Beethoven's Piano Maker
Hers is not exactly a household name. I had never heard of her, perhaps you haven’t either. A quick line on FB caught my attention about a woman who built Beethoven’s pianos. Of course I needed to know more.
Nannette Streicher has been hidden away and marginalized by history but she was actually one of the finest keyboard manufactures in all of Europe. It is known widely however, that she was one of Beethoven’s dearest and closest friends. What isn’t known very widely is that she built his piano at the company that she owned.
Streicher was born in Augsburg, Germany, in 1769. She was the sixth child of Johann Andreas Stein who was a renowned craftsman and manufacturer of pianos. When she was a mere eight years old, she played for Mozart, who criticized her posture and the way she “grimaced” but admitted that she had genius. At the age of ten, she had mastered many of her father’s building techniques and had already earned a reputation as a mechanical wunderkind.
Nannette was 23, and recently married, when her father died in 1792. She partnered with her sixteen year old brother, Matthaus to set up the piano business in Vienna. She transported the pianos by raft to the new location and changed the name of the business from J.A> Stein to Geschwister (siblings) Stein.
Piano design was changing rapidly during this time and concerts were moving beyond aristocratic salons into larger music halls. Artisans and piano manufacturers were under great pressure to produce heavier and more resonant instruments for the larger venues.
By 1802 she had lost a six year old son, and mother to the remaining two small children. She was engaged in an intense disputer with her brother over the business that eventually led to the dissolution of the existing company and each of them establishing their own companies. Nanette had made some major improvements tot he instruments, one being expanding the keyboards range from five to six and a half octaves. By 1809 she had further reworked her father’s design and was delivering some of the loudest, largest and sturdiest pianos in Vienna. Her warehouse produced 50 to 65 grand pianos a year and her business was considered by many to be the finest in the city.
In 1812 she built a 200 seat concert hall next to their showroom and decorated it with busts of well known pianists. Concerts there attracted the many upcoming and talented musicians and the music hall become a hub of Vienna’s musical activity.
Five years later, in August of 1817, she took on another job. She agreed to manage Beethoven’s chaotic household. His hearing loss was worsening, he was in a creative slump and he was in crisis. Apart from his own family he was raising a young nephew and needed to provide a good home for all. This is where Nanette stepped in. Over the next eighteen months Beethoven wrote over sixty letters ordering her to take care of his laundry, mend his socks, purchase groceries, dusters and shoe polish. He had become increasingly paranoid not trusting any of his servants. He believed they were all out to either poison or rob him. He had an ongoing relationship with her for her twenty years. Although it was not romantic, he trusted her and called her his “good Samaritan.” They had a deep connection and it began with and centered on the piano.
The Streicher company continued to thrive under Nannette’s son, Johanne Baptiste and eventually her grandson, Emil, who built pianos for Brahms. The company closed for good upon Emil’s retirement in 1896.
Nannette’s legacy and instruments live on however, in museums around the world and in the hands of women she inspired. In the mid 1960’s, Margaret Hood, an artist and calligrapher who was raising two young children, began to make harpsichords. She did research in Europe and began to specialize in reproductions of the Streicher pianos based on that research. Hood produced them in her Platteville, Wisconsin workshop where she was building an 1816 Streicher six and a half octave grand piano when she died in 2008.
A trained concert pianist, Anne Acker, met Ms. Hood and the two became fast friends over their love of music. Hood became not only friend but mentor to Acker. Acker, while raising her own children, began to build and repair harpsichords and antique paints. When her friend and mentor, Hood, died she purchased the reproduction Streicher from Hood’s husband. “I explained to him that a piano researched and begun by a woman, that is a replica of a piano designed and built by a woman, needs to be finished by a woman,”
The piano — the work of three women over two centuries — had its debut at the Boston Early Music Festival in 2019. It was the year of Nannette’s 250th birthday.