PETROF: Europe’s largest maker of acoustic pianos
Czech piano manufacturer PETROF is unquestionably one of Czechia’s best known brands. The company, based in the town of Hradec Králové, produced its first piano already in 1864. Today PETROF is the largest manufacturer of acoustic pianos in Europe and their instruments are played by musicians all over the world, among them Billie Eilish or Paul McCartney.
The company was founded in 1864 in Hradec Králové by Antonín Petrof, who trained as a cabinet maker in his father’s workshop. The fact that he turned into a piano maker was most likely due to chance.
A local choir master is said to have asked his father to repair his old furniture. He sent his son to inspect the job but his attention was immediately drawn to the choirmaster’s piano.
Ivana Petrofová is a great-great-granddaughter of Antonín Petrof and head of the Petrof Museum in Hradec Králové, located in the former factory in close proximity to the Cathedral of the Holy Ghost:
“Antonín followed his uncle to Vienna to learn how to make pianos. After five years he became a certified piano builder. He then took a job at two renowned Austrian companies, Schweighoffer and Egrbar, to further his knowledge and learn more about company management.”
At the age of 25, Antonín Petrof returned to his hometown and converted his father’s joinery workshop into a piano manufacture. In 1864, he built his very first grand piano, equipped with the so-called Viennese mechanics. A year later, Antonín Petrof was granted a trade licence and officially established his piano-making business. He secured his financial situation by marrying Maria Götzová, the daughter of a wealthy Hradec Králové tanner. She stood by his side and supported him not only in family life, but also in the company as a skilled proxy and her husband’s representative.
Her dowry also enabled the firm to move to larger premises. In the 1870s Antonín Petrof purchased the land and a former inn on the outskirts of the town and built a new factory there called Na Brně, says Ivana Petrofová.
“Antonín started out with six employees and gradually recruited others, giving them the opportunity to learn the trade and work their way up.
“He soon managed to rival the competition in Vienna. In 1874, the company launched production of harmoniums and in 1883 it started assembling upright pianos.”
From the very beginning, quality was the main focus of Fortepiano Fabrikation, as the company was called at the time. Antonín Petrof was also a pioneer in technological innovations. He started using a steam engine and was one of the first Czech entrepreneurs to introduce electric lighting in his workshops.
He was also the first in Austria-Hungary to fit his pianos with cast-iron full-panel frames. The strings were much easier to fit and tune, which also improved the overall sound of the instrument.
The company produced its own keyboards and mechanics and even had its own sawmill, becoming completely independent of suppliers. In 1880, Petrof opened a subsidiary in Timisoara in what was then Hungary and a sales office and warehouse in Vienna.
Petrof gradually took over small rival businesses in the region, including that of his uncle, who once taught him the trade. Ivana Petrofová again:
“In 1899 an order for a piano came from the Imperial Court. Based on the company’s fame, which had by then spread all over Europe, Antonín Petrof was appointed the sole supplier to the court and was also granted the title of a secret cabinet minister.”
In the first decade of the 20th century, the three sons of the Petrof family joined the company. With around 250 people, it had become the largest manufacturer of pianos in Austria-Hungary. Among the artists who spread its fame was one of the most famous Czech composers Gustav Mahler.
“In 1914 the company celebrated its 50th anniversary. By that time, it had produced 30,000 instruments. There was a huge celebration in Hradec Králové to mark the occasion.
“The last of the 30,000 instruments produced was delivered to Konopiště Castle as a present to the heir to the imperial throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este.”
The Archduke’s assassination, just a few months later, set in motion the events that led to the start of the First World War. With more than a third of employees conscripted, the company was forced to significantly scale down its operation.
After his parents’ death in 1915, the youngest son Vladimír took over the company and after the end of the war, he was joined by his two brothers. Under their leadership, the firm soon began to flourish again.
Already well-established on the Continent, it started to export to Japan, China, Australia and South America and in 1928, and opened an office in London. Six years later, one of Petrof’s grand pianos won the gold medal at the World Exhibition in Brussels.
With the start of the Second World War in 1939, the company’s production was interrupted once again. Just like most European companies, Petrof was forcibly drawn into war production. After the Communist takeover in 1948, the company was nationalized and for the next four decades, members of the Petrof family were banned from entering its premises.
Production in the company continued, however, and by 1963, Petrof Pianos had manufactured 100,000 instruments. Another 100,000 were made during the next decade.
In 2001, more than a decade after the fall of the Communist regime, the company finally returned to the hands of the Petrof family. Over the past two decades, Petrof weathered several crises, including the economic recession in 2008, when it had to switch to making luxury furniture in order to survive.
Today, it is the largest manufacturer of acoustic pianos in Europe. Their uprights and grands have a characteristic romantic tone that distinguishes them from the instruments of other brands.
Up to 80 percent of production operations are carried out by hand and involve experienced master piano makers, intoners and tuners. The whole process starts with a careful selection of the best available materials, explains Petrof’s product manager Zdeněk Sovák.
“We use several types of wood, mainly spruce but also beech, maple birch and then various exotic woods, usually in the form of veneers.
“A resonance spruce is a normal spruce which usually grows at altitudes of more than 800 metres above sea level and has very narrow rings.
“There are not enough resonance spruces in Czechia, so we have suppliers from Italy, from the famous Val di Fiemme region, as well as from other parts of the Alps.”
Petrof pays special attention to the instruments’ acoustic properties. In 1994 it opened one of the first anechoic chambers in the country on its premises for the purpose of research. It is mainly used for acoustic measurement with the aim of achieving perfect sound quality.
The complete production of an upright Petrof piano takes around six months, but a grand piano usually takes up to a year to complete. In 2022 alone, Petrof will produce some 1,200 pianos.
Its flagship product, which bears the name of the company’s founder, sells for CZK 4.5 million. Zuzana Ceralová Petrofová, president of the company, explains what makes this particular grand piano so unique.
“It has a completely different construction and it is more robust than our standard instruments. And of course its sound has a much higher quality. It is suitable for big concert halls, but also for recording studios. It can definitely stand comparison with the Steinway grand piano.
“I am really happy that one of the Antonín pianos stands in the Rudolfinum Concert Hall. It was donated to the Czech Philharmonic this year by a Taiwanese art patron as a symbol of democracy.”
Apart from the Rudolfinum, Petrof pianos can also be found in the famous La Scala in Milan or in the Sydney Opera House. They are owned by many famous musicians and public figures, including Paul McCartney, Bill Gates and singer-songwriter Billie Eilish.