Peter Donhauser
The Electric Beethoven

Neo-Bechstein grand"The electric Beethoven," "The wonder piano," "The universal grand piano," "The collective piano," "A technical and musical marvel," "The musical instrument of the future," "The modern grand piano," "Music of the spheres," "Piano-making revolution" - these and other imaginative names were used by the press on the occasion of the presentation of the new electro-mechanical piano that was baptized the Neo-Bechstein by its manufacturer. The main figure behind this instrument was Walther Nernst, Nobel Prize winner and, from 1924, head of the Physical-Chemical Institute of the University of Berlin, where the piano was born. Nernst was close to retirement and was more interested in fish farming on his country estate; moreover, he was not particularly up to date with tube technology, and consequently left most of the work to his assistant Hans Driescher, whose two patents were a major contribution to the development.1

Neo-Bechstein grandMany technical problems needed to be solved before the traditional Berlin piano company Bechstein took over the production of the pianos. In1931, the result of the many years of trials was presented, and the small-scale production can be seen as the climax of a number of attempts to launch an "electrical instrument" in significant quantities on the market before the collapse of Germany in the Second World War, the only comparable instrument being the Telefunken Volkstrautonium. It was without doubt commercial principles that were mainly responsible for the adoption of a new design principle. At the end of the 1920s, the German piano industry was in ruins (production fell by 93 percent between 1927 and 1933).2 The statistics were alarming; at the end of 1932 the businesses were operating at only eight percent of their capacity.3

It is therefore hardly surprising that the industry began looking for new products so as to attract new groups of buyers and to revive sales. In addition, the rapid development of radio suggested that the time was ripe for "music from a loudspeaker" created or propagated electrically. The public's ear had already been caught by numerous public performances using new instrument designs: "Electric music is going to happen," wrote the Funkschau in 1933.4

Neo-Bechstein grand: electromagnetic pickups. 1932The instrument's special features were above all matters of detail. The thin strings meant that "normal" piano hammers were too solid, the movement too energetic, producing a banging sound. This was solved by an invention by Driescher5, which ultimately led to the "micro-hammers" finally used: a small, lightweight hammer head, mounted and moving within a larger component that was decelerated before the point of impact. The magnetic coils ("telephone magnets") were switched in parallel with capacitors that controlled the course of the timbre across the keyboard: dull and sonorous in the bass, clear and bright in the descant. This was to add a new and special touch to piano literature.
Bechstein built a first series of 79 instruments,6 followed by further pianos at greater intervals. In total 150 were said to have been made.7 Most of them were sold in Germany, followed by Holland, the USA, Switzerland, Norway, and even one to Japan.8 More of the instruments were made under license by Petrof in KšniggrŠtz (now Hradec Kr‡lovŽ).9

As with the Volkstrautonium, sales were sluggish, and although most of the pianos were sold, there were no plans to increase production, particularly since the start of the war and a completely new post-war situation on the musical instrument market meant that there was little or no chance of making any sales.


1 A detailed description of the situation can be found in Peter Donhauser, Elektrische Klangmaschinen, Vienna 2007, p. 79ff.

2 Deutsche Instrumentenbau-Zeitung (DIZ), 25. 3. 1934, p. 72.

3 Die Not der Klavierindustrie, in: DIZ, 25. 6. 1933, p. 175.

4 H. Boucke, Es wird etwas mit der elektrischen Musik, in: Funkschau, No. 40, 1. 10. 1933, p. 313.

5 Patent DE 530.257 dated 6. 3. 1930: "String instrument with relay control, in particular a relay piano".

6 Instrument numbers 138.120 to 138.198.

7 Dieter B. Herrmann, Walther Nernst und sein Neo-Bechstein-Flügel, in: NTM-Schriftenreihe für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften, Technik und Medizin, 9, 1972, p. 40ff.

8 Records kept by Bechstein, Berlin.

9 The exact figure is not known, but apparently did not exceed "a few dozen" (information from von Jan Petrof).