City Scene

They shoot piano-makers, don’t they?

Ann Finlayson November 3 1980
City Scene

They shoot piano-makers, don’t they?

Ann Finlayson November 3 1980

They shoot piano-makers, don’t they?

Time was—before television, before stereo, before all the other divertisements of the electronic circus— when pride of place in the parlors of the land was awarded to the piano, the greatest single leisure-time investment a family would ever make. And that piano, bane of young boys, testament to gentility, was, in Canada, likely to be a Heintzman. Like many great Canadian legends, they were made with loving precision in Toronto and dispersed throughout the dominion by rail, fishing boat, horse-drawn lorry, or even, on more than one occasion, by dogsled. Alas, when Heintzman Ltd., pianomaker to six generations of Canadians, was placed in receivership last month, the curtain fell on a family saga tuned to the harmonies of 120 years of Canadian musical heritage and the contrapuntal agonies of one more outperformed Canadian industry.

The concert stages that welcomed such intrepid bearers of melodious goodwill as Dame Nellie Melba and tenor Enrico Caruso—both of whom bought Heintzmans after cross-country

Canadian tours—provided a showcase for the jewel of the craft, the concert grand. The Heintzman firm, established in Toronto in 1862, prided itself on competing with the finest the world could offer.

Theodore Heintzman, the family patriarch, hailed from New York, where he and another young German immigrant, Heinrich Steinweg, worked together as apprentices. He arrived penniless in Toronto but, with the profits from a piano built in his daughter’s kitchen, founded the firm that would compete for six generations, in Canada and abroad, with Steinways produced by his compatriot in New York. Much of the family’s success lay in canny salesmanship. A first-generation Heintzman arrived in Vancouver on the first transcontinental train and promptly began to peddle pianos to accompany dancehall girls in the Klondike.

As the market for pianos grew in both Canada and the United States, Heintzman Ltd. and Steinway & Sons flourished. By 1922, Canada supported 28 piano manufacturers. Heintzman produced more than 3,000 instruments that year: uprights to adorn the parlors of the middle classes, grands for the drawing rooms of the well-to-do and concert grands for the stages of the land. Ten years later, the raging Depression had forced most Canadian manufacturers out of business. Heintzman built fewer than 200 pianos in 1932. A modest crescendo a year after the Second World War was quickly eroded by the arrival of television.

The Heintzmans, ever wily, responded by diversifying. In 15 Heintzman retail stores across Canada, a customer could take music lessons, rent a clarinet or guitar, buy sheet music or violin strings or even, toward the end, a chair or a washing machine.

But by 1956, according to fourth-generation President William Heintzman, who with his wife, Barbara, is also its owner, “the company was moving side-

ways.” The problem was lower-priced imports from the U.S. and Japan. Outside management was imported, but the company’s fortunes continued to bend badly out of tune. Three years ago, William Heintzman agreed to merge the Sherlock-Manning Piano Co., which he had purchased on his own in 1967, with the ailing family firm. “I felt I should throw my lot in with them,” he says now. “If I didn’t, they would have ceased to exist, and I was very reluctant to see that happen.”

It was only a case of the inevitable

taking its time. Today, blaming high interest rates and unrelenting foreign competition, Heintzman admits he knew he was risking a profitable venture to save the Heintzman legacy: “I don’t regret that we tried. I just regret that it didn’t work out.” Still, all may not be lost. “I’m told that there is a strong possibility that a West German manufacturer is interested in buying the company,” says Heintzman, “and I’m also told that he has in mind continuing the name. Needless to say, I hope it’s true.” Ann Finlayson