Aeolian Halls - A History of Concerts Inspired by the Pianola

Aeolian Hall, New York (1912-1927), 25 West 42nd Street.


The Aeolian Company - a Very Brief History
What came to be known as the Aeolian Company was founded on 26 July 1887 in Meriden, Connecticut, the result of an alliance between the Mechanical Orguinette Company of New York, and the Automatic Music Paper Company of Boston. Meriden had many advantages: it was halfway between the Company's two centres of business, it had a ready supply of new capital, generated for the most part by the enormous success of the silver industry, and there were good rail links to the main commercial centres of the United States. The Company changed its nomenclature many times during the following century, but its original title was the Aeolian Organ and Music Company, which name can still just be seen in the brickwork at the top of the surviving factory in Meriden. Here it is, with relatively fresh paint, in 1893.

The Aeolian Organ and Music Company Factory, Meriden, Connecticut, 1893.

Two-fifths of the 6,000 shares in the new company went to the two partners from Boston, George B. Kelly and John L. Given, in return for their machinery and stock in hand, two-fifths to the contingent from New York, James Morgan, John Nichol and Willam Burton Tremaine, and the remaining fifth went for cash, mainly to local Meriden businessmen, including several of the directors of the Wilcox and White Company. It may be noted, in contrast to what is to be read elsewhere on the internet, that this was by no means a company owned by William B. Tremaine, nor indeed founded solely by him, though he and especially his son, Harry Barnes Tremaine, went on to become the principal architects of the Company's long-term success.

William Burton Tremaine (1840-1907) and his Son, Harry Barnes Tremaine (1866-1932).

That success came about for a variety of reasons: the intelligent handling of personnel and companies, an inspired and liberal use of advertising, and the genius of H.B. Tremaine in recognising that the Company's products had to be associated with the most successful musicians. Tremaine was a rather private man, one who could certainly be ruthless when necessary, but whose wisdom in the choice of engineers, musicians and administrators rendered him the most important musical instrument manufacturer in the world. Not an engineer himself, Tremaine recognised Edwin Votey, the inventor of the Pianola, as his equal on the technical side, and he brought Votey in to the Company as its Vice-President and Technical Director, organising matters so that the two men shared more or less equally in the resulting profits. In August 1903 Aeolian purchased the Weber Piano Company at a knockdown price, at a time when an enormous mortgage on the Weber Manhattan factory was due, and the Aeolian, Weber Piano and Pianola Company was born, a conglomerate which ended up controlling musical establishments throughout the civilised world.

Scenes from Aeolian's World in 1911: The Pianola Piano - Camel Transport in Australia - With Lieutenant Peary in the Arctic - On Board 26 Ships of the US Battle Fleet.

The Company's instruments included the Aeolian and the Orchestrelle - roll-operated reed organs in a variety of specially-designed cases, the Pianola, the Pianola Piano, the Aeolian Pipe Organ, the Aeolian Vocalion - an acoustic gramophone with a cable-controlled volume control, the Duo-Art reproducing piano, and standard pianos and reed organs as well, not to mention the millions of music rolls needed to feed the fashionable instruments and their enthusiastic owners. The Aeolian Company continued to expand its operations until the early 1920s, at which point a substantial loss in the Company's British subsidiary, coupled with the death of its principal American shareholder, caused it to enter upon a period of consolidation. By 1930 the rise of the radio, the electrical gramophone and the talkies led to the end of the mass market for roll-operated instruments, though in the early 1930s Aeolian merged with some of its main competitors to become the Aeolian American Corporation, continuing with the manufacture of normal grand pianos until the mid-1980s, and of upright models for a few years after that. In all, the Aeolian Company endured for the best part of a hundred years, and its effects on the musical life of the twentieth century were remarkably long-lasting.

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Map of the Aeolian Company in Manhattan, New York, 1878-1927.

Early Aeolian Premises in New York - From 1878 to 1902
In February 1927, to celebrate its move to the Aeolian Hall at 689 Fifth Avenue, the Aeolian Company produced a luxurious guide to its new establishment, with gold-printed cover, which it presented to many of its distinguished patrons. Inside the book, and towards the front, it printed a map of the New York showrooms which it had successively inhabited since the late 1870s. Some of the detail is in fact mistaken, but the Aeolian scribes were probably not historians, and they did not have the advantage of historical music publications available on line. However, they chose to begin their story in 1878, which means that they were tracing their history back to the foundation, not just of the Aeolian Organ and Music Company, but of the Mechanical Orguinette Company some nine years earlier. Mechanical Orguinette first saw the light of day at 11 East 14th Street, in an area where many of the fashionable piano and organ manufacturers were located, including Steinways and, interestingly, the early and rather unsuccessful piano firm of Tremaine Brothers. As can be deduced from the motor car parked at the front, the photograph below is from a much later date (1909), when the building was occupied by the Biograph Company.

Mechanical Orguinette Company (1878-1880) - 11 East 14th Street.
(photograph dating from 1909)

Unlike Biograph, it is most unlikely that Mechanical Orguinette occupied the entire building, but perhaps just one of the shop units at ground level. In any case it moved in February 1880 to 831 Broadway, where it remained for a little over eleven years. Here, as William B. Tremaine gradually transformed the selling of roll-operated instruments from a speculative, "get-rich-quick" operation into a more respectable and durable business, the Company joined forces with its music roll suppliers to become the Aeolian Organ and Music Company, purveyors, not just of entertaining toys, but of serious musical instruments, sonorous reed organs with a range of up to 46 notes and a remarkably wide repertoire of classical and light music.

Mechanical Orguinette Company (1880-1891) - 831 Broadway.

Thus far, there had been no sign of any concerts, but the Company's next move provided it with premises where it could begin to present regular recitals. It followed the general trend of moving uptown in Manhattan and settled in several floors of a rather narrow but deep building at 18 West 23rd Street. At roughly the same time, three important new figures came into the business, Harry Barnes Tremaine, son of the Company's General Manager, his cousin, Charles Milton Tremaine, whose own father had acted as manager of the Mechanical Orguinette's 8th Avenue branch until his premature death from pneumonia in 1886, and the Spanish pianist and composer, Don Fermin Toledo, who took charge of the Company's public music-making.

Aeolian Company (1891-1902) - 18 West 23rd Street.
(Shopfront and Ground Floor Warerooms)

The First Aeolian Invitation Concert - 14 November 1895
As with the launching of many Aeolian Company instruments, the use of its premises for demonstration recitals was a gradual process, with no apparent public announcements until the practice was already well-established. In March 1895, the New York Evening Telegram carried an advertisement for the impromptu daily concerts which the Company was giving at its West 23rd Street premises, implying that an area of the warerooms had been designed to act as a small concert hall. This was confirmed, in November of the same year, in a review of the first recorded recital at which soloists were accompanied by roll-operated instruments: on Thursday, November 14th, 1895, in what was described as the Exhibition Hall of the Aeolian Company, Marie Lecca Brackman, contralto, and Hans Kronold, cello, were accompanied, most probably by Vicente Toledo, son of Don Fermin Toledo.

Advertisement for the First Aeolian Recital, 14 November 1895, New York Times.

At the tender age of twenty-three, these two soloists were at the start of their careers, which were in both cases very successful. Marie Brackman, born in Massachusetts, studied with Fermin Toledo's compatriot and contemporary, Emilio Agramonte, and went on to star in vaudeville, memorably in "The Gainsboro Girl", an entertainment in which she sang in a costume resembling one of the models of Thomas Gainsborough's paintings, complete with life-size picture frame. In 1916 she was one of the two soloists in the first American transcontinental telephone concert, in which 2,500 handsets were provided for the guests at two simultaneous banquets in New York and San Francisco, and she died as recently as 1963, at the age of 90, over seventy years after her Aeolian Hall début.

Marie Lecca Brackman (1872-1963), and Hans Kronold (1872-1922).

Hans Kronold was born in Krakow, Poland in 1872 and studied the cello in Leipzig, Berlin and New York. He was a cousin of the composer, Moritz Moszkowski, and his elder sister, Selma Kronold, was one of the leading dramatic sopranos at the Metropolitan Opera. In the 1890s he was a member of various New York orchestras, and from 1902 onwards he devoted himself exclusively to solo performance and composition, with a career mainly on the East Coast of America. There he was well-known as a cellist, conductor and composer, and he made a number of recordings for Edison and Columbia Records. His likeness is preserved on the cover of a patriotic song which he composed for the Randolph Hearst newspaper company, and his playing can be heard by courtesy of the Internet Archive. Since he was probably the first professional instrumentalist to play to the accompaniment of an Aeolian, he deserves a little special treatment, so in order to evoke something of the musical atmosphere of those far-off days, here he is, with piano accompaniment, as
Saint-Saëns' Swan swims smartly past, at just the right speed for a 2-minute cylinder.

mp3 SAINT-SAËNS: Carnival of Animals - The Swan,  [2.5 Mb]
Recorded by Hans Kronold - 1906, New York.

It should not be imagined that such demonstration concerts were somehow second-rate, attended solely by the late nineteenth-century's equivalent of techno-geeks. The New York Times reports that the audience on this occasion included Enrico Bevignani and Armando Seppilli, both outstanding conductors of the Metropolitan Opera, together with the baritone, Mario Ancona, who sang in some two hundred performances there. In fact it is surprising that Bevignani in particular was prepared to spare the time, since he was conducting Gounod's Romeo and Juliet just two days later, for the gala opening of the Met's 1895/96 season. All three men, together with many other members of the Abbey-Grau Opera Company, had arrived from England the previous Saturday, on board the S.S. Columbia from Southampton, leading one to wonder whether some of their fellow passengers, such as Emma Calvé, Lillian Nordica and Lionel Mapleson, might also have been present. Music on perforated paper rolls was already widely respected, and by an international audience.

Enrico Bevignani (1841-1903), Armando Seppilli (b. 1860),
and Mario Ancona (1860-1931).

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In Preparation - To Be Continued