The Hindenburg’s Aluminum Piano

by Dan Grossman on June 5, 2010

The Hindenburg's Piano (click all photos to enlarge).  Photo courtesy Julius Blüthner Pianofortefabrik.

The Hindenburg’s Piano (click all photos to enlarge). Photo courtesy Julius Blüthner Pianofortefabrik.

The Hindenburg featured the first piano ever to be carried on a passenger aircraft.

To meet the strict weight limits of a lighter-than-air dirigible, the Zeppelin company commissioned the renowned piano making firm of Julius Blüthner to create a lightweight aluminum alloy piano, and the Julius Blüthner Pianofortefabrik created a small grand piano that weighed only 162 kg (356 lbs).  The frame, rim, fallboard, and top lid were made of duralumin, and the legs, back bracing, and lyre were made of hollow duralumin tubing.

Associated Press reporter Louis P. Lochner, who was a passenger on Hindenburg’s maiden voyage to the United States, commented that the piano had a “particularly large and full tone” despite its aluminum construction.

Franz Wagner at Hindenburg's Piano, with Dr. Rudolf Blüthner-Haessler to his left in the corner, and Captain Ernst Lehmann to his right.

Franz Wagner at Hindenburg’s Piano, with Dr. Rudolf Blüthner-Haessler to his left in the corner, and Captain Ernst Lehmann to his right. Photo courtesy Julius Blüthner Pianofortefabrik.

The external appearance of the piano was designed by architect Fritz August Breuhaus, who was responsible for Hindenburg’s interior design and decoration. The piano was covered with pale pigskin, which was not only lightweight but also gave the piano a warm appearance that matched the tonal qualities of the instrument.

Lounge of the Hindenburg, as completed (left) and under construction.  Zeppelin chief designer Ludwig Dürr standing at right of photo, with Professor Franz Wagner at the piano and Captain Ernst Lehmann to Wagner's right

Lounge of the Hindenburg (left).  Lounge under construction (right); Zeppelin chief designer Ludwig Dürr standing, at right of photo, Professor Franz Wagner at the piano, Captain Ernst Lehmann to Wagner’s right

The piano was located in Hindenburg’s Lounge on A Deck, where it was frequently played by passengers and the ship’s musical captain, Ernst Lehmann, who had earlier entertained passengers on the Graf Zeppelin with his accordion.

NBC Radio broadcaster Max Jordan, with Franz Wagner at the piano

NBC Radio broadcaster Max Jordan, with Franz Wagner at the piano.  Photo courtesy Julius Blüthner Pianofortefabrik.

The Blüthner piano was a prominent feature of the Hindenburg’s first flight to America, during which Dresden pianist Professor Franz Wagner gave several concerts for the passengers, playing classical music by Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, and Brahms as well as popular music.

Also on the flight was Dr. Rudolf Blüthner-Haessler, of the Blüthner piano company, who was traveling to America with his company’s latest creation.

As the Hindenburg approached the coast of North America on the last night of the voyage, NBC radio reporter Max Jordan directed a live broadcast during which Professor Wagner played Schubert’s Serenade and Strauss’s Blue Danube, and accompanied Lady Suzanne Wilkins who sang “I’m in the Mood for Love.”

The piano also played a large role in the 1975 film “The Hindenburg” by director Robert Wise, which featured a satirical political concert by passenger Joseph Spah (played by Robert Clary) and a fictional character called Reed Channing (played by Peter Donat).

"The Hindenburg" (1975)

“The Hindenburg” (1975)

The concert was pure poetic license, and the piano was not even aboard the Hindenburg on the ship’s final flight.  The piano was removed before the beginning of the 1937 season and taken to the Blüthner factory, where it was placed on display.  The piano was destroyed in 1943 when the factory burned following an air raid during the Second Word War.

UPDATE April 1, 2013:  I posted a short film in which you can hear the sound of the Hindenburg’s piano.

The author would like to express his deep appreciation to the Julius Blüthner Pianofortefabrik, and in particular to Ms. Carolin Voigt, for their assistance with this article.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Bruce Meyer June 22, 2015 at 4:55 pm

Hindenburg piano question: I was told by an elderly person visiting the NJ aviation museum where I give tours, that the Hindenburg’s piano was in the USA (we have other pieces from the airship). He gave me the name of a small town in Maine and the road of the residence where it was located. It just so happens that I know the town, and the road matches – but It is a long road with many residences. “Destroyed in the bombing” has covered for a lot of misplaced artifacts. Do you think it may be possible? – or perhaps the replica from the movie is out there somewhere. Going door to door looking for an aluminum piano will not exactly help my image in town.

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Dan Grossman July 1, 2015 at 2:05 pm

The piano flew back to Germany on the last flight of 1936, so it could not be in the USA.

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Rodney Drew November 5, 2014 at 4:36 pm

Having just purchased a 134 year Blüthner, I have found your research
invaluable.

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Dagmara Lizlovs February 7, 2015 at 9:56 pm

I hope you are enjoying your 134 year old Blüthner. Although one of my favorite composers, Sergei Rachmaninoff, was a Steinway Artist, I had read that he had this comment: “There are only two things which I took with me on my way to America…my wife and my precious Blüthner”.

I have always debated which piano I liked better and it was between the pure clear tone of the Steinway and the rich, deep tone of the Bösendorfer. Then I checked out some recordings done on the Blüthner, and I just loved it.

The “particularly large and full tone” of the Hindenburg piano that was noted by Associated Press reporter Louis P. Lochner, was most likely due to the aliquot stringing invented by Julius Blüthner in 1873. More on aliquote stringing here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aliquot_stringing

In my post to the April 1, 2013 update where Dan posted a short film of the sound of the Hindenburg piano, I’ve gone into a lot more details. Here again are some nice links to recordings done on a Blüthner piano:

After listening to these two recordings, I’ve been won over to the Blüthner –

The Chopin Nocturne in E minor (which was one of my favorite recital pieces when I was in high school) on this restored 1909 Blüthner:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6KoKIGEtVrM

And this delightful excerpt from a Schubert Sonata:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMObNWpgBgg

Here I believe the Blüthner is better suited to these works than either the Steinway or the Bösendorfer.

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Julian Weaver June 13, 2014 at 5:29 am

I don’t know whether you ever followed this up but I am conducting research at the BBC next week and will take a look.

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Dan June 13, 2014 at 8:01 pm

That’s great!

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Kristina Richards April 18, 2013 at 11:27 am

Dear Mr. Grossman,

I believe you spoke with my predecessor, Carolin Voigt, about the aluminium Blüthner. I have seen this site many times and must commend you on what an excellent resource this is. Of course, we in Leipzig are now dying to know where you found this film footage!

Best regards,
Kristina Richards

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Dan April 22, 2013 at 5:09 pm

I have many old zeppelin films but I have only recently begun to digitize them. I am glad you enjoyed the film and many thanks again to everyone at Blüthner!

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Mark Klausen October 31, 2012 at 12:24 am

The prop piano in the photograph from the 1975 movie bears very little resemblance to the original. As usual, film makers spend very little time researching their subjects. How hard could it be to just make it appear the same as the original?

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BonnieLee December 18, 2011 at 3:18 am

I am in possession of what I am told is a nightclub stroller. A small piano that is missing the top and bottom octaves. It is lightweight due to an aluminum interior. I was told they were made during WWII. I am looking for more information on the piano.
BonnieLee

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George Mitchell September 27, 2010 at 8:36 am

This is the first piano I have ever heard like this, but this is amazing.

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Karl September 15, 2010 at 4:13 am

This is the first piano like this that I have heard of being made by Bluthner.

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Patrick Russell January 27, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Outstanding! Great work, Dan. Glad you were able to get in touch with the Blüthner folks about this.

Now if we could only find a recording of that concert broadcast from ’36!

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Dan (Airships.net) January 27, 2010 at 4:30 pm

The broadcast also included speeches by Dr. Eckener and several passengers, including United Press reporter Webb Miller, so it would be fascinating to hear!

It is occasionally rebroadcast on the BBC and so I thought about contacting them (and possibly NBC as well), but I don’t know who to contact at either company.

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George Timcke January 30, 2010 at 8:46 am

Dear Dan,

I have heard part of a piano recital given on the Hindenburg in flight, broadcast by BBC Radio 3 – or, since it was about twenty years ago, probably by BBC Radio Three as it then was. Curiously it is Benno Moiseiwitsch who has remained in my memory as the pianist. Probably I am wrong, but maybe more than one performance was recorded. To hear the performance (or performances) again, I suggest that you should contact BBC Radio 3. I do not know the ideal person to contact, but you could do worse than ask Iain Burnside, who is not only an excellent broadcaster but also a fine professional pianist and a most obliging fellow. (For example, he was quick to remedy what I saw as an omission in his recent broadcast of famous Canadian musicians, by playing a song sung by the lovely Deanna Durbin, the following week, on his ‘Sunday Morning’ programme –and that on a station that is nominally devoted to classical music, jazz and serious drama.) His e-mail address is burnside@bbc.co.uk and it may – I stress may – help to mention my name.

Your website gets better and better; I am particularly grateful for the photographs of LZ130.

Did my observations about the Hindenburg’s dining tables make any sense?

Regards and thanks,
George Timcke

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