In 1854, two brilliant idealists, Henry Mason and Emmons Hamlin, founded the Mason & Hamlin Company in Boston, Massachusetts, the birthplace of American piano design and manufacturing. Although their backgrounds and interests were very different, the two men shared a common goal: to make the world’s finest musical instruments.
Although the company was started with very little capital, the two owners were determined to make only the very best instruments, even if there were very few produced. Fortunately, the combination of limited production and great attention to detail paid off, and the company and its products were instantly successful and in great demand. Arthur Loesser summed up their success in his book, Men,Women and Pianos, A Social History: “Mason & Hamlin…soon became and remained the foremost in the field.”
From the organ harmonium, the company graduated to the American Cabinet Organ, a product that would earn Mason & Hamlin 1st prize at the Paris Exhibition of 1867. The fact that a small American company won the top prize over its much larger, more established European competitors astounded the music world. The fact that they continued to win year after year was even more astounding. It wasn’t long before Mason & Hamlin had established a worldwide reputation for excellence.
In 1881, the company decided to branch out into making pianos. Following traditions established in making its organs, Mason & Hamlin built its pianos with the very finest materials—slowly and meticulously, with great attention to even the smallest detail. Wisely, it also hired brilliant designers. Among them was Richard W. Gertz, a genius who contributed many innovations to the piano industry, including the Duplex Scale, screw stringer and the Tension Resonator, a remarkable device that was designed to maintain the crown of the soundboard for the life of a piano.
With Mason & Hamlin’s innovations, use of only the finest materials and expert craftsmanship, its pianos were the world’s costliest to produce and widely accepted as the world’s finest.
The Golden Age of the Piano
By the turn of the century, the Golden Age of the Piano was in full force and the most illustrious concert artists of the day aligned themselves with piano manufacturers. Mason & Hamlin was at the forefront, and great virtuosos, including Sergei Rachmaninoff, endorsed Mason & Hamlin pianos.
In 1909, Etude Magazine reported on Mason and Hamlin artist Harold Bauer, the only piano virtuoso who was originally a concert violinist. Although Bauer maintained his interest in the violin, he had such great technical ability as a pianist and such a remarkable gift for interpretation on the piano, that it became his instrument and the brand he preferred was Mason & Hamlin, of which he wrote: “The Mason and Hamlin pianos represent the most perfect example of the piano maker’s art. They are the most supremely beautiful instruments that I know.”
Bauer wasn’t alone in his love for Mason & Hamlin pianos. Composer Maurice Ravel chose Mason & Hamlin pianos for his first tour of America. Of them he said: “While preserving all the qualities of the percussion instrument, the Mason & Hamlin pianoforte also serves magnificently the composer’s concept by its extensive range in dynamics, as well as quality of tone. It is not short of being a small orchestra. In my opinion, the Mason & Hamlin is a real work of art.”
Great pianists weren’t the only artists endorsing Mason & Hamlin pianos. Many of the opera world’s greatest stars spoke on their behalf. Anna Case was an American-born singer who debuted with the Metropolitan Opera at the age of 20 and sang her first solo role six months later. She was in fact the first American singer at the Met who had no European training or international reputation. She was a brilliant star there and remained at the opera house from 1909 to 1920. During her incredible career she endorsed the Mason & Hamlin piano.
One of the world’s most famous violinists was the American Yehudi Menuhin. In 1924, at the age of 7, Menuhin made his public debut. The child prodigy astounded the classical world with his artistry, and in 1935 he undertook his first world tour playing in 73 cities in 13 countries. The Mason and Hamlin archives include many letters from Menuhin extolling the virtues of his Mason & Hamlin pianos: “Among all pianos none compares with the Mason & Hamlin in beauty and grace of tone, or in mellowness and softness and yet in bigness, or in anything that a sensitive and, as it were, human piano should have." At one time. Menuhin had five Mason & Hamlin grand pianos in his West Coast home.
In 1929, the stock market crash brought on the Great Depression—an era when things like pianos became luxury items that were out of reach for most Americans. Mason & Hamlin continued to produce pianos, but the company underwent several changes of ownership during this period until it became, in 1930, part of the giant Aeolian American Piano Company. World War II brought the American piano industry to a halt, since basic piano building materials like iron had to used for the war effort. Mason & Hamlin turned from making pianos to building airplane gliders. This continued until the end of the war.
Beginning in 1945, Mason & Hamlin pianos were made in the Aeolian American plant in East Rochester, New York. Between 1983 and 1995, Mason & Hamlin changed ownership several times. In 1995, the company that owned Mason & Hamlin was forced to file for bankruptcy and close its doors.
In 1996, one of the most successful businesses in the piano industry was PianoDisc, a manufacturer of computerized player systems for acoustic pianos. Gary and Kirk Burgett, PianoDisc’s owners, were longtime fans of Mason & Hamlin pianos. When they heard that the company was for sale in bankruptcy court they put in a bid to buy it. The court ruled in their favor.
Just like Henry Mason and Emmons Hamlin, the Burgett brothers brought unique and diverse experience and interests to their partnership. Gary was a pianist and music educator, with a degree in piano performance from Bob Jones University. Kirk has had over 25 years experience as a piano rebuilder and technician. He holds the prestigious rank of Certified Tuning Examiner in the Piano Technicians Guild. In 1979, the two went into partnership as piano retailers. In 1988, they started PianoDisc, which rapidly became America’s best-selling player piano system.
With the purchase of Mason & Hamlin, the Burgetts realized a lifelong dream. Their enthusiasm for vintage Mason & Hamlins motivated them to rebuild the company and restore the Mason & Hamlin name. Their manufacturing and marketing savvy made them uniquely qualified to succeed, and they set about to do just that.
Their first step was to use sophisticated computer software programs to archive original Mason & Hamlin company scale designs, jigs, fixtures and templates. Preserving these important company assets was paramount. Then they invested millions of dollars in high-tech computer controlled machinery and equipment to increase efficiency and productivity in the factory. Next they found experienced craftsmen and began making the new Mason & Hamlin pianos.
Wisely, the Burgetts retained many important original features and designs (including Richard Gertz’s Tension Resonator), and by incorporating technological advances made in piano manufacturing during the last few decades, they not only recreated the Golden Age Mason & Hamlin pianos, but in many ways improved on them.
Word spread quickly that the new Mason & Hamlin pianos had more in common with the old ones than their name. The new instruments received rave reviews in many music magazines and books. In his book The Piano, author John-Paul Williams wrote, “under new and committed ownership, every part of the company has been revitalized and, in 2002, Mason & Hamlin pianos are near-perfect reproductions of the very best early twentieth-century models.”
From a Downbeat magazine review: ”Mason & Hamlin’s Model BB Semi Concert grand plays with the consistency and response of the finest concert grand pianos.” In just a few short years, Mason & Hamlin pianos have returned to the concert stage, prestigious music schools, recording studios, conservatories and homes across America. History has indeed repeated itself and Mason & Hamlin is back—still the costliest piano to produce, still the choice of discriminating musicians and still the world’s finest piano.
In 1854, Henry Mason and Emmons Hamlin joined forces to create a company with a single vision: to build the finest musical instruments in the world. Today, Mason & Hamlins’ vision is the same, and the standards of quality that were established one hundred and fifty years ago continue to guide a new generation of piano makers.
Henry Mason was a member of one of America’s oldest families—they were actually descendents of pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower. The Masons were renowned for their involvement in the arts. Henry Mason was a pianist and his brother, William, was one of America’s foremost classical pianists and composer. Their father was the famous composer and educator Lowell Mason, a visionary who was the first to bring music into the public schools of America. He was also known throughout the world as a composer and publisher of hymns, and is often called the “father of American church music.” Henry Mason shared his father’s lifelong dedication to music.
Emmons Hamlin was not a musician, but instead a brilliant mechanic and inventor. While working at the melodeon factory of George A. Price and Company of Buffalo, Hamlin invented a way to voice organ reeds, so that they could imitate the sound of a clarinet, violin or other musical instruments. Hamlin developed his discovery to perfection, and in 1854, he and Henry Mason formed their company for the purpose of manufacturing a new musical instrument that they called the “organ harmonium.”