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

Rachmaninoff at the Ampico Recording Piano, New York, early 1920s.

Like most musical Russians at the start of the twentieth century, Rachmaninoff must have been aware of the Pianola's existence. Pianolas were first introduced into Russia by the Leipzig businessman, Julius Heinrich Zimmermann, who had large retail establishments in St Petersburg, Moscow and Riga, as this 1913 Cyrillic advertisement for the Steinway Pianola Piano confirms. By 1903, Czar Nicholas had an Aeolian, puchased for him by his wife, the Empress Alexandra, and most members of the Imperial Family followed suit. One can imagine that roll-operated instruments were not immediately important for a pianist of Rachmaninoff's stature, although as a composer he may have had some passing interest, since his music began to appear on perforated piano rolls as early as 1900.

The Pianola Piano in Russia - Julius Heinrich Zimmermann in 1913.

back to top

Early Rachmaninoff Rolls from the Aeolian Company in the USA - 1900 to 1906
The first of Rachmaninoff's compositions to appear in an Aeolian Company Pianola catalogue were the Prelude and Polichinelle from Opus 3, and the Waltz and Melodie from Opus 10. These were all published in the nineteenth century, given that the new century technically began in 1901. By the time of the July 1901 roll catalogue, several hundred more classical titles had been prepared, with roll numbers higher than the pieces by Rachmaninoff, so, working backwards, the four were almost certainly in existence by 1900, within two years of the launch of the Pianola in the autumn of 1898. In particular the Prelude in C sharp minor was performed publicly on the Pianola on June 6th, 1900, during the very first Pianola recital in Brooklyn, at the Aeolian Company's recital rooms at 500 Fulton Street. The Elegy and Serenade from Opus 3 were added towards the end of 1901, and all six titles were re-published between late 1904 and early 1906 in the Aeolian Company's Metrostyle series, with undulating red lines to indicate the use of the tempo lever.

Many composers were more closely involved with the Pianola than we might imagine nowadays, but much of the evidence was transitory, and especially so in Rachmaninoff's case. In 1917 a revolutionary mob burnt the composer's country estate and its contents, while he and his family looked on in dismay. In order to arrive at the probable truth, therefore, we need to consider both circumstantial evidence and the recorded memories of his relatives. In particular, Rachmaninoff's sister-in-law, Sophia Satina, recalled him playing through rolls of his own Second Piano Concerto on a Pianola at Ivanovka, the estate several hundred miles south-east of Moscow that was later destroyed. To find out why and when this early association with piano rolls might have occurred, it will be useful to follow the composer's footsteps in the years preceding the First World War.

back to top

Rachmaninoff in Dresden - 1906 to 1909
Rachmaninoff's early sojourns in Dresden have not always been recorded with as much care as they deserve, so it is worth taking a little time to set the record straight. In November 1906, the Rachmaninoff family travelled from their country estate, Ivanovka, some five hundred miles south-east of Moscow, to Dresden in Germany, making similar visits during the autumn and winter months of each year until 1909, and living in a rented house at Sidonienstrasse 6. This was a street just off the main shopping thoroughfare of Prager Strasse, and not far from the Hauptbahnhof, the central station. One may find references on the web to another Dresden mansion where the Rachmaninoffs stayed in the 1920s, the Villa Fliederhof, and it is important to realise that these were not at all the same location, nor indeed the same area of the city. Dresden was a world-class centre for classical music and opera, and it may also have suited Rachmaninoff as a base for the winter months in view of the substantial Russian expatriate community in the city, including at least one "Satin" family, his wife's maiden name, though whether there was a family relationship is not known.

Rachmaninoff's entry in the Dresden Street Directory for 1908.

From the Dresden street directory of 1908, which is available online, it is clear that the main building at Sidonienstrasse 6 was split into many apartments, but there were also a Garden Villa (GG), and a rear building (HG) that served as an artist's studio in the leafy plot of land hidden away behind the scenes. It was to one of these, the Garden Villa, that the Rachmaninoffs moved in 1906, and it must have provided a real oasis of calm, but nevertheless in an area of Europe that allowed the composer to keep up with the very latest musical developments. So far no photographs of the Garden Villa have come to light, but immediately behind Rachmaninoff's villa lay the gardens of the Hotel Terminus, with what must have been a reasonably similar "Gartengebäude" at the side, and so this photograph is as near as we are likely to get to an image of the Rachmaninoff's winter quarters in those early years of the twentieth century.

A typical House and Garden Villa in Dresden, adjacent to the Rachmaninoffs.

There was also a Russian Orthodox church a few minutes' walk away, on the other side of the main railway station, built in the early 1870s. The size and design of the building reflected the importance of the Russian community in Dresden, and it no doubt acted as a social hub, just as much as a religious centre. Although Ivanovka was some 2,500 kilometres away from Sidonienstrasse, the cultural traditions of Mother Russia were easily accessible.

The Russian Church in Dresden - Allgemeine Illustrirte Zeitung, 1874.

In 1904 the previous inhabitant of the Garden Villa had been Franz Koppel-Ellfeld, Intendant of the Hoftheater (the Semperoper) at Dresden, and a well-known author and opera librettist of the time, so it is easy to see how Rachmaninoff's opera connections might have played a part in helping to find the ideal location. The whole property can be seen in the Dresden street map of 1911, and it is here coloured turquoise for clarity.

A detail of the Dresden Street Plan for 1911.

Also coloured turquoise is a building at Prager Strasse 49, for reasons which will become apparent in due course. This complete area was destroyed, like most of central Dresden, on the night of 13/14 February 1945, when the Allied bombing caused a firestorm to annihilate much of the city, but it still existed in 1944, when the following aerial photograph was taken. The photo points more or less due north, and two locations have been marked in sepia, the one on the left being the main Sidonienstrasse building, with the two garden properties behind it. It may be remarked that nos. 8 and 10, Sidonienstrasse, had by this time been replaced by further commercial development, so that Rachmaninoff's former Garden of Eden was by now rather less hidden away.

An aerial view of Dresden in 1944.

The other sepia-coloured building in the photograph (turquoise in the map) is also very important. It is at the southern end of Prager Strasse, where it used to join the Wiener Platz, diagonally opposite the main entrance to the Hauptbahnhof. Prager Strasse was Dresden's main shopping thoroughfare, and it is a testament to the thoroughness of the city's destruction that it no longer exists in that form. The highlighted building is Prager Strasse 49, and roughly in the summer of 1907, the Choralion Company, the German subsidiary of the Aeolian Company, established a retail showroom there. Clearly it must have been a wonderful location, since everyone coming out of the station more or less had to pass it. No doubt that included the Rachmaninoff family, who, on the return from one of their summer sojourns at Ivanovka, might perhaps have remarked on the new establishment, even if they were passing slowly by in a horse-drawn cab. Here is a clearer view of the building, housing two or three individual shops, just to the left of the tower on the corner, which latter formed part of the Kaiser Café on the Wiener Platz.

The Choralion Showroom in Dresden, at Prager Strasse 49, c. 1911.

The more general point here is how physically close Rachmaninoff was to the Pianola between 1907 and 1909. The main showroom in Dresden was no more than five minutes' walk from his house. In view of the destruction of Ivanovka, nothing is written down and recorded, alas, but it would surely have been very strange if Rachmaninoff had not visited what was effectively a new showroom for pianos and allied instruments, and been warmly welcomed by the representatives of a company that was already publishing some of his music on roll. Given that the Pianola has for many years been associated more with Scott Joplin than it has with Rachmaninoff, it should be noted that any special association with ragtime or dance music comes more from the tastes of present-day collectors than it does from the original period. Naturally, all musical styles were represented in the roll catalogues, but serious music was definitely at the centre of the instrument's repertoire, as this advertisement from Dresden in November 1909 makes clear.

Pianola Advertisement, Salonblatt, Dresden, November 1909.

back to top

Rachmaninoff and the British Aeolian Company - 1909 to 1917 - Introduction
Until roughly 1906 all rolls for the Aeolian Pianola had been made in America, at the Company's factory in Meriden, Connecticut, but the market in Europe was expanding very fast, and somewhere between 1906 and 1908 a small roll workshop was opened in London, in the Covent Garden area of the city, though initially only producing copies from American master rolls. In 1909 a much larger facility was built at Hayes, not far from the present-day location of Heathrow Airport, and a musical staff was engaged to produce new music rolls from scratch. For this purpose, a subsidiary company was set up, known as the Universal Music Company Ltd., and its brand-new factory can be seen below, at the right-hand side of the Orchestrelle Company's Hayes establishment. Over the succeeding decades, it was London which provided the most interesting classical repertoire for the foot-pedalled Pianola, and several separately numbered series of rolls were introduced.

The new Orchestrelle Company Factories at Hayes. Middlesex, 1909.

An important technical development at this time was the agreement between player piano companies, at the Hotel Iroquois in Buffalo on the afternoon of Thursday, 10 December 1908, when an international standard for the newly devised 88-note rolls was agreed upon. Prior to that date, most rolls had covered only 65 notes of the piano keyboard, losing about an octave at each end. It was the development of smaller and more sophisticated pneumatic valves that allowed rolls with smaller perforation sizes to be used, thereby expanding the range available in rolls of normal width, which was roughly 11 1/4 inches. But it should not be imagined that all rolls were suddenly published at the new standard, and 65-note remained the main system for at least a couple of years thereafter.

Where the 88-note Standard was agreed - Hotel Iroquois, Buffalo - December 1908.

The Orchestrelle Company was the Aeolian Company's subsidiary in London, and its June 1910 catalogue of 65-note rolls bears witness to a sudden flurry of new Rachmaninoff issues. The most important of these, published no more than a month before the catalogue was issued, was a three-roll set of the Second Concerto, available in both standard and Metrostyle rolls, but also around the same time there were the first six Preludes from Opus 23, plus an additional arrangement of no. 5 (G minor) by the composer's cousin, Alexander Siloti, and three of the Opus 16 Moments Musicaux, nos 2, 11 and 16. Here is a musical example of one of these issues from shortly after the Dresden period, a very simple 65-note roll of the Eb Prelude from Opus 23, taken from a concert given in London a few years ago. This roll has no accent perforations, making it more difficult to bring out melodic lines, but the general phrasing that can be achieved, both from dynamic variation by means of the foot-pedals, and the inflections of rubato from the tempo lever (and underneath it all this is a completely metronomic roll) show very clearly that such instruments can be as musical as the player wishes to make them

mp3 RACHMANINOFF: Prelude in Eb, Op. 23, no. 6,  [2.4 Mb]
Performed by Rex Lawson - October 2011, London.

This roll was played on an Aeolian Pianola, attached to a Steinway 'B' grand piano.
The audio recording is the copyright of the Pianola Institute, 2011.

Musical Prejudice towards the Pianola
Before continuing with a description of the other Rachmaninoff rolls made by Aeolian in London, it is worth setting them into the context of modern musicology by discussing the terrible prejudice that has existed towards the foot-pedalled Pianola, especially in the English-speaking countries, for well nigh on a hundred years. This is not a disdain that was universally shared by pianists and composers of the early twentieth-century, but it has regrettably infected the opinions of musical writers since the Second World War, as can be seen in the ways in which Rachmaninoff's rolls have often been treated. It is with a genuinely heavy heart that we feel compelled to quote from pages 223 and 224 of Max Harrison's otherwise sympathetic magnum opus, "Rachmaninoff - Life, Works, Recordings," published in 2005 by Continuum International.

"One doubts if Rachmaninoff had much considered any method of recording as a means of preserving his art until he went to America. He carefully thought about it later, however, and he may even have cut a set of rolls of a solo version of Concerto No. 2 in the earliest years of the twentieth century. These would have been for a German firm (not Welte-Mignon) and Sofia Satina claimed to have heard him running through these on an upright player-piano at Ivanovka. No copies have survived and it is most unlikely they were issued to the public. This surely is just as well because they would have been for the crude pianola, not for the greatly refined reproducing piano for which he recorded in America."

It would not have taken much effort for Max Harrison to have ascertained the details of the Rachmaninoff rolls published by the Aeolian Company in London. The respect that he pays towards the reproducing piano is a sure sign that he was in contact with at least some British collectors of such instruments, and even if the Aeolian (Orchestrelle) Company's 1914 roll catalogue was not available online when his book was being written (it most certainly is online now, at archive.org), then it would have been an easy matter for him to have asked for someone to check in an actual catalogue. The Second Concerto was published by the Orchestrelle Company in London from 1910 onwards, and to attribute it simply to "a German firm," without checking one's facts, is a clear sign that the Pianola did not merit any conscientious research, in the mind of the author.

Copies of the three rolls that make up the Aeolian set of the Second Concerto still exist in the 21st Century, in a good number of private collections, and indeed new copies could be obtained from Aeolian and its successors until well into the 1970s. They have indeed survived, therefore, they were published, not by a German firm, but by an English one with a branch only five minutes away from Rachmaninoff in Dresden, and they remained available for public purchase over a period of some seventy years. Max Harrison is wrong on every count, and regrettably prejudiced into the bargain.

The Second Piano Concerto on Aeolian Music Rolls
At any rate, it is better to provide positive evidence, rather than resorting solely to the criticism of others. The next three musical examples (in preparation) are mp3s of the whole of the Second Piano Concerto, in its 88-note edition, published by the Orchestrelle Company around 1916. Any divergence from the mechanically arranged tempi is entirely intentional, both by the editors who arranged the rolls, and by their present-day performer. There is also no doubt but that such an intention was shared by Rachmaninoff himself, because the Orchestrelle Company regularly called on contemporary composers to advise on the arrangement of their music on roll. So it was with Stravinsky and the Aeolian Rite of Spring, in which connection we are lucky that all of Stravinsky's correspondence has survived; so it was with Ravel and Daphnis and Chloé, since orchestral heterophony that is missing in the four-hand version is reinstated in the Pianola rolls, and only the composer would have been sufficiently aware of its omission in the first place, and so it undoubtedly was with Rachmaninoff, but unfortunately the October Revolution would seem to have destroyed both his Pianola and all his rolls, along with all the family's other possessions and correspondence. How lucky we are that Sophia Satina's memory was as sharp as the Prelude from Opus 3!

back to top