Pianola History
Friends of the Institute
Institute Concerts
Recent News
Contacts and Information
Site Map
Text Only Version
Click Images to enlarge

This page is still in preparation, but may nevertheless be of interest in its incomplete state.

Easthope Martin pedalling the Grieg Concerto in 1912 with Artur Nikisch and the London Symphony Orchestra.

What is a pianolist?
A pianolist is someone who plays the pianola, just like a pianist plays the piano.

OK, Mr Wise Guy. Why should you need anyone to PLAY the pianola?
Ah! Excuse me for a moment. If the rest of you came looking for information about historical pianolists, and you want to skip this section, which looks like getting out of control, then click historical pianolists now!

Now, look here. Our attitudes to musical performers are shaped by many things, not the least of which is the human element of the performance. If it were enough simply to listen in public to a fine interpretation of a musical composition, then a CD player and a pair of large loudspeakers would do the job every bit as well as a human performer. But while a CD recording may move us in the privacy of our own homes, it takes something extra to bind us together with other human beings in a collective outpouring of emotion. Classical music and pop music are no different from each other in this regard, although the static excitement and volume level needed for disco dancing can be very effectively generated by a DJ and a pair of turntables, rather than a live band. But it certainly takes a good DJ to create a really exciting atmosphere, so the human element is still necessary.

When most people go to an orchestral concert, they instinctively feel that the conductor is the most important person on the platform. There may be individual orchestral musicians who would disagree grumpily, perhaps with particular conductors in mind, but by and large we are all confident that the chap (or lass) with the stick is the one in charge. We reserve special applause for the conductor, although appreciating the individual contributions of the rank and file musicians. Yet most of the people who value a conductor's contribution would regard a mere pianola player as redundant; someone who simply pedals an instrument that is perfectly capable of playing on its own.

These are paradoxical views, since any good symphony orchestra is also capable of playing by itself, and indeed rather more subtly than a pianola left to its own devices. The point of having a conductor is not to keep the orchestra together, since any professional orchestra can do that, almost in the dark. Listen to the excellent musical example on the website of the Prague Chamber Orchestra, although it is worth noting that in this case the leader of the orchestra, the concertmaster, carries out the artistic functions of a conductor, in addition to playing the principal violin.

The Prague Chamber Orchestra is famous for playing without Conductor.

Whoever is doing the job, it is the conductor's responsibility to impart an individual human interpretation to a musical work, because we need the individuality to shine through, especially in romantic music. Now, of course, good conductors will allow their principal players considerable leeway, and part of the skill of conducting is to mould a number of disparate musical temperaments into a unified, mellifluous whole; irascible dictators such as Toscanini are rare in the twenty-first century! But in essence, the conductor's mind is bent on matters of interpretation, because he or she does not personally cause the notes to sound, and what we rise to acknowledge and applaud at the end of the performance is the intellectual and emotional conception of the music.

Well, maybe! This is a fine theory, but other factors come into play as well, since we are all fallible human beings. Television appearances, the size of fees, interesting facial expressions, the concepts of the "rising young star" or the "grand old man"; all of these play their part in affecting our regard for the individual. Audiences are perfectly capable of jumping to their feet after execrable performances, simply because the performer is famous, though this applies just as much to piano-bangers and fiddle-scrapers as it does to baton-waggers.

The pianolist has a similar function to the conductor. Anyone who doubts this has not thought about the subject in detail. Whereas the skill with reproducing pianos, where the rolls were recorded by pianists in real time, lies in coaxing them to work properly by judicious restoration, the challenge of the pianola, when using its normal, non-recorded rolls, is a different matter entirely. Non-recorded rolls, metronomic rolls as they are often called, have only the notes perforated on them. There is no interpretation, either of dynamics or of tempo, and in this sense they are actually far less musical than a conductor-less orchestra, which is at least composed of human beings.

On the other hand, a pianola will not answer back, unlike the trombone player who has spent too long in the artists' bar, or the first violinist who knows the score better than the conductor. A pianolist, with a metronomic roll, is therefore confronted with an utterly obedient instrument, dependent only on the fineness of its regulation, but incapable on its own of any real humanity. There will be many voices raised, particularly in the USA, to say that a sing-song round the old pianola is a very emotional affair, and an intensely democratic one at that, since its whole essence is in the facility which it provides for anyone to play, regardless of musical aptitude. But for decades there have been music roll companies whose whole existence has been grounded on the incorporation of the human element into piano rolls, especially those of the sing-song variety, to the remarkable extent that the player piano is reckoned to have its own "sound," characterised by the slightly jazzy nature of the musical arrangements. There have even been books published on "How to Play like your Player Piano!"

A Sing-Song round the Old Pianola!

Although such singalong music rolls have become a much-loved part of the pianola's character for many people, the instrument was not invented to have a particular sound, and when it became clear that the owners of player pianos were finding it difficult to express the music as they wished, then many different inventions were dreamed up in order to help, such as the "Metrostyle" of Aeolian, the "Artistyle" of Wilcox & White, and the "Temponome" of the Kastner Autopiano.

The question, "What is a pianolist?" will therefore depend on the nature of the roll being played, and on the opinions of the individual player towards the instrument in general. Perhaps one of the best ways of putting this paradox into perspective is to quote Reginald Reynolds, the main pianolist for the Aeolian Company in Britain in the inter-war years, from the cover to his short treatise, "On Playing the Pianola."

"Of the 'Pianola' it may be said 'A Child can play it.' So he can, and, even at a first attempt, with very fair effect. This little book has, however, been written for that owner of a 'Pianola' who is not content to play it in a child-like way, but wishes to make fullest use of all its magnificent potentialitlies as a highly-developed musical instrument."

For those interested in learning more, this booklet may be downloaded as an Adobe pdf file from our page On Playing the Pianola.

The Cover of Reginald Reynolds' Treatise, "On Playing the Pianola."

Oh, I see. You have to be a genius to be a pianola player. How do we lesser mortals learn the path of truth?
There's no need to be sarcastic. In a sense the pianola is very democratic, because everyone who owns one has the opportunity to play it to the degree that pleases them. If you like the old singalong rolls (and we all do secretly), then you can pedal away with very little thought of dynamics, and concentrate on taking Auntie Joan out of herself for a while. There are plenty of examples of this sort of pianola playing on YouTube, and it is clear that the participants and listeners are having a great time.

If you have a liking for marches or foxtrots, then you may find your feet instinctively thumping on the first beat of the bar, and so begin to add a little dynamic interest to the music. In time you might stray towards the light classics, and begin to introduce a few crescendos or sub-accents into the musical mêlée. You might even feel like adding a slight hesitation before some of the more important chords, just as we all ... hesitate in order to emphasise certain words in our spoken conversation.

But if music is as important to you as the light of the sun, and you have been thoroughly bitten by the pianola, then you will almost inevitably want to practise until you find yourself sounding like a pianist who plays by hand. That is not to say that your aim is only to imitate a pianist, but simply that both you and the notional pianist will use a common palette of interpretative techniques in bringing musical compositions to life. Paradoxically, the most complex music can be the easiest to play on the pianola. Conlon Nancarrow's music in particular is extraordinarily difficult for pianists, because the abstruse rhythms are a nightmare to place exactly, but they were not written to be difficult, because they were not written for the piano. Play them on the pianola, at the unvarying roll speeds intended by Nancarrow, and all you have to worry about are a few "terrace" dynamics, in order to contrast one voice against another. Simple!

Conversely, the most natural music on the piano can be the most difficult on the pianola. The tiny inflections of tempo that even the greatest pianists play unconsciously have to be thought out and deliberately created by the pianolist, at least until such matters become second nature. Mozart and the other classicists are especially difficult, in view of the delicacy of phrasing needed, for although one can easily lengthen notes by means of the sustaining pedal, it is not so easy to turn a heavily conceived series of scales or arpeggios into the light, staccato style that is favoured today. That's usually a case for making one's own, new rolls.

So how do you go about all this?
This page was meant to be about pianolists who have featured in the history of the instrument. We ought really to return to that topic, but if you are interested in knowing how the pianola works, or the details of how to play it from a technical point of view, then visit our webpages on How It Works, or On Playing the Pianola. Have a nice day!

back to top

Historical Pianolists and Rollmakers
There is precious little information about historical pianolists, except in one or two rare instances. The listings which follow will contain brief details, where available, and will be expanded as the opportunity arises. They include both professional and well-known amateur players. It would be impossible at this stage to place these musicians in chronological order, so they have been alphabeticised for the time being.

Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967)
The former German Federal Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, owned a Hupfeld grand piano with interior Phonola player mechanism, built in 1926, and this is now in the collection of the German "Musikautomatenmuseum" in Bruchsal. The museum's website has a gallery in which a photograph and a brief audio recording of the piano are to be found, with a hand-played roll of Grieg's Butterfly, seemingly pedalled without any expression. If you visit this site and are disappointed by the musical example, you can return to our main reproducing piano page, where there is an mp3 of the same piece of music, played by Grieg himself.

Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947)
The First Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, KG, PC, was three times Prime Minister of the United Kingdom between 1923 and 1937. One might have imagined that eminent politicians would be far too busy running the affairs of state to have much time for perforated music, but Baldwin is the exception to prove the roll. Elected to Parliament in 1908 for the constituency of Bewdley, his love of music was well-known around the world, so in 1925, for example, the Melbourne Argus newspaper reported that, "The Prime Minister's real hobby is music, though his executive gifts do not go beyond playing classical pieces with the aid of a pianola. Mrs Baldwin, who is a kindly and generous wife, has described her husband as "a strummer, with a nice touch." One can almost taste the Aussie accent! In fact the Prime Minister's preferred instrument was not a Pianola, but rather a Welte-Mignon cabinet player (push-up) in rosewood, which he had purchased from Steinways in London in the summer of 1913.

Jacques Benoist-Méchin (1901-1983) - (Click for Picture)
Not so many pianolists find themselves being sentenced to death, not even when their playing leaves something to be desired! Benoist-Méchin, however, served as a Minister without Portfolio in the Vichy Government during the Second World War, and he was afterwards tried as a collaborator, though his subsequent death sentence was soon commuted to imprisonment. In his earlier life he had been an avant-garde composer, and he became friendly for a while with George Antheil, who persuaded him to present and perform the pianola part of the "Ballet Mécanique" at the Paris Conservatoire in 1925.

The concert took place on Friday 13th November, ominously enough, and Frère Jacques' performance was met with a groaning, protesting and even departing audience. He continued to pedal manfully, however, even when the concert's organiser stood up between rolls and pleaded with the onlookers to be more docile. Adrienne Monnier, another friend of Antheil's, wrote up her memories of the occasion and asked Benoist-Méchin how he had found the courage to continue in the face of such a hostile crowd. "Ah!" he is reported as saying, "that's because at the player-piano it's not the hands that play but the feet, so that I had the impression that I was escaping by running away, and that the people were treading on my heels. I couldn't stop; I thought that I would have fallen under their blows!"

Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989)
Hastings Berkeley, the father of Lennox, was an officer in the British Royal Navy, who loved classical music but had never learned to play the piano, so he purchased a pianola, and what was described in Donald Brook's Composers' Gallery as "an enormous library of rolls." These apparently included many sonatas by Beethoven and arrangements of piano concertos, and Lennox Berkeley was very specific in stating that they were "my introduction to music." Many of the early composers who influenced his musical style themselves wrote for player piano, such as Ravel, Poulenc and Nadia Boulanger, but Berkeley was perhaps just a little too young to be drawn into the sphere of roll composition, which petered out in the United Kingdom during the 1920s.

Charles Blackmore
Charles Blackmore was in charge of the musical production of piano rolls at the Aeolian Company's roll factory in Hayes, Middlesex, after the First World War. Blackmore was a church organist in Putney, to the west of London, and his name can be found on many Aeolian song rolls from the 1920s.

Manuel Blancafort (1897-1987)

The British Royal Family (In Perpetuity)

As noted elsewhere on this website, Queen Victoria owned a 65-note Pianola during the last two years of her life, and she purchased an Aeolian Organ for Balmoral Castle in late October 1894. Queen Alexandra, on the other hand, favoured the Angelus, manufactured by the rival firm of Wilcox and White, and supplied in Great Britain by Sir Herbert Marshall and Sons. Sir Herbert, at the time of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, had been Lord Mayor of Leicester, where he organised the celebrations with such success that he was knighted in December 1905. George V returned to the Aeolian fold, however, and from 1911 onwards the Orchestrelle Company held the Royal Warrant as Manufacturers of Musical and Automatic Instruments, with authority to display the Royal Coat of Arms.

An Aeolian Delivery Van in Central London, 1921/22, showing Royal Coat of Arms.

The new façade of Buckingham Palace was also completed in 1911, and the organ in the Ballroom was modified to play from Aeolian music roll as well as manually. The then Prince of Wales was taught to play the Pianola by Reginald Reynolds, chief pianolist for the Aeolian Company throughout the 1920s, but the Prince also liked the jazzier side of life, taking an Ampico upright, with its unrivalled arrangements of popular music, on board HMS Renown for his trip to Australia and America in 1921. Queen Mary purchased an Ampico grand for the royal residence at Sandringham, and the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth chose to take an Ampico upright with them on their 1927 tour of Australia and New Zealand, also on HMS Renown.

A Marshall & Rose Ampico on the Gangway of HMS Renown, New Year's Day, 1927.

In more recent times, Princess Margaret owned a Weber grand Pianola Piano, kept at Windsor Castle for many years, though this instrument may well have come down through the family as a private possession.

Guy Burgess (1911-1963) - (Click for Picture)
There is clearly something about pianolas that endears them to spies. To take a couple of examples, Sir Compton Mackenzie (q.v.), one of the earliest employees of the British secret service, was a keen pianola player, and the writer of these pages was once informed that he had in the 1970s given two lunchtime pianola recitals for MI6, though at the time he was told it was for part of the Department of the Environment. Perhaps the secret is in the thousands of tiny perforations, which can be remarkably complex, and could perhaps, if they were not directed towards music, be used for the storage and transmisson of intelligence. There is no evidence that such was ever the case, but perforated paper has often been put to other uses, in connection with Jacquard looms, late nineteenth-century voting machines, and even duplicating typewriters.

Guy Burgess may or may not have been a pianolist, though he was certainly a British diplomat who worked secretly for the KGB, and who decamped to Moscow in 1951, when his activities were uncovered. In the 1983 BBC television film, An Englishman Abroad, written by Alan Bennett and directed by John Schlesinger, Burgess is depicted as the owner of a Schiedmayer Simplex upright player piano, which the British actor, Alan Bates, pedals manfully as part of his portrayal of the displaced spy at home in his Moscow apartment. Burgess' musical, sexual and alcoholic proclivities imprinted themselves on the memory of the Australian actress, Coral Browne, who had visited Moscow in the 1950s with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and who was asked by Burgess to order some fresh suits from his tailor in Savile Row. Miss Browne retold the curious episode to Alan Bennett, and she subsequently played herself in the BBC film.

The music which Alan Bates performs as part of his film portrayal is a solo version of one of Moszkowski's Spanish Dances, Op. 12, no. 3, published by the Aeolian Company as Themodist roll no. T82556. Whether the real Guy Burgess played such an instrument is still impossible to determine, but Alan Bennett was kind enough recently to set down his own recollections, and we hope he will not mind being quoted:

"For the life of me I can't remember whether I invented the pianola, or whether it figured in Coral Browne's memories of going to Burgess's flat. It might have just been an authorial convenience. It's still quite possible it was Burgess's - if he somehow managed to get his books sent out to Moscow, why not a pianola too? Sorry not to be more help, but it's lovely to be reminded of the film, and that particular scene especially."

Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924)

Maria Callas (1923-1977)
Most pianolists do it with their feet, as the old automobile stickers might have said, but Maria Callas was no ordinary musician. At the age of four, she gave her first-ever musical performance by crouching down beneath the black and gleaming family upright and pumping the pedals with her hands. Although her mother took steps to prevent an immediate encore, Callas reports in her fictional autobiography that she contrived to undertake repeat performances, presumably without fee. The story, despite its apparently fictional surroundings, is essentially genuine.

William Candy
Bill Candy, whose pen-name was William Delasaire, was a professional player piano demonstrator for Hupfeld at its London showroom, and gave many recitals of both solo and chamber music. In 1930 he was the soloist in the Grieg Piano Concerto with the Insurance Orchestra, at the Scala Theatre in London. Bill and his brother, John, who was the works manager of the Siggurtson & Perkins (S & P) Music Roll Company, wrote many of the piano roll reviews that one finds in the Player Piano Supplement of the Gramophone and in the Musical Times. Bill was a long time member of the Player Piano Group, and in later life he presented his music rolls, mostly review copies, to Rex Lawson, with the intention that they would one day be used as part of a notional Pianola Institute. Bill died in the late 1970s; he and his wife, Freda, were an exceptionally kind couple.

Gerard Chatfield (1886-1962)
Gerard Chatfield, born in Westport, Connecticut, joined the Aeolian Company in New York in 1909, and was appointed Manager of the Concert Department four years later. From announcements of Pianola Concerts at Aeolian Hall in the New York Times, he appears to have been the Company's main Pianolist in the years leading up to the First World War. He must have been a good player, because he frequently accompanied singers and instrumentalists, and in late 1913 was the soloist in the Chopin F minor Piano Concerto, albeit accompanied by a second piano. He was called up in the First World War, and then during the 1920s he became National Program Director for NBC in New York, subsequently joining the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency.

John Clapham

Sir Kenneth Clark (1903-1983)

Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966)
Coburn was an American-born photographer who eventually took British citizenship and settled in Wales. He is best known for his finely artistic camerawork, and he created many portraits of literary figures with whom he was on friendly terms, including Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, keen pianola players both. Coburn made many of his own rolls, including pieces by Ornstein and Stravinsky, on a perforating machine made specially for him by a camera manufacturer, but in 1928 the Thames overflowed in Hammersmith, where he lived, and flooded out his entire collection of around 1,000 rolls. During the First War he gave regular pianola concerts at the London home of George Davison, the director of Kodak in Great Britain, and he is marked out as one of the few who performed as solo pianolist in a piano concerto with orchestra, though when and with whom is not known. He was the first pianolist to play Stravinsky in public, at one of Joseph Holbrooke's concerts at Aeolian Hall in London in 1916, using rolls perforated by Esther Willis (q.v.), the granddaughter of "Father" Henry Willis, the well-known English organ builder.

Ernest J. Delfraisse (1867-1928) - (Click for Picture)
Beginning his career in the 1890s as a piano tuner and repairer for the Grunewald Music Company in New Orleans, Ernest Jules Delfraisse clearly showed an aptitude for both the technical and musical side of the player business, becoming Manager of the Company's player department in 1904. In 1907 he joined the Melville Clark Piano Company as its general Southern representative, covering not only the old Confederacy, but also Mexico and Cuba, and three years later, when the Company opened a new branch office in New York, he was appointed Manager, with responsibility for the whole of the Eastern Seaboard. In 1914, when Melville Clark sold out to Wurlitzers, Delfraisse went into business on his own for a while, retailing both pianos and phonographs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but by 1919 he had rejoined some of his former business colleagues, as the Chicago office manager for the QRS Company, becoming Advertising and later Sales Manager during the course of the 1920s. It is interesting to note that the attractive cover designs of the QRS monthly bulletins were often designed by Mabel Delfraisse, his daughter, who was a very talented artist, and who died as recently as 1999.

Delfraisse was a much-loved member of the player-piano trade, as can be seen in the genuinely affectionate way in which his activities were regularly reported in Music Trade Review. He had the honour of giving the first ever recital on a grand player-piano, at New Orleans in 1906, and since he performed on an Apollo, he may therefore have considered himself to be more of an Apollonian than a Pianolist; certainly, he was one of the instrument's main exponents. He was also reckoned to be the first player piano man to make use of the air not just for pumping, but also for flying, in that his friend, Tom Sopwith, took him on a 25-minute flight from Long Island, in a Wright biplane, on the afternoon of Tuesday, 11 July 1911. George Antheil was therefore not the first to ally player pianos with aircraft propellors!

Harry Derry
Harry Derry is the only music roll editor from the Aeolian Company's Hayes factory, from the period before the First World War, whose individual name is to be found on piano roll labels. He made many arrangements of popular tunes of the day, including a delightful selection from Gilbert & Sullivan's Trial by Jury, which is arguably the best G & S arrangement of the period. From Stravinsky's archive in Basel, it is known that the musical director at Hayes served in the military during the First World War, and this may have been Derry, because his musical arrangements stop at this time. It is probable that he was an organist, because a certain H.B. Derry became an Associate of the Royal College of Organists in 1906, and a Fellow a year later, and after the War, a Henry Derry joined the staff of the London College of Music, and took up the post of Organist at the Chapel of the Savoy in central London, which he kept for around forty years. One cannot be certain that this was the same man, though it does seem very likely in view of the conjunction of dates.

Harry Ellingham
Harry Ellingham came from Birmingham, England, where he founded the Piano-Player Review in 1912, a publication for pianolists and player piano owners which lasted for less than three years, but which was a shining effort in the promotion of the instrument and its music. Ernest Newman, the music critic, succeeded Ellingham as editor, but Ellingham himself ran the administrative side of the monthly magazine, which is still to be found at the British Library and the Central Library in Birmingham. Later on, he used some of his articles from the Piano Player Review in his book, How to Use a Player Piano, published in 1922 by Grant Richards in London. By that time he had set up in the player-piano business on his own account, as a representative of the Solo-Apollo, with which he appeared as soloist in the Grieg Piano Concerto, with the City of Birmingham Orchestra. This memorable concert took place at the Assembly Rooms in Tamworth on 2 November 1922, and was conducted by the orchestra's founding musical director, Appleby Matthews. As the player piano became less popular, Harry Ellingham became interested in the allied art of audio engineering, working as one of the BBC's first balance engineers, and writing a series of articles on the subject in the Musical Times between May and November 1938.

Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians (1876-1965)

Edwin Evans (1874-1945)

Frederick Evans (1853-1943)
One can read on the Internet of Frederick Evans' considerable abilities as a photographer, but his interest in the pianola is less well documented. During the course of a long life he perforated around 1500 of his own rolls, many of which have survived at the Pianola Institute and at the Musical Museum in London. Evans gave concerts at the Camera Club in London in 1904 and 1911, and he corresponded busily in various musical journals. One of his particular concerns was the replacement of the normal strength pianola equaliser springs with much lighter ones, allowing (in his view) for the more rapid and effective creation of accents. Evans' rolls may have been created by his own hands, but we owe his wife and daughter a debt for obediently supplying the good man with food and creature comforts in response to his shouts from the cutting room. It would appear that he was not a supporter of Womens' Lib!

Sydney Grew (1879-1946)

Rein Groos (192?-1999) - (Click for Picture)
Rein Groos became a pianolist after he had retired as a schoolmaster in Haarlem in the Netherlands. From a musical family, whose members had sung in Haarlem choirs since the early 19th century, he was a teenager during the Second World War, and remembered hiding a group of Jewish fugitives in the old house in which he had lived all his life. Rein was a wonderful ambassador for the pianola, by the way he could engage audiences, especially children, and he toured for a while with the North Holland Philharmonic Orchestra, entertaining audiences in the foyer during concert intervals. He has left two CDs of his playing, De Pianola in Nederland and My Favourites, which are occasionally to be found on Ebay. Rein died on 31 December 1999, just missing the new millennium, but his memory is still alive with many player piano enthusiasts in the Netherlands, and part of his collection of instruments has been donated to the Museum van Speelklok tot Pierement in Utrecht.

Philip Heseltine / Peter Warlock (1894-1930)

Rod Hull (1935-1999) and EMU (Immortal) - (Click for Picture)
The late Rod Hull had the distinction of being the only guest on the BBC's "Desert Island Discs" to have chosen a pianola and a supply of music rolls as the luxury he wanted to take with him to his enforced isolation on an uninhabited tropical paradise. Those who are unaware of the merry havoc which Rod Hull and his VERY lively arm-puppet created can find many stories on the Internet, notably about the time when Michael Parkinson, another pianola owner, was attacked by Emu during a chat-show interview, to the extent that he fell off his chair and needed rescuing. During the 1980s, Hull's best-known TV series was produced, entitled "Emu's Broadcasting Company," and on occasions this featured a pink-coloured pianola, with occasional specially-commissioned music rolls. Rod Hull also had a pianola in real life, and those who are curious about his musical tastes can find a selection of them listed on the Desert Island Discs website.

Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921)

Ernest Hunter

Professor Cyril Joad (1881-1966)

Claude Johnson (1864-1926)
First Secretary of the Royal Automobile Club, Managing Director of Rolls-Royce and musical Maecenas, Claude Johnson was a thoroughly brilliant administrator and organiser. He was clearly an extremely charming man and, according to the late Bob Good of the Aeolian Company, had attractive lady friends in most of the towns of Britain! It was Johnson who launched the international career of the French organist, Marcel Dupré, whom he had heard at Notre-Dame in Paris, and from Dupré he commissioned a series of small Versets, performed at the Royal Albert Hall in 1920 with a 600-strong choir, and in the presence of the Prince of Wales (also a keen pianola-player). Johnson was an ardent and very practical advocate of the Pianola, and he commissioned many rolls of new music from Aeolian, including the Dupré mentioned above, and dozens of works by Debussy and Ravel, which later passed into the general catalogues.

G.C. Ashton Jonson (1861-1930) - (Click for Picture)
Ashton Jonson is remembered mainly for his Handbook to Chopin's Works, for the Use of Concertgoers, Pianists and Pianola-Players, first published in 1905, which was so lastingly successful as a vade mecum that in 1926 he was chosen to represent British music at the inauguration of the Chopin Memorial in Warsaw. Initially a stockbroker and amateur pianist, Jonson changed direction in middle age and devoted himself to artistic activities. He travelled widely, on two occasions around the world, and he lectured on music and musical appreciation in Britain and America. At various times he was the Chairman of the Poetry Society and the Hon. Librarian of the Royal Automobile Club, whose first Secretary, Claude Johnson, was also an ardently keen pianolist. In 1915 Jonson gave a lecture on the Pianola to the Royal Musical Association in London, and from the recorded discussion it is clear that he was an accomplished player.

Ferdinand Károly (1878-1942)
Born to Jewish parents in Hamburg, where his father worked as the proprietor of an advertising agency, Károly (the name is of Hungarian origin) studied mechanical engineering at the Technical Hochschule in Berlin, and he was also a very accomplished pianist

Dion W. Kennedy

Gustav von Klemperer (1852-1926) - (Click for Picture)
In January 1900, the Aeolian Company in New York received a letter from the German concert pianist, Emil Sauer, in which Sauer gave fulsome praise to the Pianola, a brand-new instrument having just been delivered to his home in Dresden. Aeolian's publicity department was never slow to sense a useful opportunity, and it condensed two letters from Sauer into one very effective testimonial, in which the pianist also ordered a mahogany Pianola and sixty music rolls for his good friend, Gustav von Klemperer. In those balmy days before the advent of computers and mass marketing, no-one minded that Klemperer's private address formed part of a worldwide advertisement, though someone inadvertently transformed Wiener Strasse into Wein Strasse! Herr von Klemperer was at that time a director of the Dresdner Bank and the head of its operations in Saxony, and he was clearly on good terms with the Saxon Royal Family; King Friedrich August III apparently referred to Frau von Klemperer as "la Klempératrice!"

Gustav Kobbé

Marcelle Köntzler

Arno F. Lachmund (b. 1892) - (Click for Picture)
Christened Arnaud Filbert Lachmund, this pianolist and Duo-Art editor was one of the six children of Carl Lachmund, an American concert pianist and teacher who travelled to Europe and became a pupil and devotee of Liszt. Interestingly, Carl Lachmund's own pupils included Felix Arndt, who also worked for Aeolian, and Charles Gilbert Spross, who recorded Duo-Art rolls. Arnaud Lachmund was educated at Trinity School in New York, and for a few years thereafter assisted his father in teaching and performing at the piano in Portland, Oregon, whence the family had removed in 1912 on account of Carl Lachmund's poor health. Returning to New York in late 1914, Lachmund Junior was engaged as a pianolist and demonstrator by the Aeolian Company, and soon afterwards he transferred to the Duo-Art Recording Department, as an assistant to W. Creary Woods, sharing some of the Duo-Art production and editing work. At Aeolian he was known as Arno Lachmund, and in the 1920s he moved to Ampico, where his name became even more anglicised, ending up as Arnold Lackman, if the reminiscences of Adam Carroll are to be believed.

Frits Lang

Jacques Larmanjat (1878-1952)

Otto Lindemann (1879-1946)

William E. MacClymont (1873-1918)
The son of a successful New York jeweller, William MacClymont was a native of Plainfield, New Jersey, who became a well-known organist in East Coast musical circles, and in particular in those parts of New Jersey which formed the heart of the Aeolian Company's worldwide empire. His proficiency as an organist and choirmaster were very well reported in the local press of the time, and he was also a composer, of liturgical music and at least one opera. MacClymont joined the Aeolian Company's staff no later than 1906, as an organist and pianolist, and continued in that role until 1911, when he resigned and moved between a number of other piano companies. As the cinema developed, he became one of the first theatre organists, at a time when such musicians were very highly regarded, ending up in early 1918 as the resident organist at the Strand Theater in San Francisco. Unfortunately his tenure of that position lasted only a few months, because he died suddenly in the April of that year, perhaps as a result of the worldwide flu epidemic. He clearly had many contacts at the Metropolitan Opera, playing the organ at the funeral gala for Heinrich Conried, director of the Met from 1903 to 1908, and attracting such soloists as Reinald Werrenrath and Louise Homer to sing at the Aeolian Company's New York Pianola recitals, to his own accompaniment.

Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937)

Sir Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972)

William Gray McNaught (1883-1953) - (Click for Picture)
From 1944 until his death in the summer of 1953, William McNaught was editor of Musical Times, reaching the peak of his career in succession to his father, by way of several decades of musical criticism for the Manchester Guardian, the Glasgow Herald, the Morning Post and the London Evening News. McNaught was born in Hackney, to the east of London, educated at University College School and Worcester College, Oxford, and, apart from his devotion to the world of music, nurtured an abiding passion for mountaineering, especially in North Wales and the Alps. During the late 1920s he co-operated with Percy Scholes (q.v.) in the literary preparation of AudioGraphic music rolls for the Aeolian Company in London, and in 1930 he wrote an original composition for Pianola, winning Second Prize and a Silver Medal at the Wimbledon Festival of that year, although to the best of our knowledge no surviving copy of the roll has been found, quite probably because McNaught's bachelor quarters in London's Chancery Lane were bombed during the Second World War.

Easthope Martin (1882-1925) - (Click for Picture)
Born in Stourport-on-Severn, Easthope Martin trained at Trinity College of Music, studying composition with Samuel Coleridge Taylor, and joined the Aeolian Company in London as an organist, pianolist and demonstrator. He is mentioned affectionately in Elgar's diaries, and he was responsible for creating the Metrostyle lines on the 65-note rolls of the composer's First Symphony, under Elgar's direction. Martin was the soloist in the Grieg Piano Concerto at the Queen's Hall in London in June 1912, with the London Symphony Orchestra under Artur Nikisch, and performed in a Pianola and piano duo with the French composer, Cécile Chaminade, almost exactly a year later, at Aeolian Hall in London, thereby on both occasions demonstrating the complete inaccuracy of the notion that Pianolas cannot be successfully played in synchronism with other musical instruments. He also made a number of 78 recordings of Aeolian Organ rolls, but he is best remembered by the general musical public as a composer of attractive songs and occasional keyboard pieces. Sadly, he developed tuberculosis at quite an early age, and spent many of his winters at the home of a friend in Monte Carlo, where he was a musical favourite of the local expatriate community. He was nursed for a time by the family of William Knightley, the Aeolian Company's Export Manager, and he died at a nursing home at Hampstead, in north London.

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945)

Sir Montagu Norman (1871-1950)
According to the late Bob Good of the Aeolian Company in London, the Governor of the Bank of England in the 1920s, presumably Sir Montagu Norman, had three 88-note Pianolas, attached to three Steinway concert grand pianos: one at his London mansion, one at his country estate, and one at his shooting box in the Lake District, in the north-west of England. It's a good story, and we shall try to verify it in due course!

Ignaz Jan Paderewski (1860-1941)
Paderewski was the proud owner of not one, but two Pianolas, which he acquired between 1898 and 1901, no doubt as a gift in return for testimonials. There is no particular record of his expertise on the instrument, but Frances Hodgson Burnett, mentioned above, throws some light on the apparent paradox of a world-class pianist needing to use music rolls to play the piano. Writing to a nephew, she explains that Paderewski found the instrument useful as a form of relaxation, and in the playing through of new music. Most present-day pianists would use CD players in exactly the same way.

Charles C. Parkyn (b. 1862) - (Click for Picture)
Charles Cleghorn Parkyn was arguably the first real virtuoso pianolist in the world, although Francis Young, inventor of the Metrostyle (q.v.), was perhaps the very first demonstrator. Parkyn, born in the early 1860s, started his working life in Boston, where he was principal 'cellist and manager of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, in addition to running a concert agency across the street from the Boston Commons. In this location he was less than a minute's walk from Steinert Hall, where Morris Steinert and his family ran the main Aeolian Company agency in Massachusetts, retailing Aeolians and Orchestrelles in the days before the Pianola had been invented. Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, Parkyn appears, along with Vincent Toledo, in a concert at Steinert Hall in April 1896, as one of the Aeolian "conductors" (an apt title!), so it is clear that he had already developed an affinity towards the playing of roll-operated instruments.

Charles Parkyn's musical and organisational talents must soon have come to the notice of the Aeolian Company itself, for in late 1899 he moved to New York, where he took charge of the Company's rapidly expanding concert activities, playing himself in many of the twice-weekly recitals at Aeolian Hall. It seems likely that he participated in a Mendelssohn Hall concert in November 1899, accompanying the Kaltenborn Quartet in part of the Schumann Piano Quintet in E flat, and the photograph which can be seen by clicking the link above was taken during a rehearsal for this concert, in the Aeolian Company's warerooms at 18 West 23rd Street. Parkyn also travelled for Aeolian, giving concerts in Baltimore, Boston and, in August 1900, in Pittsburgh, accompanying the concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Luigi von Kunits, as well as venturing into four-hand piano music with Joseph Gittings, the doyen of Pittsburgh music at the time, by means of two hands and two feet. This concert was sufficiently well reviewed in the Pittsburgh Times that the Aeolian Company saw fit to publish the review as an advertisement.

Parkyn remained with Aeolian only until 1904, when he spent a period moving through the player industry, acting as a player pianist for various firms, including the department store of Siegel Cooper, the Perforated Music Roll Company, and Chase & Baker. In 1907 he became President of a new venture in New York City, the Music Roll Exchange. At some point he seems to have returned to the Aeolian fold as a Duo-Art editor, as his signature appears on some of the Duo-Art trial rolls housed at the International Piano Archive at the University of Maryland. He met his wife, the Swedish pianist Ellen Berg, in Boston in the late 1880s, and they performed together on many occasions in that city. In later years Ellen Berg-Parkyn recorded music rolls for Metro-Art and Melodee.

Marcel Proust (1871-1922)
Considering the importance of Marcel Proust as a literary figure, especially to the French, it is remarkable how poorly the author's ownership and playing of a foot-pedalled Pianola has been understood and described.

Egon Pütz (b. 1887)
Born in Berlin in 1887, the Spanish pianist and composer, Egon Pütz, trained at the Paris Conservatoire and studied with Raoul Pugno and Teresa Carreño. He first travelled to the United States in late 1910, in company with the French bass, Georges Bourgeois, who was appearing at the Metropolitan Opera House in the world première of Puccini's La Fanciulla del West. In the following year Pütz became an American citizen, and he soon made a name for himself in New York, performing at Aeolian Hall and elsewhere. His talents were spotted by the Aeolian Company, and he joined them as a recording artist for the new Metro-Art series of hand-played rolls. According to his biography in the 1927 Duo-Art Catalogue, he had the unique distinction of being the first person to record an Aeolian hand-played music roll, and he also took part in Aeolian Hall concerts as a pianolist.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Rachmaninoff spent many months in 1909 at the estate of his wife's parents at Ivanovka, some 250 miles south-east of Moscow. While there he wrote his Third Piano Concerto, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for his first American tour in early 1910, and when not composing or enjoying the countryside, he was able to make use of his father-in-law's upright Pianola Piano. Many years later his sister-in-law wrote in her memoirs that she remembered him pedalling gleefully through the rolls of the Second Piano Concerto, and it is enjoyable to speculate that some of the sunnier, scurrying passages in the Third Concerto might have been inspired by his overfast use of the Pianola tempo control in the Second!

Clarence Raybould (1886-1972)

Vera Reade (d. 1986) - (Click for Picture)
Vera Reade, née Reynolds, was the elder daughter of Reginald Reynolds, the chief Duo-Art recording producer for the Aeolian Company in London, and she inherited not only a good share of Reynolds' musical talents, but also his occasional stubbornness! In the late 1920s she worked for Percy Scholes on his AudioGraphic roll project for Aeolian, her responsibility being the administration of the many specially commissioned woodcuts and other illustrations that made AudioGraphic music rolls such an attractive series of recordings. In March 1930 she swept the board at the Wimbledon Festival in south-west London, which unusually included competitive classes for pianola playing, winning at both solo playing and vocal accompaniment, gaining her two silver medals into the bargain. Towards the end of her life, with poor circulation necessitating the amputation of her left leg, Mrs. Reade remained resolutely determined to continue playing the slightly leaky family Pianola, and both Peter Tallent of the Player Piano Group and this writer developed significant cramps in their right leg muscles, by standing next to Vera and filling in the suction levels on the left-hand pedal, while she accented vigorously on the right pedal, using her good leg. Duo-Pianola playing while standing up at awkward angles is a memory whose fondness gains significantly from its distance in time!

George Whitefield Fay Reed (1872-1954) - (Click for Picture)
George Reed, born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, was employed as a young man by Steinert & Sons of Boston, agents for the Aeolian Company, becoming their chief salesman and Pianola demonstrator by the early 1900s. The details of a concert at Providence, Rhode Island, in which he participated, are preserved in the pages of Music Trade Review, and he must have been a reasonable player, since the programme included the Mendelssohn D minor Trio and a number of song accompaniments. Around 1903, Reed was appointed Assistant Manager of the Aeolian Company in London, remaining as the second-in-command for most of its active existence. He was probably the most influential figure in the history of the Pianola in Europe, albeit in a discreet, "behind the scenes" manner. It was he who took a Metrostyle Pianola to Norway in 1903, where he spent a week working with Grieg, playing the Pianola to the composer's direction, and thereby marking up the red Metrostyle lines for Grieg's Autograph-Metrostyle rolls. Together with Percy Scholes, the British music educationalist and writer, Reed was responsible for the creation of the Duo-Art Audiographic project, which saw hundreds of recorded music rolls being printed with copious programme notes and illustrations throughout their length. After Aeolian more or less ceased trading in Britain in the mid-1930s, George Reed took out British citizenship and bought the Hotel Belgrave in Eastbourne (Click for Picture) on the south coast of England, but the Second War intervened, killing off the tourism industry, and his venture failed. He died in Bristol, where lack of funds compelled him to work in his later years as a free-lance book-keeper.

Reginald Reynolds

Alfred Riess - (Click for Picture)
The Dutchman, Alfred Riess, was a pianola demonstrator for Aeolian in Berlin, but later settled in England, where his daughter met and married Frits Lang, who appears above. Riess was a member of the Player Piano Group, and stated that he never liked to play anything on the pianola that he could not also play by hand. On one occasion, Denis Hall of the Pianola Institute heard him playing a Viennese waltz on the player piano, in a rather mannered way which suggested that he might not have been in full control of the instrument. To Hall's amazement, Riess then folded the pedals away and played the same piece by hand, identically! This experience was the "Road to Damascus" moment that convinced Denis Hall of the value of the pianola as a serious musical instrument.

Joseph D.M. Rorke (1886-1944)
Rorke was an occasional writer on music, who "discovered" the player piano in August 1911, soon after the coronation of George V. He documented his journey into music and rolls in a little book entitled A Musical Pilgrim's Progress, first published by the Oxford University Press in 1921. The ways in which he travelled through Chopin and Wagner, to late Beethoven and beyond, clearly struck a chord with amateur music lovers of the time, because the book ran to three editions, and continued selling for decades. If you are thinking of purchasing a secondhand copy of this book, which is in plentiful supply on the Web, then be aware that only the first edition has the full references to his passion for the player piano. Rorke also wrote about music rolls in Musical Times, and was the author of a short pamphlet entitled The Happy Player-pianist, published by the piano house of John Broadwood & Sons in London. By profession and calling a Presbyterian minister, Joseph Rorke remained a keen pianolist to the end of his life, with both a grand and an upright player piano at his home. By courtesy of the University of Toronto, a pdf file of the first edition of his book is now available for free download, from www.archive.org.

Dr Agnes Savill (1875-1964)

Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) - (Click for Picture)
Artur Schnabel didn't actually play the pianola, and he might well have been horrified that a pianist of the accomplished rank which he considered himself to have achieved, should appear on a page devoted to such a base instrument. Well, it serves him right for making a nasty quip about the reproducing piano, which we shall seek to redress here! There is a widespread rumour, to be found all over the internet, and in many published books whose authors should know better, that Schnabel refused to record piano rolls for this or that company, because their piano had only x degrees of touch, whereas he had x+1. You can fill in the figures as you please, since that is what many historians and their uncritical publishers have seen fit to do.

In fact, Schnabel was one of the more prolific piano roll artists, recording at least 56 rolls, for four different companies in both Germany and the USA. And yet there is something elusively authentic about this story that needs to be pinned down. The most believable version concerns the Aeolian Company's Duo-Art piano, with the insidious untruth that the Duo-Art had only sixteen degrees of touch, whereas Schnabel had seventeen. Whether Schnabel really had only seventeen is for his devotees to say, and he would certainly have been a rather poor example of a pianist if such were true, but what is absolutely certain is that the Duo-Art had an almost immeasurable range of dynamics. The dynamic coding on Duo-Art rolls begins with 32 theoretical levels, each of which, since pneumatic pianos are not the same as electronic computers, is effectively a miniature crescendo or decrescendo. In addition, the effect of each level is dependent on how long the individual coding perforations are, how many notes are due to play, how many notes have already been played but are being held on, and whether the sustaining and/or soft pedals are already in operation, or are about to be. It would be a brave musician who sought to quantify levels in the face of such variables, and in practice the Duo-Art editors added or removed coding perforations until the music sounded right to both their own ears and those of the pianists. They certainly had a palette that was a good deal more sensitive than many modern MIDI-controlled pianos.

But, although Artur Schnabel did not record for the Duo-Art, or at least did not record any known rolls, the Aeolian Company printed advertisements in October and November 1921 that proudly announced him as an exclusive Duo-Art artist. Aeolian was no tin-pot company, to make mistakes over the status of such a significant musician, so something must have happened. A well-functioning Duo-Art (unfortunately a great rarity in the 21st century) is a match for any other reproducing piano, and certainly for some of the others for which Schnabel was content to record, so it cannot have been a technical problem. That narrows it down to a clash of personalities, a better financial deal from the opposition, or most likely a sharp reminder from Knabe, whose pianos he was billed exclusively to play, that if he failed to remain loyal to Ampico, in which Knabe pianos took pride of place, he could no longer expect to be supplied with pianos for his impending US concert tour.

One possible clue as to the story's origin comes from the fact that he was guest of honour at a New York dinner on 11 January 1922, at which Ampico entertained its retail agents from all over the United States, to brief them on its plans for the forthcoming year. By that time Schnabel was being publicly described as an Ampico artist, and yet some of those present would undoubtedly have seen the Aeolian advertisements barely two months before, which might well have set them wondering. If there were ever a time when Schnabel's legendary wit might have been put to ideal use, his after-dinner speech on this occasion would have been the very moment. With such an important and far from impartial audience, the witticism would have been guaranteed safe passage into player piano immortality.

Percy Scholes (1877-1958) - (Click for Picture)

Max Schulz

Scott of the Antarctic (1868-1912)
As with the expeditions which he rather autocratically led, Captain Robert Falcon Scott gains the titular glory for this particular entry, although on his journeys to the Antarctic, the transport and playing of the Pianola and the Broadwood player piano were something of a joint enterprise. For the first expedition, from 1901 to 1904, the piano firm of John Broadwood and Sons presented an upright piano for use on the S.S. Discovery, but the crew lacked pianists, and so a push-up Pianola was donated by Lady Baxter of Dundee, together with some 20 rolls of music. These were played mainly by Charles Royds, the First Lieutenant of the crew, but over the long voyage south there must have been complaints about monotony, because another 200 or so rolls were sent out from England around Christmas 1901, joining the ship at Lyttleton in New Zealand. Royds, who later became Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, brought both instruments back to England in 1904, along with a small reed organ which had been presented to the expedition by the people of Christchurch, New Zealand. Subsequently all three instruments passed to his daughter, who lived in Maiden Newton, Dorset, and for many years the organ was used at the Methodist Chapel in that village.

For the second expedition, from 1910 to 1913, John Broadwood & Sons presented an upright player piano, which was placed in a cabin known as "The Nursery" on board the Terra Nova, next to the wardroom. No doubt it was lowered to its travelling position by means of ropes and a crane, and Broadwoods had sensibly constructed it so that it could be divided into sections when necessary. A roll cabinet stood next to the piano, containing some 250 music rolls, at least one hundred of which were Melographic rolls, presented by the Chase & Baker Company of Buffalo, through its London office. This enterprising company had organised a public competition in conjunction with one of the London magazines, in which members of the public were asked to choose the hundred titles which they thought would best suit the explorers, the winner receiving a Chase & Baker player as a prize, and the winning selection being donated to the expedition. The music included pieces by Wagner, Johann Strauss and Gilbert & Sullivan, Sousa's "Washington Post" March, ragtime, and Christian hymns. Melographic rolls were frequently advertised as being impervious to changes of climate, so the Antarctic was no doubt perceived as an ideal advertising opportunity.

Since fairy stories have a way of becoming accepted as historical truth, it is worth pointing out that there is no record that the musical repertoire for the second expedition included "Knees Up, Mother Brown," as mischievously reported by the British writer, Sara Wheeler, in both her 2011 travel book, "Access All Areas," and her 2010 biography of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of the crew who went on to document the expedition's history in some considerable detail. What Cherry-Garrard actually recorded, in his account, "The Worst Journey in the World" (1922), ran as follows:

"On one famous occasion we tried to play the pianola to accompany the hymns, but, since the rolls were scored rather for musical effect than for church services, the pianola was suddenly found to be playing something quite different from what was being sung."

Cherry-Garrard was referring to a religious service at sea, and not at the Antarctic base, and all he can possibly have meant is that either the roll of selected hymns had insufficient verses to suit the occasion, and so proceeded onwards to the next hymn on the roll, or that the pianola player was inexperienced, and thus unable to match the speed of the music roll to the singing of the assembled crew. Such instruments are very definitely not automatic, and the notion that a player piano might somehow, of its own accord, decide to accompany Mother Brown, or indeed to play any music other than what was perforated on the selected roll, is palpable nonsense.

The piano and its removal to the Antarctic shore were described in some detail by Griffith Taylor, an Australian member of the expedition, whose reports were published in the Sydney and Melbourne newspapers in the spring of 1911. While on ship, the instrument was protected from any storm leaks in the deck by a covering of rubbercloth attached to the ceiling, with a tube diverting any accumulated water elsewhere. In mid-January 1911, it appears to have taken two days to remove the stairs outside the wardroom, to dismantle and hoist the piano to the deck, along with the roll cabinet and its contents, and to transport them all across the ice and re-erect them in the Winterquarters Hut at Cape Evans. Lieutenant Henry Rennick seems to have been in charge of the operation, and on 20 January 1911, he courageously tuned the piano, and played Home, Sweet Home (probably by hand), as a sign that culture had finally arrived! Cecil Meares, in charge of the dog teams, also played the Broadwood from time to time, and was captured on camera, sitting cosily next to the central heating. The Broadwood was later returned to London, via Christchurch in New Zealand, where repairs necessitated by water damage on the return voyage were carried out, and it subsequently went on display at the Ideal Home Exhibition.

Unsuccessful as Scott may have been in establishing priority of claim at the South Pole, one should not blame his Pianola or the other musical diversions which he quite sensibly took with him to Antarctica. Roald Amundsen took an upright piano on the Fram, which clearly did not prevent him from proceeding successfully southwards, and which nowadays survives at the museum located at his former home near Oslo, and Lieutenant Robert Peary took an Aeolian Pianola Piano on board the Roosevelt as he headed north, whether or not he actually reached his destination!

In the 1948 film of Scott of the Antarctic, James Robertson Justice pedalled an upright player piano as members of the crew danced round energetically in cossack fashion, crouching down and kicking their feet out, in celebration of midwinter on 22 June 1911. Although the incidental music for the film as a whole was composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams, it seems likely that the music on roll was the special Pianola arrangement of the Second Cossacca by Giacomo Marchisio, at one time the chief musician at Kastner Autopianos in London.

Spare Pneumatic Motors from the Broadwood Antarctic Player Piano, May 2010.

In May 2010, conservationists from the Antarctic Heritage Trust in London visited Cape Evans, under the auspices of the Natural History Museum, and came across some spare pneumatic motors from the Broadwood, the wood still in good condition, though the rubbercloth having perished. It may be seen that the player mechanism used the system of unit valves designed by the American, Peter Welin, with whom Broadwoods co-operated for a while in the years preceding the First World War. Photographs of the pneumatics and valves were formerly included in the Museum's Antarctic blog, but they were removed a few years ago. Luckily for us, they were safely archived by the Pianola Institute!

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
Bernard Shaw had at least two pianolas, which were sold at Christies in London many years ago. One of them was a 65-note Metrostyle-Themodist push-up in a light oak case, sold again in Cornwall in 2001. Shaw used his pianolas to help introduce him to music, and he wrote about them occasionally. In the preface to his novel, The Irrational Knot, he explains that "I was an execrable pianist, and never improved until the happy invention of the pianola made a Paderewski of me. I could play a simple accompaniment at sight more congenially to a singer than most amateurs." Shaw shared an interest in cameras and pianolas with Frederick Evans, mentioned above, and introduced Evans in pianola concerts at the Camera Club in London.

Johannes Sikemeier (1838-1920)
On Monday 9 December 1912, the "Symphonia" orchestra of Rotterdam accompanied a performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto, in which the solo part was played on a Hupfeld Meisterpiel Phonola, the latest 88-note model of the time. The piano was a Blüthner grand, but it is not clear whether the Phonola was built in, or whether it was of the push-up variety that sat in front of the keyboard. The identity of the "Phonolist" is also shrouded in the mists of time, but the renowned Rotterdam piano teacher, Johannes Sikemeier, is credited with helping the orchestra on this occasion, and it may be that his 74-year-old feet provided both the motivation and the motive power for the performance.

Given that the player system was a Hupfeld Phonola, provided by the local agents, Gebr. Rijken and de Lange, the rolls used are likely to have been those recorded for Hupfeld's series of Künstlerrollen by Wilhelm Backhaus. Some Hupfeld solo rolls of the Grieg and Schumann Concertos have survived, and Backhaus is the soloist in both cases.

Sydney Smith

Josef Stalin (1878-1953)
It seems that Stalin might have been a closet pianolist, for in October 1939 Leon Trotsky paraded his former colleague's private life in Life magazine, paying for his indiscretion some ten months later by a close encounter with an ice-pick. His account runs as follows:

"Besides his Kremlin apartment, Stalin has a villa in Gorky, the country house in which Lenin once lived and out of which Stalin drove his widow. In one of the rooms there is a motion-picture screen; in another, a valuable instrument which has the function of satisfying the musical wants of the master - a pianola. They tell how delighted Stalin was when, as a child, he was shown for the first time this marvel of marvels. He has another pianola in his Kremlin apartment for he cannot live without art. He spends his hours of relaxation enjoying the melodies of Aida. In music as in politics he wants a docile machine. And the Soviet composers accept as law every preference of the dictator who has two pianolas."

There is currently no way of knowing whether this apparent insight was the un-french-polished truth, or perhaps a subtle attempt at black propaganda, at a time when the player piano had lost its former cachet. Trotsky describes Stalin as encountering his first pianola in childhood, but by the time the Pianola went on sale in Russia, Stalin was hardly a child. If we count any Russian musicologists as readers of our website, perhaps they might enlighten us.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

George Swift

Fermin Toledo (1850-1905) - (Click for Picture)
Don Fermin Toledo was the Aeolian Company's first artistic director, for about ten years at the end of the nineteenth century. Born in Spain around 1850, he studied piano at the conservatory in Madrid, under the supervision of Manuel Mendizabal, who is better known for having taught the composer, Isaac Albeniz. In 1863, at an apparently rather early age, he was one of the two prizewinning pianists of his year, the award being presented by Queen Isabella II of Spain, and then as a young man in the 1870s he moved to Puerto Rico, at that time a Spanish dependency, where he found great success as a concert pianist and teacher. In 1879 he founded the first Puerto Rican Concert Society and Orchestra, conducting the inaugural concert at the new Municipal Theatre of San Juan in November of that year. In the late 1880s he moved to New York, where he became the Artistic Director of the Aeolian Company, and the first expert player of the Aeolian organ.

As well as supervising Aeolian's musical affairs in New York, Toledo also travelled abroad on its behalf, notably to Mexico and South America, and in June 1895 he had the singular honour of playing the Aeolian before Pope Leo XIII in the throne room of the Vatican. This remarkable recital so impressed the Pope that he asked Señor Toledo to play a selection of rolls during the private mass which he celebrated the following Thursday in the Consistory Chapel, on the Festival of Corpus Christi, so 13 June 1895 may be considered a rather significant date in the history of roll-playing instruments! The illustration to be found by clicking the link above depicts the initial private recital for Pope Leo, with the General Chamberlain, Monsignor Ottavio Caggiano de Azevedo, and the privy Chamberlain, Monsignor Rafael Merry del Val, also in attendance.

In the spring of 1898, the Spanish-American War was declared, resulting in defeat for Spain, and the American acquisition of Puerto Rico and other islands. As patriotic Spaniards, Fermin Toledo and his son, Vicente (q.v.), felt compelled to leave the USA, and they settled in Paris, establishing Toledo et Cie, as a new agency for the Aeolian Company in France and the mediterranean countries. In New York, Toledo had played a significant part in creating the Aeolian Quarterly magazine, which was published for a short time between 1897 and 1899, and in Paris he founded the Revue Éolienne, also short-lived, which lasted until 1903. In the summer of 1904, Toledo once again visited the Vatican, this time in company with his son, and the two men demonstrated the new Metrostyle Pianola for Pope Pius X, who invested Don Fermin as a Knight of the Order of St Gregory.

Vicente Toledo - (Click for Picture)
In the Aeolian Quarterly for March 1899, Fermin and Vicente Toledo are described as "père et fils", thereby defining their relationship in the language of their newly-adopted country of residence, since they had recently moved to Paris to set up an Aeolian agency for continental Europe. Given that Vicente was already appearing as soloist in New York concerts in the mid-1890s, it seems likely that he would have been born no later than the 1870s, at the time his father was active in Puerto Rico, and so he counts as a Spaniard by birth. He must have been introduced to the Aeolian range of instruments at a very early age, and he clearly developed a real affinity towards playing from roll, because he took part in a number of the Aeolian Company's important public concerts, and no doubt in its regular in-house demonstrations as well.

In January 1896, he both organised and performed in a well-publicised concert at Mendelssohn Hall in New York, a sizeable affair, with three well-known soloists and a chorus of forty, during which he gave the first American performance of Widor's "Symphonie Gothique", by means of music rolls on an Aeolian Pipe Organ, as well as accompanying two singers, a violinist, and his own father in the Finale from the Mendelssohn G minor Piano Concerto. April of the same year saw him in charge of a second concert at the same venue, only this time with Madame Nordica and Edouard de Reszke as vocal soloists, a combination that could hardly have been bettered.

Moving to Paris in 1898, he was equally busy with concerts and demonstrations in that city, as well as performing in various other European countries. In June 1904 he played before Pope Pius X in Rome, followed by a solo concert at the Teatro Costanzi (the Rome Opera House), in front of what was billed as a capacity audience. Two years later, in November 1906, he was soloist in the Rubinstein D minor Piano Concerto at the Teatro de la Princesa in Madrid, accompanied by an orchestra of some 45 players, conducted by the Spanish composer, Arturo Saco del Valle. A photograph of that occasion may be seen by clicking the link above. In 1907 he moved once again, this time to Madrid, where he became artistic director of the Aeolian establishment in Spain, and in 1912 he and a partner set up in business on their own account, selling pianos and player pianos under the name of Gasset y Toledo.

Mark Twain (1835-1910)

Percy K. Van Yorx - (Click for Picture)
Percival Keeler Van Yorx, born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, was one of a pair of musical brothers, the other being Theodore Van Yorx, a well-known tenor who sang at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere around the American East Coast. Percy, as he was known in the player piano world, became one of the most accomplished player pianists of his time, and he developed his skills in that regard with the aid of a number of different instruments. Beginning his career as a Pianola representative with the Aeolian Company in New York in the late 1890s, he left in 1901 to take charge of Melville Clark's Apollo showrooms in that city. But it was Wilcox and White's Angelus that became his real musical preserve, and by 1902 he had moved to San Francisco, where he supervised the Angelus department of Sherman, Clay & Co. Two years later he transferred to a similar position with the Estey Company branch in St Louis, in good time for the impending Louisiana Purchase Exposition, known generally as the St Louis World's Fair.

In 1906 he joined the Wanamaker organisation in Manhattan, giving many Angelus concerts in the famous Wanamaker Auditorium, and acquiring a considerable following amongst the musical public of New York. With an inventive turn of mind, he turned his attention to the devising of a system for indicating expression and tempo on music rolls, coming up with the Artistyle device, which combined in one single form of notation what the Pianola achieved with its separate Metrostyle and dynamic lines. When Wilcox and White began the production of Voltem hand-played rolls, and subsequently Artrio recordings with automatically controlled dynamics, Van Yorx moved to Meriden, Connecticut, as the Company's chief recording producer and editor, and he remained in that city for about fifteen years, witnessing the bankruptcy of Wilcox and White in 1922, and the acquisition of the Angelus Artrio, first by Hallet and Davis, and subsequently by QRS, whose expression piano, the Recordo, thereby became another of his responsibilities. In 1927 the Artrio recording studio in central Meriden was finally closed, and Van Yorx moved to New York, where he continued his recording work at the QRS factory in the Bronx.

To those who doubt that the player piano was ever a truly musical instrument, the following recollection of Van Yorx's abilities, taken from the Music Trade Review in 1910, has a plausibility that derives from the very detail of its description:

"To see what really can be done with the player-piano as a means for true individual interpretation, one should hear Van Yorx play the A flat Chopin Ballade. The wealth of color, the astonishing play of dynamic capacities, the continual bringing out of internal melodies, leave one in astonishment."

Lucius Voorhorst (d. 1981) - (Click for Picture)
Together with Frits Speetjens and Theo Leeuwenberg, Lucius Voorhorst was one of the three founders of the Nederlandse Pianola Vereniging, the Dutch Pianola Society. He was by profession a solo flautist, composer, and professor at the Tilburg Conservatoire of Music, where one of his colleagues, the composer Jan van Dijk, wrote a Concerto for Pianola and Orchestra, Op. 608. Voorhorst perforated the rolls on a hand-punching machine, giving the first performance at the Stadsschouwburg in Tilburg on 8 April 1978, with the Brabant Orchestra, conducted by Willem Frederik Bon. The Concerto was later arranged for Pianola and Wind Band, and a Potpourri was produced, for Pianola solo. Lucius Voorhorst died unexpectedly in the summer of 1981, and the Pianola Concerto received its first broadcast performance at Hilversum on 1 November 1981, with the Netherlands Radio Orchestra under Jan Stulen, and Rex Lawson as pianola soloist. Printed scores of the Concerto are owned by the Pianola Institute, as well as photocopies of the original rolls.

Montagu Watson

H. G. Wells (1866-1946)

Frank White

Esther Willis (1888-1985)
"Father" Henry Willis, the legendary British organ builder, had two sons, Vincent and Henry. As the elder of the two, Vincent might naturally have expected to succeed his father as head of the family business, and he was undoubtedly a brilliant craftsman and engineer. However, there was apparently a clash of personalities, and Vincent left to set up organ-building on his own account, in Brentford, to the west of London. According to his daughter, Esther, who was interviewed in the early 1980s, Vincent's family life was beset by financial difficulties, though he lived to the ripe old age of 80. Esther Willis was clearly a very bright and very musical young lady, and in her late 20s, to help support her family, she perforated piano rolls to commission, on a wall-mounted punching machine that her father had constructed. Her clients included Philip Heseltine, better known as the English composer, Peter Warlock, Edwin Evans, the musical author and critic, and Alvin Langdon Coburn (q.v.), a well-known American photographer who, she recalled, had made an unsuccessful attempt to court her.

Amongst the music which Miss Willis perforated was a good deal of Stravinsky, which she arranged from the orchestral scores, including Faun and Shepherdess, Le Roi des Étoiles, Fireworks and the Scherzo Fantastique. She also produced much organ music, on both 88 and 65-note rolls, and even some of Schoenberg's early orchestral pieces. Meeting her in the early 1980s at her home on the Kent coast, when she was well into her nineties, her acuity and musicianship shone out like a beacon. It is possible that her rolls played a part, via Edwin Evans, in persuading Stravinsky to take the pianola seriously; certainly her arrangements, many of which have survived, show a great deal of sensitivity towards the reduction of the music from orchestral forces to the range of an 88-note player piano.

One of Esther Willis' rolls is currently available on CD, on the NMC label, in a performance by Rex Lawson. It is a 65-note arrangement of Bach's Organ Prelude and Fugue in G, BWV 541, and an excerpt can be heard at the NMC website.

Dan Wilson (1934-2005)

Sir Henry Wood (1869-1944)

W. Creary Woods

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Francis L. Young (1871-1933)

back to top