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Manufacture of pianos in the Czech Republic: yesterday and today.

The production of pianos, upright and grand, has a relatively long tradition in the Czech Lands. Together let us look back to the 18th century and the origins and development of a field that is today a significant part of the Czech music industry. Let us compare the joys and woes of piano makers of the past with those of present-day manufacturers, and briefly consider at least some of the difficulties faced by current Czech producers especially as a result of the uncontrollable boom in Asian competition which abides by absolutely none of the traditional trading and manufacturing rules.

Pianos were made in Bohemia and Moravia from as early as the end of the 18th century and the number of manufactories and small workshops producing and repairing pianos gradually increased to the order of hundreds. The first grand piano builders at the end of the 18th century included for example Jan Zelinka from 1796 in Prague or Jacob Weimes from 1798, while in Brno the important Buchta family business was established from 1770 and the Ignatz Spitzka firm in 1785. Czech instrument makers were also strongly represented in Vienna.

The nineteenth century, especially the latter half, brought a real "boom" in the foundation of new firms producing grand and upright pianos. Many small workshops were opened which gradually expanded production and by the end of the 19th century there was a settled stratification of producers by size. There were small workshops composed of just the owners and a few assistants, who apart from making instruments mainly provided service--tuning and repairs; then there were medium-sized entrepreneurs operating on the basis of a license for the production and repair of grand and upright pianos and finally quite large producers, whose factories were nationalised by the communists in 1948 and placed under the single state concern Tovarny na piana [Piano Factories], later Ceskoslovenske hudebni nastroje [Czechoslovak Musical Instruments].

The Origins and Development of Production

To get a better understanding of situation, context and starting points of today's manufacturers, let us take a brief look at the history of some of them.

The firm Rosler started production in the later 19th century, although the sources differ on the actual year, which was either 1868 or 1878. (For comparison: the piano works of the most famous and to this day the largest Czech manufacturer Antonin Petrof dates from 1864.) After a number of moves, it settled in Ceska Lipa and already made a name for itself in the 1870s in expert circles by using English mechanics. On the death of the firm's founder Gustav Rosler, the works were inherited by his wife, who in 1897 entrusted the running of the firm to her brother Ludvik Gatter. At the beginning of the new century Gatter successfully expanded production and built up public awareness of the trademark by taking part in world exhibitions (The firm won the highest award in the form of a medal at the World Exhibition in Paris, for example). By 1911 the firm had a hundred workers and employed another fifteen externally. Production was characterised by a high level of modernisation and self-sufficiency. Apart from Austria-Hungary, which was the destination for most of the output (25-35 % to Vienna alone) the firm exported to Great Britain and even to South Africa, for example. The output in numbers of instruments continued to rise and from an original hundred pieces annually at the turn of the century had risen to as high as 1000 instruments in 1935. Then however, with the effects of the Great Economic Crisis the output of the firm dropped back again to only a hundred instruments a year. Up to the end of the Second World War the firm remained in the family, with ownership taken over by Ludvik Gatter's sons, Reiner and Walter.

In 1876 Franz Scholze started production in the Liberec region. He had successfully repaired his neighbour's piano and the work so inspired him that he shelved his original profession as a mill repairer and devoted himself entirely to constructing pianos. In 1891 he started production in Varnsdorf and expanded it substantially. Scholze had all four of his sons trained as piano makers and in 1914 opened yet another branch in Jirikov. (Since 1894 Jirikov had also been the home of a keyboard manufactory managed by Hermann Stamnitz, which supplied keyboards to the firms Petrof, Rosler and then the local producer Scholze.) In 1921, two of Scholz's sons, together with the merchant Herman Svoboda, formed a public company under the name "Scholze & Sohne" but in 1935 it went bankrupt. It was auctioned and purchased by another of the brothers Franz, who founded the Scholze Piano House in Usti nad Labem. At this point the firm was producing 8 types of upright piano and 5 types of grand piano. After the war it was nationalised like so many others.

In Liberec itself, the A. Proksch firm was founded in 1864 and subsequently provided work for fifty workmen. After twenty years of existence it boasted a subsidiary in Vienna and exported to Germany, England, France, America and the Balkans. Another important Liberec firm engaged in production of upright pianos was Wawrisch, established just before the end of the 19th century by the Wawrisch brothers who drew on their experience of Germany and France.

In the 1890s the ranks of the Liberec manufacturers were swelled by Koch & Korselt. Thanks to major success at the world exhibition in Paris the fame of the trademark spread rapidly. Apart from whole instruments, it supplied claviatures and mechanics. By the end of the 1940s the firm was producing eight models of upright piano and five models of grand piano, employed around eighty people and its average annual output was 400 uprights and 150 grand pianos. In 1940 Rudolf Klinger became company secretary and then owner; under his management the firm was forced to shift to war production and the manufacture of pianos de facto ceased.


August Riemer of Chrastave supplied mainly electrical pianos and orchestrions. Within fifteen years of the founding of the firm in 1845 he was able to employ around twenty people. After 1896 the firm was renamed Gebruder Riemer. The family tradition was carried on with the building of organs under the trademark Jos. Riemer and Sohne.

In his time the German producer August Forster was a pioneer in the introduction of new technologies. He installed electricity to power the machines in his factory, enabling him to increase weekly production from eight instruments to sixteen, and he also patented a cast iron frame. Apart from Lobau, where the firm was founded at the turn of the 1850s/60s (sources differ, with some stating 1859 and others 1862), he set up branches in Budysin (1893), and Zitava (1896), and to avoid a duty imposed on German products imported into Austria Hungary he set up a firm--now under the management of Franz Casar Forster, assembling instruments in Jirikov as well (1900). The instruments produced in the Jirikov branch of the firm were not subject to duty and were supplied to all parts of the monarchy on favourable terms. Production doubled in the first five years of the firm's existence and operations in Bohemia were soon expanded, in 1909. The 1910 catalogue lists production in both countries: 2,200 upright and grand pianos with a workforce of 500 employees. In 1919 direction of the plant in Bohemia was taken over by the founder's grandson Gerhard Forster. Under his management the firm built the legendary quarter-tone piano at the suggestion of the composer Alois Haba (see Czech Music 3/2005) and was involved in the development of sound in the field of electro-acoustics. Experts enhanced the properties of the soundboard with an amplifier and reproducer and the result was the instrument known as the Elektrochord. The firm also devoted attention to the development of new low upright piano models known as the Pianetto.

In Zakolany near Prague a workshop initially concerned just with repairing old instruments was founded in 1905, but by 1913 it had grown so substantially that it was producing its own grand pianos and upright pianos under the trade name Dalibor. Modernisation of the equipment enabled it to keep on expanding production, as is also clear from the growing number of employees (originally the firm had around eighteen employees, but in the 1920s around fifty). In 1925 it already had its own a warehouse and shop in Prague.


The originally small Prague manufactory founded in 1872 by Josef Broz, flourished and expanded under the direction of his sons and in 1921 opened another branch in Velim. Apart from its own models, the factory manufactured instruments of the German firm Forster Leipzig under licence. In roughly the mid-1920s the firm employed more than a hundred workers and in addition to classical models was producing electropianos. The concern kept on expanding and diversifying and as well as a wood drying plant, its own keyboard production centre and its production of all metal parts, it provided employees with accommodation in newly built flats for workers. Had it not been overtaken by international political and economic events, this firm might well have carved out one of the leading positions on the market.

In Jihlava, apart from the small piano works belonging to Josef Belohlavek, the workshop of Josef Breitner was founded in 1924. Under the patronage of the Viennese firm of Hofmann & Czerny it flourished and employed around fifty workers. Thanks to Austrian capital, in 1927 Breitner formed the joint-stock company "Jihlavska tovarna pian, a.s.--Iglauer Klavierfabrik AG" and manufactured Hofmann & Czerny instruments under license. Starting in 1930 the factory underwent modernisation and expansion, acquiring a varnishing shop with electrically powered spray, drying room and water turbine. In 1939 racial laws forced a number of changes in personnel, in 1945 the company secretary and director of the works fled to Austria, and the firm was placed under national administration. In 1948 the factory was nationalised and incorporated into the state concern "Piano and Organ Factory" in Hradec Kralove.

Lidl and Velik were among Moravian producers. The owners moved production to Moravsky Krumlov from Boskovice in 1921 and started to manufacture several models of grand piano and upright piano there. The firm prospered and within a few years were producing 14 types of upright and 6 types of grand. When hit by the economic crisis, however, it had to move over to production of button and piano accordions, which saved the firm from cutbacks in production and layoffs.

The Decline in Production from the Beginning of the 20th Century 1945

At the beginning of the twentieth century there was a great deal to choose from, but firms were struggling with problems of various kinds. The field was negatively affected, for example, by the enormous hike in customs duties between Austria-Hungary and Germany, which put the brakes on trade, while electrification was as yet inadequate, capacity in heavy industry was insufficient and inflexible in its response to the demands of new customers. The small producers were also facing tough competition from the instruments made by foreign firms (The trademarks Streicher, Bosendorfer, Steinway or Ehrbar were already making headway in Czech markets.)

The First World War, which caused a loss of workforce and overall stagnation of piano production was a painful blow to most of the Czech manufacturers. Co-operation with specialised producers of piano parts--mechanics, keys, keyboards and so on was temporarily interrupted and the circle of experts seriously narrowed. After the war, however, the situation improved year by year, trade relations were re-established and after 1925 an influx of new skilled craftsmen and the use of high quality materials and half-finished elements meant that production reached a very high standard. Then, however, came the Great Economic Crisis, which devastated the industry. In 1929 more than 90% of all the small, mainly family firms that provided their owners and a few journeymen with a livelihood went out of business. All producers experienced a drop in demand, production was cut back and employees laid off. Many factories had to make as much as half their workforce redundant, massively reducing production and sometimes introducing three-day weeks.

After the establishment of the Protectorat of Bohemia and Moravia under the Nazis there was further decline in the manufacture of musical instruments, because the Nazi occupation authorities forced firms to give priority to the production of wooden parts for aeroplanes and munitions chests for the Wehrmacht. With reduction in the number of skilled expert workers production in some places entirely ceased, while other firms continued to make instruments only as a sideline.

Development after 1945

After the Second World War almost all private enterprise was nationalised and incorporated into national concerns. The owners of firms were deprived of their rights and from 1945 national administrators delegated by district national committees were installed instead of owners and original directors. These administrators were chosen either from the ranks of former employees, often heads of workshops and production, accountants and so on, or were experts from other towns.

In 1948 following the Communist putsch some of the larger plants were incorporated into the newly founded state concern Tovarny na piana a varhany--Piano and Organ Factories based in Hradec Kralove. The following firms were transformed into the assets of this state concern by a decree of the Minister of Industry in 1948: Antonin Petrof, Hradec Kralove; Koch & Korselt, Liberec; Dalibor, Zakolany; Brothers Rieger, Krnov; Josef Kloss, Krnov; Gustav Rosler, Ceska Lipa; H. Stamnitz, Jirikov; August Forster, Jirikov; Scholze & Sohne, Varnsdorf. Others were later added to the list.

At the end of the 1950s the whole of the Czechoslovak music industry was reorganised and the state concern renamed from Tovarny na piana to Ceskoslovenske hudebni nastroje--Czechoslovak Musical Instruments (CSHN, established by a Decree of the Ministry of Industry of the 1st of April 1958). Until the end of the socialist era this concern incorporated not just producers of pianos, but all Czech and Slovak producers of musical instruments. Production was divided into several plants, and in 1962 a separate plant for the manufacture of pianos was established in Hradec Kralove (Odstepny zavod Piana).

This socialist unification of production in the field was a tragedy not just because of the appropriation of the rights of the original owners, often families who had been producing pianos for generations, but also because the many self-sufficient firms that had been making their own instruments became mere suppliers of parts. The distinctive character of their instruments was lost. Furthermore, the lack of motivation among employees and those owners who often stayed on as employees led to stagnation of production. It can of course be argued from the other side, that only by the unification of production (and not only in the communist period) could Czech producers succeed in the face of global competition. The operation of all elements and co-ordination of the firms was the task of a unified management (at the time the General Directorate of CSHN), which supervised and supported the development of instruments, monitored foreign competition, expanded production and in its separate specialised plants created self-sufficient departments supplying all the parts necessary for the final product.

Czech Manufactures of Upright and Grand Piano Today

Currently four domestic firms producing and selling pianos figure on the Czech market. The main producer is Petrof Ltd. of Hradec Kralove, which is largest in turnover and historically the most famous maker and retailer of instruments in the CR. Another is the middle-sized firm Bohemia Piano Ltd. based in Hradec Kralove and Jihlava, and the last two are the smaller KLIMA-PIANO, Ltd. and HSBF.

Thanks to a history of unbroken production since its founding, Petrof is today the biggest firm on the Czech market. Like the other Czech firms it exports around 95 % of its overall production, and abroad Petrof is the best known brand and a synonym for Czech piano. The other firms have been catching up, especially through participation in world fairs and exhibitions, and Bohemia, for example, today has representatives in 35 countries. Petrof and Bohemia Piano in particular have also been building up their image in the Czech Republic by sponsoring music festivals and organising their own concerts and other events.

The combined turnover of all four firms is more than 960 million crowns (32 million EUR approx.), making it a substantial item in the framework of the Czech music industry. One interesting trend is that while the production of uprights by the two larger firms has been gradually diminishing, the number of grands has remained the same or risen. Be that as it may, in recent years there have been major cuts in the number of employees and branches particularly in the case of Petrof. Of the four factories operated by the firm as of mid-2004 practically only one remains and the workforce has been progressively cut from 1300 in 2003 to somewhere around 700. Recently, however Petrof has become majority shareholder in a piano case factory in Tyniste and plans to become the biggest European supplier of semi-finished parts for the production of upright and grand pianos.

The Pressure of Asian Producers and other Problems Facing Manufacturers

Let us for a moment turn our eyes from purely Czech conditions and try to identify the causes of the present fragile stability of traditional European producers, for whom one of the greatest current threats is the boom in Asian production. The main motto of the new firms that have been established in China and have been making headway on European and US markets is above all low prices, mass production and digitalisation of instruments. The huge upsurge in piano manufacture in China is a phenomenon of the last decade. Frequently these firms copy European models almost perfectly, and this is happening, unfortunately, with the help of European and American experts who are founding firms in Asia and providing the know-how to make up for the lack of local traditional experience in the field. Thus with each year that passes we witness a perceptible improvement in the quality of the Asian instruments presented there. Given the incomparably cheaper work force and the materials used (less expensive, but with properties that approach the traditional), Asian producers can set prices that are extraordinarily low compared to instruments of American or European manufacture. (The prices of Asian producers at the Musikmesse in Frankfurt am Main in 2004 were around 800 USD for a classical model upright, compared to a European price at a minimum of 2600 - 10000 EUR.) In a period when clients give priority to price over quality world markets are naturally opening up to these instruments and the traditional instruments are being progressively squeezed out.


At present, collaboration with Asia is taking many forms. European and American firms are co-operating with their Asian counterparts by using cheap Asian parts for their own instruments. The situation is far from transparent, because some firms admit this kind of co-operation while others do not. Instruments are also often produced in Asia under a traditional European or American trade name. European and Asian firms are often fused, and sometimes factories are being moved entirely to Asia.


History seems to be repeating itself. Today's producers are struggling with the same problems as their predecessors at the turn of the 19th/20th century. The USA has imposed high duties on goods from the EU and producers are thinking up various strategies for getting round it. An unfavourable world economic situation and specific difficulties facing home industry are affecting the production of musical instruments here, just as in the past. And then there are the new problems of cheap Asian production and local falls in demand caused by many factors (9/11, the threat of terrorist attacks, SARS). The instability of the dollar exchange rate is also not helping trade.

The current trend, with which world producers are falling into line, is to merge all activities into one whole and try to offer the customer a wide spectrum of products and prices from which to choose. Thus for example Steinway is now a part of the large concern Steinway Musical Instruments, which brings together producers in many fields, has manufacturing branches in 13 locations in the USA and Europe and co-operates with Asia. Many producers have been shifting production to Asia, collaborating with local firms or directly purchasing cheap Asian instruments and moving over from production to distribution in their own countries.

In addition to all these world trends, the Czech situation has specific features that mean that if the largest firm Petrof gets into further serious difficulties, the other Czech firms will suffer as well. This is because the supplier base of all the Czech firms is the same, and Petrof is still the main domestic customer. Today Czech producers have to decide which path to choose. Either to succumb to cheap Asian production and take the path of producing low price instruments, or to stick to their traditional standards and even in the face of high manufacturing costs to maintain the existing quality that attracts customers with the same demands. Another alternative is a merger between all the producers or to find a strong partner in a foreign company. All we can do is wish them every success.


135 years tradition of the piano building

* the full line of acoustic upright and grand pianos

* traditional methods and excellent workmanship

* the highest quality components found worldwide

Bohemia Piano, s.r.o.

Jihlava, Hradec Kralove, Praha

Sales Department: Ceskomoravska 21

190 00 Praha, Czech Republic

Phone: +420 296 645 405, Fax: +420 296 645 407

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Title Annotation:instrument makers
Author:Kramplova, Tereza
Publication:Czech Music
Article Type:Company overview
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Previous Article:Organ building in the Czech Lands.
Next Article:Four generations of Spidlens the legendary Czech violin makers.

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