During the early 20th century, pianos by Steinway & Sons were filling concert halls from Europe to the United States with brilliant sounds in some of the most memorable musical triumphs of their time.
By a remarkably merciless twist of fate, Steinway also bore witness to the greatest trans-Atlantic tragedy when, on April 15, 1912, the maiden voyage of RMS Titanic ended in icy waters southeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland.
Five Steinways from the Hamburg factory were brought on to the ship in mid-March of that year, designated for First and Second Class. All were ordered through Steinway & Sons of London, according to Steinway archives, with serial numbers indicating the immortalized instruments shipped between March 15 and May 12, 1911. "Four of the five Titanic Steinway pianos were ordered ‘raw’ or ‘rough,’ meaning that they became art cases after they were shipped to London," explains David R. Kirkland, Administrator for Customer Service at Steinway & Sons in Long Island City. Once all finishing touches were added, the pianos were put in place as Titanic departed from the English port city of Southampton on April 10.
Steinway records show the fifth piano — an oak K upright — was one of two Model Ks sold to Harland & Wolff in Belfast, the same name and place as the shipyard where Titanic and her sister luxury liners, RMS Olympia and HMHS Britannic, were constructed between 1909 and 1914.
Two Model R uprights and a Model B Drawing Room Grand piano selected to entertain First Class passengers “were the zenith of 20th century piano culture," says Rebekah Maxner, an avid researcher, musician and author from Nova Scotia who maintains a passionate interest in all things musically related to Titanic. The Model B was formerly called “Parlor Grand" in the late 19th century.
"Titanic was designed to impress, and the pianos played their part to appeal aesthetically to the great expectations of the contemporary world’s wealthy travelers," she writes in her blog, Titanic Piano.
All three First Class Steinway pianos were to be customized according to the ship’s specifications. Craftsmen added rich appointments to match the Steinways with their luxurious surroundings, creating showpieces to be appreciated equally for eye-appealing sight as well as uniquely distinctive sound.
One of the Model R uprights was situated in the Boat Deck entrance of the Grand Staircase, with the other positioned in the Dining Saloon on D Deck. The Model R had a Victorian case style, and was two inches taller than the Model K. Production in Hamburg of the Model R was discontinued in 1942, according to Mr. Kirkland.
Titanic’s D Deck was also home to what Ms. Maxner hails as Steinway’s crown jewel — - the 6’10.5" Model B Drawing Room Grand piano that as some could imagine, assumed a commanding presence in the Reception Room.
Ordered from the factory without veneer, legs or lyre, Steinway documents indicate the Model B was one of three pianos sold to A. Heaton & Co., an interior decorating firm based in London.
With mahogany veneers offset by other exotic woods, "the grand was the crowning glory of Titanic’s pianos, a showcase of workmanship as it stood out against the white Jacobean walls of the Reception Room," she writes.
In a recent article for the Clavier Companion, Ms. Maxner noted that performance venues in the First and Second Class were located in areas where the music would carry throughout the ship, and the Steinway pianos were installed in those places.
The Model K uprights were chosen for Titanic’s "Second Class" — a misnomer of distinction in musical parlance, as both were considered instruments of exceptional quality.
Located in the entrance foyer on C Deck, one of the pianos boasted a French finish that was applied after delivery, to ensure the wood stain on the piano matched the décor of the entrance hall, according to Ms. Maxner.
Stationed in the Dining Saloon on D Deck, the other instrument had a different cabinet to distinguish it from factory-built Model Ks, which Mr. Kirkland says have a 20th century look in the Sheraton case style. He adds the Model K remains in production to this day.
Asked to speculate on the fate of the five Titanic Steinways, Mr. Kirkland had this to say: "The pianos were fastened securely to the ship’s floors. When the Titanic submerged, the piano’s keys, hammers and hinged components suspended due to the buoyance of the wood. Although glues dissolve and metals corrode, at the bottom of the ocean amidst the wreckage there probably lie remnants that bear the name of Steinway & Sons. I believe it to be inevitable one day that something will be raised."
There is one certainty that remains in the 100 years since the iconic luxury liner came to rest at the bottom of the North Atlantic, ever since the company’s founding in 1853: Steinway remains dedicated to making the best pianos in the world.