How Helga Kasimoff kept the Blüthner pianoforte legend alive in America through tumultuous times
By Uwe Siemon-Netto
(From the April 2010 issue of The Atlantic Times)
One hundred years ago, Julius Blüthner, founder of one of the world’s most celebrated piano factories, died in Leipzig, Germany. Composers Brahms, Débussy, Ravel and Andrew Lloyd Webber bought Blüthner Grands. In the company’s recent history, German-born Helga Kasimoff played a captivating role. She made sure that the legendary “golden tone” on its instruments would still to reach America even though they were manufactured beyond the Iron Curtain.
In her showroom on North Larchmont Boulevard in Los Angeles, Blüthner dealer Helga Kasimoff caresses the most valuable grand piano on exhibit. “I can’t play it,” says Mrs. Kasimoff, a native of Hanover, Germany. “I am dyslectic to the point that I can’t even coordinate my hands.” So this morning two of her three sons, Serge and Kyril, take turns in eliciting the distinct Blüthner sound from this spectacular instrument built in 1860 on the orders of King Johann of Saxony (1801-1873).
This sound is quite unlike the tone of any of Blüthner’s eminent competitors Steinway, Bechstein or Bösendorfer. It is full and dark. Some music aficionados claim that it is emblematic of Leipzig, where the “Julius Blüthner Pianofortefabrik” has been building keyboard instruments since 1853. This “warm Leipzig sound” has also long been considered the mark of the Gewandhaus orchestra, the world’s oldest municipal symphony.
A mother and her little boy enter the Mrs. Kasimoff’s shop and wander from grand to grand and upright to upright. “He is only 18 months old but already besotted by pianos,” the mother explains, bringing a big smile to Helga Kasimoff’s face. This little incident provides a marvelous counterpoint to the story of how King Johann’s piano had come into her possession.
The tale begins in England. Mrs. Kasimoff suspects that Johann had commissioned this Blüthner as a gift for the Court of St. James where his relative, Queen Victoria, reigned. It eventually wound up in the store of a London art dealer who sold it to a Los Angeles interior decorator.
“This lady felt that the instrument was too big for her house; it didn’t leave enough space for a large plant,” says Mrs. Kasimoff. “So she offered it to me, asking me if I could replace it with something similar, just a trifle shorter.” Thinking about this request for a less space-absorbing substitute for a masterpiece makes Helga Kasimoff chuckle softly. Still, she took it in and sent it to the Leipzig factory for restoration. “This cost me more than $25,000, plus the freight charges,” she says, estimating this instrument is currently worth $275,000.
Los Angeles suffers no shortage of originals, but Helga Kasimoff, née Otto, must rank among the most remarkable. Living in a funky one-storey house behind her store, she is the proud owner of a kumquat and a lemon tree, a rusty 1962 “Metro International” truck bearing the name “Blüthner” on its sides, of an ancient VW bus, and a light green 1975 diesel-powered Mercedes sedan, plus 15 Blüthner grands and seven uprights.
How did she get there? How did she, who lived through the relentless allied bombardments of Hanover where her parents owned a harmonium, become the premier North American specialist on one of the world’s grandest piano brands? Her company, Kasimoff-Blüthner Piano Co., sells them new for 32,000-$140,000; it loans its own instruments to illustrious clients, including the Mexican government; it tunes and appraises Blüthners and advises their owners on their restoration.
Helga Otto was a religion teacher and occasional English-language interpreter when she arrived in Chicago in 1952 to audit courses on American church history at a Lutheran seminary. Still traumatized by the memory of the air raids, she had become a passionate pacifist. So it was at a rally of Christian pacifists in California that she met William Petrovich Kasimoff, a clarinet player and piano tuner.
The son of Russian immigrants, Kasimoff had spent World War II in U.S. internment camp for refusing to serve in the military; his family belonged to the “Molokans” (milk drinkers), an antiwar sect that had split from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century. Helga and William married, and the couple lived at first in Pasadena.
Then came the day when William Kasimoff worked on a Blüthner grand and fell in love with its sound. “One day I will own one of those,” he told his wife. Given the political circumstances, that was a tricky dream because Blüthners were made in Leipzig, on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.
There were of course some older Blüthners in America, but much fewer than Steinways made by a New York-based company founded by a German immigrant. Still, Blüthners had enjoyed fame in the United States not least because a Blüthner had been the first piano to be played in the air. In 1936, a specially built light-weight grand was used for the first piano concert in the air on board the airship Hindenburg; this performance was broadcast live to 63 radio stations around the world.
This was when Hitler was already in power in Berlin – Hitler whom Rudolf Blüthner-Haessler, a grandson by adoption of the company’s founder and now its head, had defied in his own inimical way. “Knowing that many Jews fleeing Nazi-ruled Germany owned Blüthner Grands, he offered to have their instruments properly packaged in zinc casings and transported to port at his company’s expense,” relates Helga Kasimoff. “As far as I know between 75 an 100 Jewish-owned Blüthners were shipped out of Germany; many of these came to America.”
World War II and its aftermath were a particularly harsh time for Blüthner-Haessler. An air raid in 1943 wiped out his entire production facility. He managed to rebuild it while bombs were still dropping on Leipzig and while this town was being occupied by the Soviet Union, a nation with legendary musical institutions such as the conservatories of Moscow and Leningrad. Blüthner equipped them with his pianos.
Blüthner-Haessler did not live to see the day when the Communist government of East Germany expropriated his company in 1972, though leaving his son Ingbert in charge of production. But nine years earlier he had received an elegantly crafted letter in German from Helga Kasimoff asking him if she and her husband could become Blüthner’s dealers in America.
This led to an extraordinary friendship across the Iron Curtain. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, Blüthner-Haessler sent the Kasimoffs a moving letter of condolences. In the midst of the Cold War William, Helga, Serge, Kyril and Vanya Kasimoff went in their Volkswagen camper to see the Blüthners in Leipzig.
It wasn’t easy to sell Blüthners in North America where Steinway was a fierce competitor on the top end of the piano market. “Because Blüthner was located in East Germany, the U.S. government levied a 40 percent customs duty on its products, instead of the 5 percent it charged for West German goods,” according to Mrs. Kasimoff. “So how did you manage?” she was asked. “We had no choice but to absorb the extra cost; we couldn’t pass it on the customers,” she answered.
Still, of the 300 Blüthners the Kasimoffs imported to the United States, some 200 came in East German days. One, an enormous instrument measuring seven and a half feet were to the historic King Ranch in Texas. Star performers, both classical and pop, helped to uphold the Blüthner fame. The Beatles used one in their recording “Let it be.” Soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and baritone Hermann Prey insisted in their contracts for every North American tour that they be accompanied on a Blüthner. And when 13 Jewish cantors meet once a year in Temple Sinai in Los Angeles, they request a Blüthner from Helga Kasimoff’s shop.
After Germany’s reunification, Blüthner became once again a family-owned company. Helga Kasimoff, a widow since 1997, is advancing in years. But she is still very much in charge of her business of upholding the Blüthner name on shady North Larchmont Boulevard. “It will survive me,” she insists. “All three of my sons are capable of handling it.” Two of them are by her side much of the time: Kyril, who helps her run the store and Serge, a renowned jazz pianist specializing in the Cuban beat, who spends his nights reading philosophy. And then there is Vanya, the youngest, a college professor of English. “But he too,” says Helga Kasimoff with a satisfied smile, “knows how to tune a Blüthner and assess its value.”