I played the piano for many years, until I finally acknowledged that I was never going to be a particularly good pianist. Still, piano music and pianos themselves retain a fond place in my heart. France has produced some of the best pianos in the world throughout the history of the instrument, Érard and Pleyel, for example, but these names are not well known in North America. I first came across the name Pleyel in Thad Carhart’s charming memoir about cracking the secret codes of Parisian society, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier.
Pleyel pianos were recently featured on the French news in a report on the top of the luxury market. After 200 years of history, Pleyel was all but dead in the face of competition from Japanese companies from names like Yamaha. To breathe new life into the venerable firm, Pleyel has been teaming with noted designers for their custom made pianos. On the news, they showed one that was designed by Hilton McConnico (an American born designer who has lived in France for almost 50 years). The beautiful instrument was destined for a yacht. Imagine how the humidity would wreak havoc with the tuning! Another beauty was heading off to a New York penthouse. Focusing on a totally custom market saved the company. A Pleyel made sur mesure could cost you up to 250,000 Euros. Thanks to this niche market, Pleyel is not only back from the brink, but it’s hiring and training young apprentices in the fine art of piano making.
The phrase for a grand piano in French is un piano à queue ( uhn pee-an-oh ah kuh). Une queue has various meanings in French, but here it means “a tail.” I love the imagery of a piano with a tail. Maybe Pleyel would like to try a custom piano with a literal tail to create a visual pun. Well, perhaps such an image is best left to the imagination.