. It’s a shame that the bailout came too late to save Pleyel.
Strategies to Adopt to the New Global Piano Market
The company is looking, however, for alternative options. Roques hopes to collaborate with a prominent musician or find a smaller space to produce a few high-end pianos annually. The head of competing piano manufacturer Colmann-France Pianos, Oliver Colin, says Roques has missed the bus and has no hope. Colin’s company (on the market since 2004) has expanded its production into China and avoided the higher costs of European workers and their living wages. Colin claims to have used China intelligently and kept French traditions alive. He is banking on new technologies, such as grand pianos that play themselves or pianos outfitted with headphones that will be silent when the headphones are plugged in, in order to survive in the cutthroat world of piano making.
Interestingly, in the face of Asian competition, whose mass-produced, middle-of-the-road pianos are of increasing quality, piano makers all over Europe, including L. Bösendorfer Klavierfabrik GmbH, say they must shift into the high-end market to survive. Given what has happened to Pleyel, this seems to be a risky strategy.