History & Specifications of the Bösendorfer Imperial 290 Piano


    Crafting the Imperial Piano

      Over the recent decade the Bösendorfer factory annual production of pianos has spanned between about five hundred (500) to as few as three-hundred (300) instruments. Among these is the Imperial Model, a limited production and most labor intensive instrument to create. It is crafted in a time consuming process that demands the finest select materials fashioned by expert craftsmen who likely spent a dozen years or more in training before being responsible for aspects of the 290's construction. The wood in this piano was chosen and aged for years before it was selected from stock and formed into this piano. The Sound Board and Rim Case continue to be made of select naturally aged (over years) spruce. This wood continues to be harvested from forests of mountain spruce which has grown at an altitude of 1,000 meters and with a minimum amount of humidity, the same forest from where the famous luthier Antonio Stradavari (b. 1644, d. 1737) chose to fashion his instruments. The trees will be very straight, the sections have absolutely no branches, and the spacing between the tree rings is less than 1 mm. A spruce tree with these qualities produces optimal sound quality.

      Each of these pianos are given exemplary attention by the most highly accomplished craftsmen at Bösendorfer, they are part of a generations-long tradition. The work records for this Imperial piano reveal the components were assembled over a time spanning from late September though October of the following year amounting to at least thirteen (13) months. The factory Work Documents that I have indicate many craftsmen were involved over the phases construction, and numerous sign offs indicate comprehensive quality control and testing steps were being checked off along the process. Thus, when I hear people consider the Bösendorfer to be "the Rolls-Royce of pianos" I appreciate that is pretty much on the mark.

      Special construction design features and techniques result in a very positive influence on the overtones produced when the Imperial piano is played, and these help to create the maximum range of both power and volume. The wider soundboard contributes to its resonance while the bass and tenor strings sustain better, and the sum of the strings contribute to the lush harmonics. The smallest subtle variations in sound are heard across the entire range of the piano with even the highest notes having a resonant bell like quality - lacking the tininess typical of most other pianos in these frequencies.

      As I was advised by the Technical Director of L. Bösendorfer Klavierfabrik GmbH;

        "Because of the additional nine bass strings there is an addiditonal force through the string tension of approximately 15.000 Newton. Besides the higher over all string tension there are also significant acoustical consequences through the additional strings. By playing any chord or even a single note in any register of the piano - part of the tone is always coming from harmonics that are generated from the additional strings. This effect is one of the main reasons for the unique tonal character of the Imperial model."
      Bosendorfer and M 2000

    "My sense of it is almost any piano-playing vocalist who will be the center of attention (Billy Joel, Elton John, etc.) can do well with any number of good grand pianos. However, an accomplished pianist or one who also happens to be be a good vocalist (Tori Amos for example) may deliver a superb performance only with a piano that allows them to convey emotion best, and here the Bösendorfer comes to my mind foremost." Martin

    S/N 44606

      I have a sense that this piano was built with some extra special pride (and the usual care) since it is the first Imperial piano made like this. Imperial instruments made before S/N 44606 were made in the traditional contemporary style and usually were finished with the black Ebony exterior although some were finished with other woods. The Model 290 (S/N 44606) featured on this site is unprecedented in that this was the first Imperial piano produced with Pyramid Mahogany wood and in the ornate fashion popular for pianos made in the late 19th Century by companies Bösendorfer; this piano represents the best of the past and present.

      The elaborate design of this Model 290 instrument is similar to what were provided by Bösendorfer over the mid to late 19th century to: Frédéric Chopin (1 March 1810 - 17 October 1849), Franz Liszt (22 October 1811 - 31 July 1886) whose 187cm Bösendorfer SN 7561 that was played from 1880 until his death can be seen in the composers museum on line at www.lisztmuseum.hu/eng/salon-2.html, Antonín Leopold Dvořák (8 September 1841 - 1 May 1904), and many other famous pianists and composers. At the Johann Strauss museum where he composed "Blue Danube Waltz" (Austria's unofficial national anthem) is his Bösendorfer Baby Grand piano in ebony; Ludwig Bösendorfer commissioned this piano and presented it to his friend in 1896. The Strauss piano bears the opus number 14102 ("Werknummer" 5025), and is Inv. No. 76710 in the collection of the WIEN Museum. Interestingly an 1840's Bösendorfer piano played by Liszt had been on tour across the USA and in the year 2000 it too was placed on public display alongside mine. Although the color tone of the finishes between the pianos differ somewhat, the Mahogany's Pyramid-like grain of the Liszt piano is the same as that of my piano so that when S/N 44606 and the original Liszt are set side by side they match in grain.

      "To my esteemed friend, the most perfect tarot player,
      the great Ludwig Bösendorfer, with pleasant memories"
      Johann Strauss 1897

      L. Bösendorfer GmbH offers these design features as a special order option "Johann Strauss" Model. These are a combination of elements taken from different periods in history and they are reflected in the beautifully carved legs of the Piano and the matching Artist Bench, the ornamental fretwork of the music desk and the decorated inner side of the fallboard. The inner rim is finished in striking Maple wood, and the pedal Lyre is created in the shape of the instrument of the classic Greek period bending the bow to the beginnings of the occidental music culture and the manufacturing of musical instruments in which Bösendorfer plays such an important role. In order to maintain the sense of proportion for the legs, the caster wheels of this Imperial piano are smaller than those of the contemporary Imperial piano, such that these more readily leave their mark on even the best hardwood floor.

      The Pyramid mahogany wood is harvested from controlled, licensed forests in West Africa. The rough "pyramid" sections are sawn from suitable forks in the trees so the veneers made from this wood are beautiful due to the unique smooth cut and the remarkable and decorative pyramid design that reflects light from deep within the grain. The initially light red to reddish-brown color darkens with time to the typically warm mahogany tones with a golden shimmer. All of this combines to assure each instrument is unique and distinguishable from any other that might be made of similar wood.

      The Bösendorfer logo in gold is on the side of the instrument and is also centered on the Fall Board (visible when open) as are typical of the production instruments. However, the Bösendorfer logo on the Fall Board is flanked by gold scroll work and to either side of the logo and scroll are the Austrian doubleheaded Eagle Coat of Arms of the late 19th century Habsburg Monarchy Empire, this is also in gold. While the eagles on this Imperial piano are similar to those on the Strauss piano shown below, one family member was rather shocked when at first glance they confused these Austrian eagles with those of the Nazi Third Reich!

    Bosendorfer at Strauss home.   Liszt Museum Salon 2

    Antonin's piano   Liszt Museum Salon 2 closee up
    Above are some of S/N 44606's ancestors:

    Top left is the ebony Bösendorfer No. 14102 of Johann Strauss in the Salon of the WIEN MUSEUM Johann Strauss Wohnung (residence) at Praterstraße 54, 1020 Vienna.
    Top right is the mahogany 1873 Bösendorfer No. 7561 of Franz Liszt displayed in Salon 2 of the Liszt Ferenc Memorial Museum in Budapest, Hungary. Below is close up view.
    And lower left is the mahogany 1879 Bösendorfer of Antonín Leopold Dvořák at the Antonín Dvořák Museum of villa America in Prague, Czech Republic.
    Click on either image to see an enlarged view

    Background: The Bösendorfers

      Ignaz Bosendorfer Ignaz Bösendorfer was born in Vienna (Wein) on 28 July 1796 just as the Archduchy of Austria, one of the most important states within the Holy Roman Empire, was undergoing dramatic changes. By this time Vienna had already been established as the centre of the musical world influenced by the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert all who lived during his lifetime.

      Left: Ignaz Bösendorfer (1796-1859). Lithograph in 1859 by Josef Kriehuber (1800-1876).
      From the archives of the Austrian National Library, Vienna.
      Click on image to see enlarged view.

      Bösendorfer grew up and prospered in a Vienna that remained the center of the Habsburg Monarchy and later the capital of the Austrian Empire. He was the son of a master carpenter and in time he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, a school well regarded for its education of painters, sculptors and architects. Ignaz gradually became respected for his musicality and technical competence, and as such in 1815 was sent to the work for the well-known piano builder Joseph Brodmann (b. 1763, d. 13 May 1848).

      Brodmann began his career in the carpentry trade then in 1783 came to Vienna to work as an apprentice of the well known piano builder Frederick Hoffmann. So Ignaz would represent at least a third generation of experienced craftsmen making pianos and organs. Working for the Brodmann company since age 19 he learned about the trade and about it's business aspects. After more than a dozen years working there, with 500 Gulden Ignaz acquired Brodmann's workshops and the Bösendorfer piano company was established on 25 July 1828.

      Under Ignaz leadership the company developed many innovations that put the Bösendorfer name on the world map of of musical instruments makers and later on the forefront of piano technology. Pianists who came to reply on his pianos included Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner, Franz Liszt, Anton Rubinstein and Hans von Bülows. Bösendorfer became a benefactor of new and coming talent, and pianists become friends and customers of Bösendorfer. By the mid 1800's the company had outgrown its original location and construction of a new facility in Vienna commenced. But Ignaz would not live to see it completed as he died on 14 April 1859 in Vienna.

      "The perfection of a Bösendorfer exceeds my most ideal expectations..." Franz Liszt
      Ludwig Bosendorfer Ignaz son Ludwig Bösendorfer was born on 28 July 1835 in Vienna. Ludwig came to work for his father after studying from 1850 to 1852 at the Imperial-Royal Polytechnic Institute (now Wiener Polytechnischen Institut), one of the major universities in Vienna. After the death of his father in 1859 Ludwig headed the operations just as the new Schottentor factory came on line. Notable improvements to piano technology continued to be developed including in 1859 the design of improved piano action mechanism that permitted a higher speed of the hammer head. Bösendorfer introduced the cast iron frame and overstrung scale (cross-stringing) that contribute significantly to the brilliant and yet supple Bösendorfer sound. By 1866 Ludwig was earning the formal appreciation of the monarchy with titles including Supplier of the Court (Hoflieferantentitel). The Bösendorfer pianos earned high acclaim at World Fairs, and soon the Russian Tsar and the Japanese Emperor Meiji owned Bösendorfer pianos.

      Right: Ludwig Bösendorfer (1835-1919). Lithograph in 1864 by József Marastoni (1834-1895).
      From the archives of the Austrian National Library, Vienna.
      Click on image to see enlarged view.

      In 1870 Bösendorfer expanded to even larger production facilities that remain as current headquarters at Graf Starhemberg Gasse 14 in Vienna. In 1872 a concert by Hans von Bülow inaugurated the original "Bösendorfer Hall" a concert hall that became famous for its excellent acoustics that would be visited by many famous artists until it was demolished in 1913. In 1889 the first winner of the Bösendorfer Piano Competition was awarded a premium piano, a traditional competition that continues to this day!

      Ignaz became acquainted with an even larger circle of world class pianists and conductors including Anton Bruckner, Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, and Gustav Mahler. But it was composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni who suggested Bösendorfer develop what would become the Imperial Bösendorfer piano.

    The Model 290 Piano Developed

      Ferrucio Busoni (58,046 bytes) The first conceptual Imperial model piano was built in 1892 following a suggestion by composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni. Busoni was by then also famous for his transcriptions and revised editions of works by Johann S. Bach. While working on a Bach composition Passacaglia in C minor that features bass notes deeper than those that could be reproduced by pianos of the time, Busoni suggested that a Bösendorfer piano be made to simulate Bach's thirty-two foot tall organ pipes. After refining the prototype the Bösendorfer Model 290 grand piano entered production status in 1900 and remains distinguished as the first and the premier concert grand to have a full eight octave compass keyboard with ninety-seven (97) keys including nine sub-bass pitch notes providing a span of from 4183 Hz down to subcontra C at 16 Hz. For comparison consider conventional concert grand pianos provide eight-eight (88) keys spanning 27.5 to 4186 Hz. These extra keys of the Imperial keyboard are topped in black to distinguish them to the performer.

      Right: Ferruccio Busoni, b. 1866 d. 1924. Image courtesy Library of Congress (image 58,046 bytes).
      Click on image to see enlarged view (110,502 bytes).

      The extended range enables the performance of some compositions originally scored for the Organ by composers including Bach, Bartók, Debussy, and Ravel. For example Busoni's Piano Concerto in C major, Opus 39* of 1904 was written to be accurately performed only on the Imperial piano.

      * I recommend you listen to this piano concerto performed on a Bösendorfer Imperial piano on the CD Busoni Piano Concerto recorded 4 February 1989 by Garrick Ohlsson with the Cleveland Orchestra and Mens Chorus. This is Telarc CD-80207. The music is beautifully written, brilliantly played by Ohlsson, and with the orchestra and Men's Chorus conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi they (with Telarc engineers) may have accomplished the best recorded performance of this Concerto. The third movement in particular really shows off the commanding tones of the piano's bass register. However, as well done as is this performance I counsel no audio or computer system can truly reproduce the moving experience of listening live in the presence of an Imperial.

      "At'sa some'a mighty fine'a piano" probably said by Ferrucio Busoni

      Ludwig Bösendorfer married twice but had no children. So at age 74 in 1909, Bösendorfer sold the company Karl Hutterstrasser, a Viennese banker. The changing face of Vienna impacted Ignaz, and the outbreak of "The War To End All Wars" disheartened him further. On 9 May 1919 Ludwig Bösendorfer died in Vienna.

      The intent of this site is not to provide a concise history of the company, but to put into context the establishment of the company and the development of the Imperial Model 290 instruments. For more information about the recent history of the company as I came to know it please refer to my discussion about recent history at L. Bösendorfer Klavierfabrik GmbH on my links page.

    Many composers have been inspired by the extraordinary range and expressiveness of this piano. Among the works that sparkle on the Imperial are:

    • Béla Bartók
        Piano Concerto No. 2
        Piano Concerto No. 3

    • Ferruccio Busoni
        Piano Concerto in C major, Opus 39
        Several other original compositions
        J.S. Bach Transcriptions

    • Claude Debussy
        La Cathédrale Egloutie

    • Ernst von Dohnányi
        Piano Concerto (devoted to the first Bösendorfer Piano Competition 1889)

    • Frank Martin
        Piano Concerto No. 2

    • Modest Mussorgsky
        Pictures at an Exhibition: The Great Gates Of Kiev

    • Maurice Ravel
        Jeu d'Eau
        Scarbo (Gaspard de la nuit)

    • Roger Sessions
        Piano Sonata No. 2

    • Ralph Vaughn Williams
        Piecesfor Pianos

    • Richard Wagner
        Parsifal: Bells of the Grail

    To find performances that have been recorded by on CD or DVD with the Imperial 290 piano and that are published for sale visit The Bösendorfer Music Library. This resource is hosted at the web site of L. Bösendorfer Klavierfabrik GmbH. This link will bring up dozens of listings sorted with the most recently released titles first, illustrations of the cover and information about the content.

    Common Experiences of Performers

      But beside the incredible span of the piano in frequency the true key to the success of the instrument is how clear and expressive it can sound throughout that expanse. One of our guest pianists was surprised and amazed when she walked in the room to find an Imperial in a home since she had only come across them in the finest large venues. She had not arrived late in the day shortly before the concert was to begin, so she had not the opportunity to become acquainted as she would routinely do to get the sense of a piano and the venue. When she began to play it was obvious to all that she was really enjoying the experience as was the audience, on the recorded audio tracks she could be heard to say "wonderful! I've never heard that so clearly before on any other piano". Later she commented with a grin how the piano distracted her - she really found herself lost in the music experience!

      After concluding Schumann's Kinderszenen Op. 15 - Träumerei pianist Sydney Yin commented to the audience how he played this composition slower than his usual tempo since he was so enjoying the sustained music generated by the Imperial. It is amazing to see how this song, such a comparatively simple piece of music for the gifted pianists who have played it at my home, so moves the audiences.

      "Most whom have performed on the Model 290 comment afterwards
      this is the most expressive piano they have ever played."

    Bösendorfer Model 290 Piano Specifications

    Model 290 Piano profile

      Length Overall 290 cm | 9 ft 6 in.
      Width Overall 168 cm | 5 ft 9 in.
      Number Of Keys Ninety-Seven (97)
      Number Of Strings Two Hundred Fourty Nine (249)
      Weight* 570 kg | 1,255 lb.
      My Piano Room Ambient Temperature 71° F ±1° | 22° C ±0.6°
      Piano Room Ambient Humidity 45% ±5%
      * the CEUS system installed in 2009 added about 136 kg | 300 lbs.
          The Strings are arranged either three, two or one string each per Hammer.
          From the Treble, down through Mid to Bass this arrangement is:

          • 18 x 3 = 54
          • 17 x 3 = 51
          • 17 x 3 = 51
          • 19 x 3 = 57
          • 10 x 2 = 20
          • 16 x 1 = 16

          Total = 249 Strings

    Shipping Crate (Flügelkiste) Length Overall 3,210 mm | 10 ft 6.4 in.
    Shipping Crate Height Overall 1,950 mm | 6 ft 4.8 in.
    Depth Overall (Maximum) 580 mm | 22.83 in.
    Weight Of Piano Crated (without CEUS) 720 kg | 1,584 lbs.
    Piano Crate Drawing Sm
    Above: Shipping Crate (Flügelkiste) made by the factory to ship
    the Imperial Piano. The Bench and Legs are crated separately.
    Click on image to see an enlarged view

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