Party Time at the Player Piano - Pianauto Music Roll Leader, Brazil, c.1920.
Whereas a Piano Player sits in front of a normal piano, and plays it by means of a set of felt-covered fingers, a Player Piano has all the mechanisms built inside the one case. This applies equally to grands and to uprights, and it saves the inconvenience of having two separate pieces of furniture for the one purpose. It also means that everything remains more reliably in adjustment, and that the pianolist sits at the same instrument from which the audible music issues forth. As mentioned on our Piano Players page, the complete instruments were actually the first to be built and sold, but they failed to take the markets by storm, because they were not initially available in the best known makes of piano, and because most music lovers already had their own instruments, and did not want to buy completely new pianos for the simple purpose of playing music rolls.
The Earliest Player Pianos
Robert W. Pain, who seems to have been a one-man Aeolian Company Experimental Department in the late nineteenth century, built a few electrical interior players, even as early as the 1880s, but these were not what we would think of today as normal player pianos. Standard built-in player pianos can be traced back to the late 1890s, and both Wilcox and White and the Aeolian Company sold a few. The Wilcox and White player was called the Angelus, while Aeolian marketed the Aeriol Piano (later called the Aeriola), which was designed and built by Theodore P. Brown of Worcester, Mass.
The Aeriol Piano - Aeolian Company Advertisement, New York, 1901.
Whereas the 1895 Angelus grand piano, seen on our Piano Players page, has the roll under the keyboard, the Aeriol Piano placed it in the normal position for an upright, behind a small sliding door in the central panel above the fall. The various control levers, however, are positioned under the keyboard, implying that they cannot have been easy to use in any sensitive way. Theodore Brown applied to patent a very similar player piano mechanism in April 1896, and it is clear that dynamic control was somewhat rudimentary.
The Aeolian Company's Pianola Piano
In August 1903, the Weber Piano Company was purchased by the Aeolian Company, which at the same time reconstituted itself as the Aeolian, Weber Piano and Pianola Company, taking its names from the three main areas of its subsequent business, the Aeolian, the Weber Piano, and the Pianola. It acquired Weber at a very advantageous price, in view of an imminent mortgage on the large Weber factory in lower Manhattan. The name of Weber was very well respected, and Aeolian suddenly found itself in a position where it could manufacture both Pianolas and first-rate pianos, all within its own organisation. Consequently it introduced the new Pianola Piano in 1904, based on a substantial Weber design, which still looks remarkably like the Aeriol Piano from 1897. The main visible difference is the siting of the control levers at the front of the keyboard, just where they would be most easy to use.
The Weber Pianola Piano - Aeolian Company Advertisement, New York, Autumn 1904.
Technical progress on the Pianola Piano closely matched that of the Pianola itself, with the Metrostyle and the Themodist playing their part, and the transition to 88 notes following in January 1909. An agreement was made with Steinways, whereby the Aeolian Company became exclusively able to install a foot-operated Pianola mechanism into Steinway pianos. Other manufacturers were also doing good business with interior players, and these soon outgrew the push-up piano players in popularity. A reflection of this trend can be seen in an Aeolian Company advertisement from the autumn of 1911, in which the old 'silent' piano sits languishing on the brownstone streets of New York, traded in to make way for the newly acquired Pianola Piano.
'The Passing of the Silent Piano' - Aeolian Company Advertisement, USA, September 1911.
Worldwide Pianola Pianos
In truth, player pianos had become very big business, and the main piano manufacturers fell over themselves to include player models in their catalogues. By late 1911, the Aeolian Company had outgrown its New York premises at 362, Fifth Avenue, and it commissioned the construction of a new Aeolian Hall on West 42nd Street, close by the New York Public Library. This rather glamorous building was opened in October 1912, and became the home of the New York Symphony Orchestra, as well as the worldwide headquarters of the sizeable Aeolian empire.
Artist's Impression of the new Aeolian Hall, New York, Autumn 1911.
In March 1914, Aeolian introduced the Duo-Art, a reproducing piano which could play back rolls recorded by well-known pianists and composers, and from then on in the United States, the foot-operated Pianola seemed less interesting, both to Aeolian's customers and to its marketing department. After all, America is the land of automation.
But in Europe, and to some degree in Australia, the normal Pianola Piano remained popular throughout the 1920s. There was in England, for example, a class of liberally educated gentleman, which had its own ideas on how to interpret the music it wished to hear, but which lacked the finger technique to put this into practice on a normal piano. The Pianola and the Pianola Piano, with their mechanically arranged music rolls, suited this group of music lovers very well, so that George Bernard Shaw had two player pianos, H.G. Wells had one, and so did Arnold Bennett. According to the late Bob Good, who worked for the Aeolian Company in London for many years, the Governor of the Bank of England in the 1920s, Sir Montagu Norman, had no less than three Pianolas, attached to three Steinway concert grands; one at his London mansion, one at his country estate, and one at his shooting box in the Lake District.
Aeolian had manufacturing plants in both Europe and the Antipodes, the two largest being the Steck factory in Gotha, Germany, acquired in 1906 as a result of taking over the long-established firm of Ernst Munck, and the Orchestrelle Company factory in England, built from 1909 onwards at Hayes, Middlesex, just down the road from His Master's Voice. The local Middlesex website, middx.net, has many photographs of the buildings and the interiors of the Hayes factory.
The Steck Piano Factory - Gotha, Germany, 1914.
The Orchestrelle Company Factory - Hayes, Middlesex, c. 1911.
The Controls of the 88-note Pianola Piano
Many Pianola Pianos were manufactured in Gotha, and fine instruments they are too, but after the First World War and the introduction of import duties, most European production was transferred to the Aeolian factories near London, England. The Steck Pianola Piano continued to be manufactured throughout the 1920s, and as a result of its widespread popularity, it is the most likely Pianola to be encountered nowadays in Europe.
The Steck Pianola Piano - Aeolian Company Advertisement, London, c. 1910.
The advertisement reproduced above usefully enumerates the various devices which assist the pianolist in creating a musical performance at home. They are as follows:
|A: The Automatic Sustaining Pedal|
|B: The Themodist|
|C: The Metrostyle|
|D: The Soft Pedal Lever|
|E: The Loud (or Sustaining) Pedal Lever|
|F & G: The Graduated Accompaniment Levers|
|H: The Tempo Lever|
|I: The Silent Lever|
For more information on how to use these and other types of player piano controls, see our On Playing the Pianola page.
The Grand Pianola Piano
It was obviously a challenge to Aeolian's inventors to develop a Pianola mechanism within a grand piano, and there are several relevant patents in Edwin Votey's name from as early as 1904 onwards, although the finished instrument was not launched on to the market until 1909. At an initial cost of $1875, the Weber Grand Pianola Piano was clearly not for the mass market, and the advertising campaigns reflect this element of luxury. The case of a normal piano was lengthened, to take the roll spoolbox and windmotor, and the pneumatic stack was fitted underneath the keybed, with a slight nod towards concealment by the fitting of wooden "veils" just behind the front legs. Although the first grand Pianola was built into a Weber, there were soon models available in the Steinway, the Steck and other Aeolian makes of piano.
The Weber Grand Pianola Piano - Aeolian Company Advertisement, USA, December 1909.
Decline of the Pianola Piano
It is commonly stated that the Wall Street Crash of 1928, together with the advent of broadcasting and electric recording, brought about the ultimate demise of the player piano. Although this is true in general, the Aeolian Company had other problems to worry about from the early 1920s onwards. The British Aeolian subsidiary lost a great deal of money around 1922, and in 1924 had to seek permission from the High Court in London to reduce its capital by £250,000 sterling, which was the equivalent of 1,000,000 dollars. This was a huge financial loss, all of which was effectively sustained by the parent company in New York, and is probably the ultimate reason why the latter had to move out of its wonderful Aeolian Hall on 42nd Street. Production of Pianola Pianos more or less ceased by the early 1930s, and Aeolian cast around for other business, even trying its hand at the manufacture of motor boats.
An ACO Seaboat - Aeolian Company Catalogue, New York, 1930.
In the end, the Aeolian Company survived as a manufacturer of normal pianos, owning many famous names, such as Mason & Hamlin, Knabe and Chickering. These were made until 1985 at its factory in East Rochester, New York. However, during the 1960s and 1970s it produced a new range of Pianolas, and since attitudes to the instrument had changed greatly over the years, their design now centered on song and dance rolls. A typical advertisement of the period unites the two most famous "OLAs", the Pianola, and several bottles of Coca-Cola. This image of the Pianola, with rinky-tink attachment and just the one dynamic level, is hard to change - jazz, ragtime and singalongs are terrific entertainment, but they are only one facet of a very wide-ranging instrument.
Things Go Better with Coke - Aeolian Company Advertisement, USA, 1964.
Other Player Pianos
It would be quite impossible to list all the makes of player piano that once existed in the world. In addition to the many large manufacturers found in trade directories of the time, there were also small workshops in many countries which turned out limited quantities of the local player piano. All one can do is to deal with the major brands, where the preponderance of advertising material that has survived allows one to make sense of a fading era.
Very frequently, musicians and other interested parties have set down their thoughts about player pianos, although their experience may have been limited by the models which they chanced to encounter. For example, Conlon Nancarrow's use of the player piano for composition is based on a perception of the instrument that owes much to rinky-tink rails and jazz, but this should not limit our own appraisal of player pianos as a whole.
There are factsheets devoted to each of the player pianos illustrated below, accessible by clicking on the appropriate picture.
Other Player Pianos
Website Links and Other Sources of Information
The Player Piano Page - A website run from London, England, by Ian McLaughlin, with historical and technical information, and many links.
Pianolas in Patagonia, Argentina - Horacio E. Asborno's personal webpages, with pianola history and photographs in Spanish.
The Pianola Museum - The Dutch Pianola Museum in Amsterdam, with a choice of four languages, but there is most detail in the Dutch version.
Pianolas in New Zealand - Robert Perry's view on Pianolas from down under, with many MIDI scans of piano rolls.
Pianolas in Australia - Michael Waters, using part of his firm's webspace to create many pages about his enthusiasm for player pianos.
John McTammany - History of the Player, privately printed by Blumenberg Press, New York, NY, USA, 1913.
John McTammany - The Technical History of the Player, The Musical Courier Company, New York, NY, USA, 1915.
Republished by - Vestal Press, Vestal, NY, USA. n.d.
Alfred Dolge - Pianos and their Makers, (2 Vols), Covina Publishing Company, Covina, California, USA, 1911 & 1913.
Republished by - Dover Publications Inc., New York, NY, USA, 1972.
Harvey Roehl - Player Piano Treasury, Vestal Press, Vestal, NY, USA, 1961.
Re-edited and republished by - Vestal Press, Vestal, NY, USA, 1973.
NB: This is a very wide-ranging subject, so look at our links and bibliography pages as well.