There are quite a number of different sizes of the modern-day piano, from the modest ‘upright’ to the imposing ‘Concert Grand’. I could also include five and six-octave pianos as well as their electronic cousins whose size can vary considerably from a couple of octaves through to a full seven and a quarter octave range.
The Baby Grand Piano’s History
One of the most enduringly popular sizes of a piano has been one endearingly called the ‘baby’ grand. It is such a winner Billy Joel even wrote a song about it on his 1986 album called “The Bridge”. This single not only featured a baby grand piano but the famous Blues Artist Ray Charles who shared the lead vocals on the track.
The Baby Grand Piano fits in, size-wise at least, between the upright and the concert grand. The concert grand can reach 9 feet in length whereas the baby grand usually measures in at a less showy five feet two inches, (1.52-1.57m). There are smaller pianos that are similar to the baby grand sometimes referred to as ‘apartment’ pianos.
In addition, there are what are sometimes referred to as ‘miniature’ pianos that are shorter than four feet eleven inches long. The construction of the modern baby grand is almost identical to that of the larger concert grand. One of the most challenging aspects of manufacturing the piano is creating the case or cabinet.
Steinway glues together long lengths of maple wood that is then bent into shape in a powerful metal press. There are many complexities at this stage of the process including careful controlling the temperature, the moisture content of the wood and contour of the bent rim. The cabinet also plays a vital part in the overall sound of the instrument. Great attention to detail is key in producing the perfect finish.
Some pianos have their strings mounted on a wooden frame that can lead to tremendous problems with tuning. If humidity is not adequately monitored, frames can split and crack. The preferred material is a cast-iron frame with braces often made from spruce that has a natural springiness to it. The cast-iron plate can weigh as much as 600 pounds (272.4kg) but provides essential stability for the instrument in terms of tuning and intonation.
Underneath the plate of strings is a vital component called the soundboard. Like the braces, the soundboard is frequently made from spruce wood that then acts as a resonator for the strings. If you look closely in a baby grand or grand piano you will notice that the soundboard is not flat but gently curved towards the strings. This is an equally complex task as the crown (to give it its proper title), serves to ensure the strings vibrations are uniformly spread. The construction of the baby grand continues with the addition of tuning pegs, the setting up of the keyboard action and assembly of the pedalling system, all of which go to create the modern piano.
According to the Steinway website, the first baby grand piano was created and designed by them. This was called the Steinway & Sons Model A piano and first made an appearance in 1905. This particular piano was around six feet in length, slightly longer than the models more commonly around today. The size of this piano was decided upon the need to ensure the quality of the sound and to make it reasonably comparable to its larger family members.
By 1915, Steinway has managed to find a way to reduce the dimensions to five feet ten inches in their Model O baby grand. The quality of the sound was not compromised and the results paved the way to contemporary baby grand pianos. Later in 1927, Steinway & Sons produced the Model M that was fairly quickly superseded by the Model S in 1935. This model is five feet one inch in length and has held the enviable title of the longest running model of baby grand in history. The rumour is that the ‘S’ refers to small but this has never been officially confirmed by the manufacturers even if it does make sense.
Baby grand pianos are made by many different manufacturers now, from Steinway to Yamaha, Blüthner and Bechstein. According to a recent article on the contemporary baby grand, there appears to be a competition between piano producers to create ever cheaper instruments, to keep pace with popular demand. Whilst it may be true that the baby grand was conceived to meet the space restrictions of early 20th-century lounge, recent trends seem to be making baby grand pianos that look the part but whose sound quality has been dramatically compromised to allow for an affordable price tag.
The claim is that many people like the look of a baby grand without the need for the natural resonance and richness of sound that a larger piano can produce. If you are looking to buy a professional baby grand that will have the tonal qualities of its larger brothers and sisters, then the ad ice seems to be to avoid the cheaper models from China and Indonesia. These will apparently fulfil the desire to have a good looking baby grand in the house but will not deliver the sound quality of the more expensive instruments made in Germany of Japan.
Baby grand pianos have fetched some extraordinary prices over the years. The American actress Marilyn Monroe owned a piano that had originally been purchased by her Mother. This famous baby grand is now reportedly owned by the singer Maria Carey who paid $662,500 for the privilege of owning it. Even though not technically a baby grand piano, it is of interest to note that allegedly the world’s most expensive piano was made for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
The curious thing is that its cabinet is made from real crystal and manufactured by the firm Heintzman. Sadly the piano was only ever played a single time at the opening ceremony but it still attracted the price of a staggering $3.22 million dollars; paid by an anonymous buyer.