One personal piano – A remarkable bundle of inventions

My piano

It has been said about inheriting upright pianos that they are “1200lb heirloom paperweights”, unless they are kept in tune and get played regularly. Otherwise they are simply large, heavy, awkwardly shaped pieces of furniture, not good as bookcases, nor any good as seating, inclined to make a home for mice and sounding worse than an out-of-tune violin because they are also LOUD. My piano, inherited from my grandmother, is inscribed below the music rack under the fall board – so you see it when it is open and the music rack is up:

“Made Specially for Adolph Mosenthal & Co. Port Elizabeth by F. Geissler”

I think of it as both a very nicely crafted piece of furniture and my favourite piano, and I set out to find out more about it. This is the story of one, personal piano.


There are two clues as to its origins and age; F. Geissler, the maker (sometimes also spelled Geißler], and Adolph Mosenthal & Co, of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, the importer and seller.

I learned to play piano when I was about 6 years old, from my grandmother who was a music teacher, and my father, who had progressed quite far with his violin exams. When my father was born the piano was already in the family home. On this piano I learned to play by ear my first piece of music; Beethoven’s Minuet in G (skipping “Mary had a little lamb” and “Frere  Jacques” altogether) – I played by ear because I stubbornly refused to learn to read notes. Before we moved to Canada in 2011 I had the piano completely restored by W. Heuer Musik Haus in Stellenbosch, South Africa. It has a sweet, smooth, mellow sound and keeps in tune fairly well, despite the high humidity where we live now. The keys are a bit yellowed but they are ivory though there is a tiny ding in one.

Judging from the date that the Geissler piano factory stopped producing pianos (1931), and the time that Adolph Mosenthal’s company stopped operating, (1939), and the period in which my grandmother used the piano to teach music after she got married and before my father was born, I would say it dates from between 1935 and 1937, at the very latest. It is probably older than that – could be pre-1911.

I always thought that there was a face in the burl of the rosewood or walnut veneer of the front panel – a woman’s face looking like a Pre-Raphaelite-style Alphonse Mucha illustration from the Art Nouveau period.

F. Geissler, piano maker

Geissler pianos were made in Zeitz, Germany, an area with many musical instrument manufacturers. The company was in business from 1878 to 1931 and produced about 750 instruments at the turn of the century. They were not in the top tier of German piano makers – and their fame was probably by association.

The F. Geissler firm used a trademark consisting of a unicorn and a crescent moon. No accurate dates of serial numbers are available, however, one example is a Geissler piano numbered “8985” which was marked with tuning dates regularly from 1911 onwards, which suggests that it may have been new then. My piano is marked “4955” which suggests it might be pre-1911, which would be plausible since it coincides with the time that my grandmother was a young piano teacher in the early 1900s.

Zeitz – centre for piano making

Germany, in particular the city of Zeitz, was a prolific manufacturer and exporter of upright pianos. “Germany began the manufacture of upright pianos in preference to the square [piano] about 1835, and discarded the square for good about 1860. During this period the Germans, true to their national character, built much stronger, heavier uprights, than either the French or English, using three strings for each note and applying iron plates for hitch-pins, also iron braces between these plates and the wrest plank [The Wrest Plank of a piano is the thick hardwood plank, generally laminated in layers, which holds the Wrest Pins, or Tuning Pins, in place.] The tone of the uprights of those days had greater volume than the instruments of their contemporaries. The later important export of German pianos had its start at that time because of the superior quality of tone and great durability of the instruments. When the American makers began to pay attention again to the upright piano about 1800 they adopted the now perfected system of overstrung scale and full iron frame, and thereby introduced an instrument which was acceptable, although in tone and touch inferior to the best square pianos.

Germany was quick in adopting the overstrung scale and iron frame for its upright pianos and forced England to do likewise later on by capturing with their superior instruments much foreign trade formerly monopolized by England, while France, Italy and Spain came in last. By the time that the American square piano became extinct (1880), the “American System” was universally adopted for upright pianos. However, even the upright piano of to-day might still be called “a remarkable bundle of inventions.” In its entirety it is an open defiance of all the laws of acoustics and of proper mechanical construction.” (From: Pianos and their Makers, a comprehensive history of the development of the piano from the monochord to the concert grand player piano, by Alfred Dolge, Covina Publishing Company, Covina, California, USA, 1911). Dolge lists F. Geissler as one of the manufacturers in Zeitz.

Zeitz, the location of the F. Geissler firm, is a town in the Burgenlandkreis district, in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. It is situated on the river Weiße Elster, in the triangle of the federal states Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia and Saxony. The Wikipedia page of Zeitz still mentions pianos as one of the highlights of the city’s history, translated here:

“In 1904 began the rapid expansion in Zeitz an electric power supply on the basis of a first 220/440 volt three-wire DC network, which led to a modernization of the drives in industry and crafts and resulted in many start-ups…The Zeitz piano industry, with sometimes 30 different factories, had a great reputation in Germany. The best known were Hölling & Spangenberg (Friedrich Hölling was also called the “doyen of German piano industry”); Albert Fahr; F. Geissler; Schmidt & Suppe; Oscar Gerbstädt; Morenz & Schemelli; E. Rübner & Co.; C. Steudel; Liebig; Krietzsch; and Hupfer & Company. Piano technicians or tuners [“Piano Mechaniken”] included the companies A. Kummer; Gustav Dinger & Söhne [Sons]; and Pfeiffer & Bartsch. In addition, Albert Fahr, for instance, also manufactured [components of] art furniture, such as inlay and veneers for pianos.”

The F. Geissler piano making company

Advertisement for Geissler pianos - note the royal insignias.
Advertisement for Geissler pianos – note the insignia, at the top, left, of the Grand Duchy of Baden (cut off at the bottom) to whom the company was a supplier.

The F. Geissler company, in business for more than 50 years, did not reach the technical or artistic heights of Hölling & Spangenberg or Hupfer in Zeitz, or the famous German makers like Steinway (German-American, originally Steinweg), Bechstein, Bluthner or Bösendorfer. At the same time, their firm was certainly large. Their 50-year brochure (above), shows a large manufacturing complex, and describes the operation as follows:

“Flügel, autopianos, pianos: Geissler sind hochwertige erzeugnisse deutscher Pianobaukunst. Der Name Geissler had sowohl in Fachkreisen als auch beim Privat-publikum einen guten Klang. Begründet liegst derselbe in dem Bestreben, beim Bau der Instrumente die sorgfältigste Auswahl der zur Verwendung gelangenden Materialien zutreffen.

Abgesehen vom technischen Aufbau der wohldurchdachten Konstruktion is die Materialienfrage von ausserordentlicher Wichtigkeit und trägt zur harmonischen Abstimmung des Ganzen, zur Erreichung einer bezaubernden Tonqualität ganz wesentlich bei. Seit 50 Jahren wird in meinen Pianobauwerkstätten nach diesen Richtlinien verfahren. Bewährte Fachleute sorgen für eien ausgeglichene Fabrikation und überwachen eien sorgfältige Herstellung und eine standhafte, hervorragende politur nach neuen modernen Verhahren. Die Intonation eines jeden Pianos und Flügels erfolgt von Meisterhand, so dass in ausgeprägter Weise solide Bauart, ausgezeichnete Stimmhaltung, grosser Wohllaut im Klangcharakter als besondere Kennzeichen hervorzuheben sind.

Die heutigen Mittel und die neuen Wege der Technik, die in einem modernen Fabrikbetriebe nicht fehlen dürfen und auch in meinem Werkstätten zur Verwendung gelangen, ermöglichen es mir, bei allen Vorzügen äusserst preiswert zu sein. Die Güte meines Fabrikantes ist weltbekannt. Verschaffen auch Sie sich daher Stunden der Freude durch einen Geissler.”

“Flutes, player pianos and pianos, pianos: Geissler are quality German Piano manufacturers. The name Geissler has a good reputation in both professional circles and with private audiences. This is substantiated by the effort expended in the construction of instruments, applying the most careful selection and sourcing of materials.

Apart from the technical aspects, the well-thought-out structure of the instruments is the fundamental question which is of exceptional importance and contributes to the harmonious coordination of the whole, to achieve an enchanting sound quality. For 50 years, I [F. Geissler] have managed my piano construction workshops according to these guidelines. Proven professionals provide balanced production and monitoring, careful preparation and a steadfast excellent finishes for new modern instruments. The intonation of each piano and flute is carried by a master hand, so that markedly solid design, excellent tuning stability, and great euphony in sound character should be highlighted as distinguishing features.

The current methods and materials in the industry, which cannot be excluded from a modern factory, and are used in my workshops, allow my instruments to be extremely inexpensive with all the aforementioned advantages. The excellence of my products is world renowned, therefore you also can gain hours of enjoyment with a Geissler instrument.”

The company’s 50th anniversary

A digital version of a newspaper article in the 1928 to 1929 issue of Zeitschrift für Instrumentenbau (Magazine for Musical Instrument Manufacturing), above, in the archives of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, contains an article about the 50th anniversary of F. Geissler and the history of the firm. (Zum 50 jährigen Bestehen der Firma F. Geißler in Zeitz, published by Paul de Wit, Leipzig, No. 1, Vol. 49, Leipzig, Oct. 1, 1928.) It describes how, in 1891, Paul Emmerling became a shareholder in the firm of Franz Geissler, and from there the business grew. The Emmerling family were music-lovers and Paul Emmerling wanted to discover the practical and theoretical secrets of piano-making. A year later Franz Geissler left the company to concentrate on making keyboards, but the company kept the Geissler trademark. They even became purveyors to the Grand Duchy of Baden.

Insignia of the Grand Duchy of Baden
Insignia of the Grand Duchy of Baden

“In Anerkennung verdienstvoller Qualitätsarbeit wurde die Firma F. Geißler bzw. ihr Inhaber u.a. durch Verleihung des großherzoglich badischen unter des königlich rumänischen Hoflieferanten titels geehrt.”(Source: Zeitschrift für Instrumentenbau)

“In recognition of meritorious quality work the company F. Geissler and its owner were honoured by being made royal purveyor to the royal Romanian court of the Grand Duke of Baden.” [The Grand Duchy of Baden was a state in the southwest of Germany on the east bank of the Rhine. It existed between 1806 and 1918.]

Always with a scientific approach and enquiring mind, Paul Emmerling continued developing his pianos to the highest technological levels:

“Hand in Hand mit der zu jenerZeit aufstrebenden Firma Ludwig Hupfeld in Leipzig machte er die ersten Versuche mit einem 36 tönigen Klaviervorsetzer mit der runden Ariston-Notenscheibe.” (Source: Zeitschrift für Instrumentenbau) “Together with the distinguished company Ludwig Hupfeld of Leipzig, Paul Emmerling made the first experiments with a 36-tone Klaviervorsetzer in a player piano.” [A Vorsetzer is a machine that, instead of a human pianist , the key operation of a piano or grand piano takes over. The automated game is music rolls controlled, which are transported by means of vacuum and converted into movements of the key pins. A well-known German manufacturer of such Vorsetzer was the company M. Welte & Söhne] .

Word War I and the end of the Geissler firm

WWI hit the company hard, as it did all industries in Germany, and Paul Emmerling, the founder, died, only 54 years old, and the company was run by operations manager Menzel and Emmerling’s widow, until their son Willy Emmerling returned from a Russian prisoner of war camp after the war. He tried to renew the international relations of the firm for exporting, though could not produce enough pianos to meet the demand due to damage to the factory. Willy Emmerling decided to build a new modern factory next to the old premises from 1923 to 1924 – the most modern, spacious clean and automated of its time. Of course, he could not have predicted the start of WWII in 1939.

 “Der 1. September [1928] is vom Hause Geissler in aller Stille begangen worden..Die Bemühungen der Firma, den Gründungstag der Firma aus amtlichen Archiven einwandfrei zu ermitteln, hatten das gewünschte ergebnis leider zu spät gezeitigt, als daß eine Jubiläumsfeier hätte veranstaltet werden können. Gleichwohl hatten es sich Freude der Firma und des Inhabers nicht nehmen lassen, des freudigen Ereignisses durch Glückwünsche, Blumenspenden und sonstige Angebinde zu gedenken.” (Source: Zeitschrift für Instrumentenbau ) “On the 1st September [1928] the company’s 50th anniversary took place quietly at the Geissler home…However, this had not reduced the delight of the Company and the owners in commemorating the happy event with congratulations, flowers donations and other presentations.”

The publishers wished them 25 more years. Three years later, in 1931, the company closed down.

Adolph Mosenthal & Co.

Geissler pianos ended up all over the world, also in South Africa, which was a British Colony before World War II (the country gained nominal independence from Britain in 1910 when the Union of South Africa was created and full independence with the creation of the Republic of South Africa in 1961.) They were were imported from London by, amongst others, the German-born Mosenthal brothers.

In the Furniture Gazette of Nov. 8, 1879, (The_Furniture_Gazette) Mosenthal, Sons & Co. are listed as exporters from London of furniture, sewing machines, matting, rugs and upholstery – not pianos, but pianos are categorised as furniture as well as musical instruments, as unglamorous as that is. Joseph Mosenthal, the patriarch of the Mosenthal business empire, was born in Hesse-Kassel, Germany, in 1813, and died in Sydenham, England, in 1871. He arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1839 to work as a clerk in the firm of Kilian & Stein, which had its head office Frankfurt, Germany.

The Mosenthal company in South Africa

With his brother Adolph he founded Mosenthal Brothers, Cape Town, and by 1842 had expanded the South African operations to Port Elizabeth, and by 1848 to Graaff-Reinet, South Africa. The third Mosenthal brother, Julius, joined them in early 1850s. Joseph Mosenthal was a prominent member of society, and active in politics. In 1841 he was the founder member of the Cape Town Hebrew congregation, the earliest Hebrew congregation in South Africa.

The Mosenthal company, operating as Mosenthal, Sons & Co., existed in South Africa from 1839 (the UK business from 1854) to 1939 – in other words roughly the same time period as that of F. Geissler. Adolph Mosenthal had six sons, two of whom died in their twenties; Joseph, the youngest, joined Lloyds in London, and Harry (c. 1850 – 1915), George (d. 1912) and William (d. 1933) all played active roles in family business. (Source: Dictionary of SA Biography, Vol. 3 and 4.)

In the 1914 Who’s Who in Business (UK edition), Mosenthal, Sons & Co., are listed as South African Merchants, with premises at 72 Basinghall Street, London, E.C. It states that the company was established about sixty years before (1854) by Adolph Mosenthal and his brother Joseph Mosenthal in London, trading as Joseph Mosenthal & Co. until 1876, when the title was changed to Mosenthal, Sons & Co. The South African business started about seventy-five years previously (1839), and was carried on at various ports and inland towns.

In the South African Indian Who’s Who and Commercial Directory of 1938 to 1940, the Mosenthal firm placed a notice, p. 11, of their centenary celebrations that would have taken place in 1939. (Link to pdf file: Whos_Who_1940_pt1_Preface)

In 1914, the company was run by Adolph Mosenthal’s descendants, Harry Mosenthal, William Mosenthal and Edgar A. H. Mosenthal, and the company had branches in Port Elizabeth (Adolph Mosenthal & Co.); East London (Mosenthal & Co.); Johannesburg, Pretoria and Delagoa Bay (Mosenthal Brothers, Ltd.); Kimberley (Mosenthal Brothers & Co.); and in Buluwayo and Salisbury (now Harare) in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), as the Mosenthal Rhodesia Agency. The South African Head Office was in Port Elizabeth – where the Geissler piano was probably delivered to from Germany and from where it was transported inland to the branch office in Kimberley, where my grandmother’s family lived and where they purchased it.

The Diamond Connection

The company also had branches elsewhere in South Africa. They were general merchants, exporters of goods, dealers in all South African products, and diamond producers as well, being a member of the De Beers Diamond Syndicate. Harry Mosenthal was a contemporary of the Oppenheimer family. He was considered one of South Africa’s mining magnates along with Cecil John Rhodes and C.D. Rudd, when South Africa was still part of the British Empire. He was director of De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd., Consolidated Company Bultfontein Mine, Ltd., Griqualand West Diamond Mining Co. (Dutoitspan Mine), Ltd., Exploration Co., Ltd., and Rand Mines, Ltd. His brother William Mosenthal was a member of the London Committee of the New Jagersfontein Mining and Exploration Co., Ltd. (Source: Mining Tycoons in the Age of Empire, 1870 – 1945, by Raymond E. Dumett, Ashgate Publishing Limited, UK, 2009, pp. 92 – 89)

The Mosenthals were famous for their excellence in distribution and logistics systems, and their businesses spread through South Africa. The pianos were not core business for them – it was just one product of many in their general stores.

Mosenthal credit system in the countryside – first banknotes of firms:  The Mosenthals from Germany, in particular, left a permanent mark on the economy through their initiative and diversity of interests. From bases in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth they set up a chain of trading stations in the interior of the Cape, usually manned by Jewish immigrants whom they had brought out from Germany. They helped to stabilize the rural economy by providing long-term credits to storekeepers and, through them, to farmers, particularly in bad seasons. Before the advent of commercial banking, the firm’s banknotes were widely accepted in the development of banking, the financing of diamond and gold mining, and the establishment of secondary industries in the Cape and Transvaal [provinces].”

Harry Mosenthal and his firm were responsible for introducing Angora goat farming into South Africa from Turkey – an industry that still exists today. (Source: The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History, by William D. Rubinstein, Michael Jolles, Hilary L. Rubinstein, p. 698)

Obviously the Mosenthals thought that the right quality pianos for their clientele and associates included the “technologically and tonally sound” Geissler pianos from their country of origin. Good that they did, because now I have one.