Dr Kranich, your piano's ready. I'm afraid it's not built by your dad.

Friday, October 19, 2012 - 02:27 PM

Disc LT783, only known Kranich recording at WNYC (New York Municipal Archives/WNYC Archive Collections)

On March 5, 1853 a German piano maker named Henry Steinway (né Steinweg) founded Steinway & Sons at 85 Varick Street in New York City, barely five blocks from the present-day WNYC studios. Less than three months later another, much younger German piano maker named Helmuth Kranich would arrive at these shores. Little did he suspect that one of his children would someday work at a competing form of entertainment: radio, specifically WNYC.

At that point the U.S. piano industry was a business on the rise, by one estimate producing at least 9,000 pianos a year. Young Helmuth worked for various piano manufacturers and even had a five-year stint at Steinway & Sons, eventually rising to foreman there. When labor disputes halted production at Steinway in 1864, Kranich decided to strike on his own, and with eleven other partners founded the New York Piano Forte Co. as a profit-sharing firm.

A year after the birth of the new company, Helmuth's Kranich's wife Louise gave birth to Alvin (sometimes spelled Alwin) Kranich, their third child. Meanwhile, the company was renamed Kranich & Bach, with Helmuth and his partner Jacques Bach at the helm; Kranich's mechanical genius and Bach's brilliant cabinet-making fueled the initial successes of the company, which in 1873 established a factory at 237 E 23rd St, at the corner of Second Avenue. Kranich & Bach at 23rd St and 2nd Ave

Although both families were involved in the growing company, young Alvin left in 1887 to study piano in Europe with Russian superstar Anton Rubinstein. Despite living abroad, Alvin was one of the corporate officers of Kranich & Bach when the enterprise abandoned its cooperative model and became a corporation three years later. He was 25 at the time.

In 1902 patriarch Helmuth Kranich died at 79, three years before the U.S. piano industry reached its peak production of 400,000 instruments. By then, Kranich & Bach was considered among the best and most original piano makers in the city.

Unlike some of his brothers, Alvin did not last long in the family business. We are uncertain of when exactly he left, but by 1908 he was identified as "brother of Frederick Kranich, of Kranich & Bach" and by 1914 he was certainly no longer part of the firm. He toured Europe as concert pianist for 40 years, while also composing pieces of some renown. During this time he would pay occasional visits back to New York, occasionally sending dispatches of musical successes from Europe. The Kranich & Bach factory, circa 1914

By the time of Alvin Kranich's 1924 visit (as a widower), U.S. piano production was nearly at half its 1905 peak. Competing forms of entertainment were accelerating the demise of the industry; radio, specifically, was edging the piano off the center stage of middle-class homes, where it had remained for decades. (A later blow to the industry would come with the Great Depression) Significantly, a municipal radio station named WNYC had begun broadcasting that summer of 1924.

When Alvin returned to New York for good in 1930, WNYC was well established, counting among its offerings the Masterwork Hour ("radio's oldest recorded program of fine music"). Kranich would soon join the station: From 1932 to 1937, "Dr. Kranich" hosted the weekly show Musical Essays. In 1935 he also presented a series on "The piano-forte: its development and its literature" alongside Lionel Sinclair, and he occasionally appeared on the WNYC program Musicale.

Did Alvin Kranich play a Kranich piano at WNYC? Probably not. Two pictures of the WNYC studios from the era show a Wissner piano and another whose brand cannot be distinguished at first, but which on closer inspection turns out to be a William Knabe.

We only know of one recording related to Alvin Kranich: his "Fantasy Overture", probably broadcast on WNYC in 1938, and which is included here. Alvin Kranich died in 1944; as for the Kranich & Bach pianos, the name was bought by various companies (they were manufactured in China at one point) until Gibson, the famed electric guitar manufacturer, in 2001. The last piano bearing the Kranich & Bach name was likely manufactured in the 1990s.

Thanks to Michael Lorenzini at the Municipal Archives photo lab


Dr. Alvin Kranich


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About Annotations: The NEH Preservation Project

In September 2010, WNYC's Archives and Preservation Department initiated a two-year archival digitization project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Its goal is to reformat 660 hours of choice recordings from the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC collection found on lacquer disc and open reel tape.

For more information, please visit the 2010-2013 NEH-Funded Preservation Project page.

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The 2010-2013 NEH-Funded Preservation Project has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this web resource do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


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