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 also 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.
These two German craftsmen arrived when the U.S. piano industry was growing, by one estimate producing at least 9,000 pianos a year. Young Helmuth worked for various piano manufacturers, including a five-year stint at Steinway & Sons, where he rose to the position of foreman. But when labor disputes halted production at Steinway in 1864, Kranich decided to strike on his own, and with eleven other partners he founded the New York Piano Forte Co. as a profit-sharing firm. Later, the company was renamed Kranich & Bach, with Helmuth and 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 new factory at 237 E 23rd St, at the corner of Second Avenue.
The Kranich family also grew during that time, and in 1865 (a year after the birth of the company) Helmuth's Kranich's wife Louise gave birth to Alvin (sometimes spelled Alwin) Kranich, their third child, who would leave to study piano in Europe with Russian superstar Anton Rubinstein. Despite living abroad, Alvin was one of the corporate officers of Kranich & Bach in 1890, when the enterprise abandoned its cooperative model and became a corporation. 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 the company, but by 1908 he was identified as "brother of Frederick Kranich, of Kranich & Bach" and by 1914 he was 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.
Alvin Kranich may have left the piano business just in time. By the time of his 1924 visit, U.S. piano production was nearly half of its 1905 peak. Competing forms of entertainment were accelerating the demise of the industry; radio, specifically, was edging the piano off as the entertainment center of middle-class homes. (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 already well established, counting among its offerings "radio's oldest recorded program of fine music," the Masterwork Hour. By then, Kranich may have seen the writing on the wall, and he would soon join the station: from 1932 to 1937, "Dr. Kranich" hosted the weekly show Musical Essays. In 1935 he also co-presented a series on "The piano-forte: its development and its literature," and he occasionally appeared on the WNYC program Musicale. We only know of one recording related to Alvin Kranich: his "Fantasy Overture", probably broadcast on WNYC in 1938, and which is included here.
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.
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, purchased the brand 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.