Chopin’s Favorite Piano Factory Plays Its Final Chord

· Jan. 3, 2014, 5:51 pm

One of the world's oldest and most iconic piano makers, Pleyel, is closing its factory doors in Paris.

The French press characterized the bankruptcy as inevitable in the face of cheaper competition from China. But many disagree: They say Pleyel could have survived by adapting better to the times.

In his piano store, Bruno Canac, a former piano maker, tickles the ivories of a Pleyel piano conceived in the 1920s, when the company was in its heyday. He says the loss is a blow to France.

"Pleyel was an emblematic brand with 200 years of history," Cenac says. "It was not only the favorite of Chopin in the 19th century, but Pleyel was identified with French composers known as the impressionist musicians of the early 20th century — like Ravel and Debussy."

Pleyel was founded in 1807 by Ignaz Pleyel, a composer and music publisher who studied with Franz Joseph Haydn.

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The company became a leader in acoustic innovation, making instruments for music greats such as Frederic Chopin, who only played Pleyel pianos in France.

The instruments graced European royal residences and Paris salons. Like other piano makers, Pleyel was hurt by two world wars and the economic crisis that began in 1929. In the last 60 years, Pleyel changed ownership repeatedly; in the last four years, production plunged to about one piano a month.

Sparks fly as Dan Hensley pours liquid iron (at 2575 degrees Farenheit) into the mold for a piano plate destined for Steinway pianos, at O.S. Kelly foundry in Springfield, Ohio.

Canac blames Pleyel's demise on the financiers who most recently bought the company. He says there wasn't even a musician at the top anymore.

Plenty of European piano makers are still in the game, he says. Sitting down to play an Italian Fazioli piano in his shop, Canac says this company makes one of the highest-quality concert pianos on the market, but there was still room for Pleyel.

"Fazioli is a very recent brand, but it has put all of its financial, technical and human capacity into making the best piano possible," Canac says. "If Pleyel had done this, instead of wasting money on communications and renovating its Paris showroom, it would still be a very successful French piano maker."

There is one remaining French piano maker, Colmann. Its founder and CEO, Olivier Colin — a pianist himself — started the company in 2004. He says it has become the top-selling brand in France, just behind Japanese success story Yamaha.

The key to success, he says, is selling pianos for the low market as well as the high. To do that, you cannot make your piano entirely in France, as Pleyel was doing.

"Actually, we need to work with China, because we don't work with only rich people," Colin says. "We have to sell pianos to people who don't have a lot of money.

"If we make the piano only in France, the price will be more than double. You have to use China to help you make the piano, but you keep the French know-how."

Colin says Pleyel made another mistake by not evolving with the times. He says pianists today want a good acoustic piano, but one that also has modern capabilities such as recording and silent playing with headphones.

The company's technical director, Michel Labord, used to make pianos for Steinway. He says what makes the difference between a mediocre and a good piano is the calculating, tuning and harmonizing that's done once the instrument is put together. Labord says Colmann still does that in France.

"All the big German and European piano makers still do part of the instrument making, like the assembly work, in China," Labord says. "But the real skilled finishing work, the sound work, is done here — with a European ear."

These piano makers and specialists say there was room for many, including Pleyel, in today's many-tiered piano market. They say you just have to know how to play it.

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