One of the many aspects I enjoy about writing articles for CMuse is that I have the opportunity to discover new things about music. I have already completed a few pieces on various aspects of the piano but I had never come across the word ‘acrosonic’ until very recently.
What is an acrosonic piano
Before I embarked on my research to uncover the meaning behind the word, I speculated for a while on what it could mean in terms of a piano. The Greek meaning tends towards meaning ‘extreme’, whereas in combination form, ‘acropolis’ for instance it denotes something at a summit or a height. ‘Sonic’ on the other hand relates to ‘sound’ from the Latin ‘sonus’. What this seems to imply is some kind of piano capable of extreme sound production. I was intrigued to uncover more information.
If you are from the United States of America there is a good chance you have heard of Baldwin pianos. They have been less popular here in Europe perhaps due to the formidable reputation of piano manufacturers like Steinway & Sons, Blüthner, Bechstein as well as Kawai and Yamaha. The Baldwin company began with Mr Dwight Baldwin who in 1862 opened a piano dealership in Cincinnati, Ohio. By the mid-1890s Baldwin had largely cornered the Mid-Western US with its dealership claiming they could make “the best piano that could be built.”
The company thrived in spite of the Great Depression and World War Two when the Baldwin factories were taken over by the military to produce plywood parts for aeroplanes. By 1973 it is claimed that Baldwin had manufactured one million upright pianos. The story changed for Baldwin during the early 1980s in spite of significant diversification into the manufacturing of other musical instruments. At this time the sales of pianos contributed as little as three percent of the impressive $3.6 billion it gained in revenue. Bankruptcy followed in 1984 and these days Baldwin is now a subsidiary company of the equally famous Gibson Guitar Company.
Following the death of the founder of Baldwin piano in 1899, the company decided to develop and later introduce the ‘Acrosonic’ Upright Piano to the public. !936 was the year and the claims by Baldwin were quite forthright. The acrosonic piano had what was described as a ‘supreme sound’ and from the sales figures, it would seem it was met with a warm and positive response. In fact, it is claimed on by many sources that the acrosonic piano has sold more than any other model of all time. Such was the importance of the name Baldwin registered the trademark ‘Acrosonic’ at the US Patent Office.
The acrosonic pianos can broadly be divided into the Spinet Piano and the Console Piano. Both varieties have the ‘supreme tone’ of all Baldwin acrosonic vertical pianos but the Spinet model is 36 inches tall and the Console model a little larger at 40 inches. The woods used for the cabinets vary from Mahogany to Pecan and Dark Walnut and are distinctive in character. These pianos were in their day considered to be extraordinarily good with a rich tone that was far ‘bigger’ than the modest size of the piano. They had the full 88 keys that you would expect on the pianos of today. If you can find an acrosonic piano from the 1950/60’s that is in excellent condition, they can compare favourably with today’s pianos.
Each of the acrosonic pianos has what is described as a “full blow, direct action”. What this means is that there is a 23% faster repetition rate in respect of dynamics. This alongside their small size and full sound, made these pianos highly sort after for families and professionals alike. They offered a high-quality home piano that was responsive to the touch, compact and manufactured to a level of excellence.
The shorter strings inside the acrosonic piano give it a brilliance of tone that has a bell-like quality. This is not to say the richness of a larger piano is missing, but that there is a distinct timbre with these spinet/console pianos that is quite appealing. Even though these specific models are not made anymore, manufacturing of today’s Baldwin pianos continues with the production of new models mostly outsourced to China. There is still a distribution and service centre in the US. Baldwin has in recent years undertaken to resurrect the concepts behind the original acrosonic upright pianos. According to the manufacturers, the Baldwin Models B342 and B442 are very similar to the spinet and console acrosonic pianos measuring in at forty-three inches in height. Baldwin continues to make pianos with every budget in mind and with the restrictions of size in the home at the forefront of many of their current designs.
Today Baldwin pianos have continued to enjoy the popularity of yesteryear. The brightness of their sound works well in the pop setting where perhaps the mid to high registers of the instrument need to sound through the texture clearly. This means that the lower registers of the old acrosonic pianos were a compromise in terms of timbre that served their purpose at the time. Many notable professional pianists have and continue to favour the Baldwin Piano from singer-songwriter Billy Joel through to jazz pianist Dave Brubeck. Even though these artists more commonly played on more contemporary grand Baldwin pianos, their timbre and legacy are what has assured Baldwin a secure place in the history of the piano.