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France

Swan song for iconic French pianos by Pleyel

© Photo: AFP

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2013-11-14

Two hundred years after its founding, the illustrious French piano maker Pleyel – made famous by the likes of Chopin – is closing shop, unable to compete with the manufacturing crescendo coming from the developing world.

Pleyel, France’s most famous piano brand, is bowing out two centuries after its founding. Treasured and touted by the likes of Chopin, Franz Liszt, Claude Debussy, Edvard Grieg, Maurice Ravel and others, Pleyel pianos will no longer be made, the company confirmed on Tuesday.

Company president Bernard Roques told French media that its workshop in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis, which employs 14 people, was shutting its doors after “repeated financial losses and a very low level of production”.

“A first effort to maintain at least part of our production was unsuccessful. Given our level of stocks of finished products, sales will continue. New efforts [to keep the brand alive] will be looked into,” Roques said in a statement.

The folding of a brand so closely linked to France’s cultural “exceptionalism” and its tradition of high-end manufacture has prompted dismay.

“Of course I learned the news with a heavy heart,” said Jean-Jacques Trinques, author of a book on the history of Pleyel pianos,  whose grandfather was an apprentice in Pleyel’s original 55,000 square-metre plant in Saint-Denis in the 1920s. He told FRANCE 24, “There has not been a large-scale factory for years, but the sadness comes from the death of a symbol.”

Long decline

According to Trinques, the closing of the remaining workshop is the latest, sad chapter in the long Pleyel drama.

The company went belly-up in the early 1930s following the infamous Black Tuesday stock market crash in 1929. It was later revived by investors who, Trinques said, were always more interested in claiming royalties from the illustrious name than improving the quality of its instruments.

Starting in the1960s the firm passed through several hands, moving operations to Germany for more than two decades. It eventually merged with competing French piano brands Gaveau and Érard and reopened a factory in southeast France.

In 2000, tech mogul Hubert Martigny bought all three piano brands with the dream of returning Pleyel to its past greatness. But competition from Japan, as well emerging China and South Korea, proved too stiff for a production line that requires over 1,000 work-hours and about 20 specialised craftsmen for a single instrument.

Moving back to Saint-Denis in 2007, Martigny scaled down production to just a few re-issued piano models and personalised designs for a limited clientele.

What future for Pleyel?

“Martigny kept the business going simply for his own pleasure,” Pleyel historian Trinques said via telephone from his piano store in the southern town of Foix. Earlier this year Martigny sold off his pet project to investor Didier Calmels who, it seems, finally threw in the towel this month.

The Pleyel's legacy to France and to classical music is such that its workshop’s closing will not erase the brand from memory.

Paris’ metro system includes a stop called Pleyel Carrefour, near where the original plant stood in Saint-Denis. Salle Pleyel remains one of the leading concert venues in Paris.

The brand was strongly associated with Chopin, whose passion for its pianos was such that he struck a sponsorship deal similar to those between sports stars and apparel companies today;  when in Paris, he played exclusively Pleyel pianos in Salle Pleyel. In return, the composer always had free instruments at his disposal.

Trinques wonders if the iconic piano can return from the grave but worries about what it might look like if it does.

“I hope the pianos can be built once more in France,” he said. But he also dreads the possibility of a Pleyel piano resurfacing “with a Made in China sticker" glued to its underside.

Date created : 2013-11-13

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