Stravinsky seated at the Pleyela in his Paris studio - August 1923,
from "Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents" by Vera Stravinsky and Robert Craft,
Hutchinson, London, 1979.
The Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky, spent some fifteen years, one-sixth of his very long life, in close contact with pianolas of different kinds. He composed an original study for the instrument, planned it as part of the accompaniment to his ballet, "Les Noces", and actually rewrote most of his major early works especially for piano roll.
Stravinsky's ballet - Petrushka.
Pianolas were well-known in Russia before the revolution, but it seems likely that Stravinsky first became aware of their real musical potential in Berlin in late 1912, where he joined Diaghilev's Ballets Russes on tour, for the opening of "Petrushka" on 4 December. Arnold Schoenberg was in the audience that night, and was impressed, and four days later he invited Stravinsky to a performance of "Pierrot Lunaire" in the Choralion Saal at Bellevuestrasse 4, nowadays a mere lamppost at the back of the Sony Centre! The Choralion Company was the Aeolian Company's subsidiary in Germany, and its showrooms were full of pianolas, orchestrelles (a sophisticated development of the American organ) and even pipe organs, all operated by perforated music roll. This visit clearly caused Stravinsky to think of using roll-operated instruments for his own music, because within a few days he had received a telegram from Diaghilev, reassuring him that pianola arrangements were not necessary for the rehearsals of the Rite of Spring, and a tart reply from the Parisian agency that supplied repetiteurs for the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, stating that its pianists were quite capable of mastering the complexities of his music.
The Etude pour Pianola
A few years later, with his thoughts turning to "Les Noces", he enquired of the Aeolian Company in London whether it would be possible to perforate pianola rolls for the accompaniment, and as a result of this contact, he decided to write a series of studies for the Pianola. In fact, he completed only one study, known nowadays as the "Etude pour Pianola", written in 1917, but published and first performed in 1921. The pianolist who gave the première, at Aeolian Hall in London, was Reginald Reynolds, who can be seen on our reproducing piano page.
The opening of the "Etude pour Pianola".
A study score of the Etude is published in Pianola Journal no. 5, by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes - see our Pianola Journal page for more details. The title graphics on the various "factsheet" pages of this website use the opening of the Etude as it appears on roll. Recordings of the work have been made by Rex Lawson, and one of these is currently available in a 3 CD set of Stravinsky conducted by Pierre Boulez, available from Amazon in Germany. You can click to hear an excerpt from the Etude pour Pianola in Real Player, from the Amazon website.
Svadebka - Les Noces
"Les Noces" was one of the central works of Stravinsky's life. It combined his feelings towards the Russia that he had left, and that had changed for ever, his religious beliefs, the musical discoveries that he had made as he travelled Europe, and not least his sense of humour. Initially he thought of arranging it for large orchestra and chorus, but he discarded this version in favour of a much more unusual orchestration. The full title of the work is actually "Svadebka" in Russian, "Les Noces Villageoises" in French, and is best translated as "The Village Wedding" in English. It is a wedding, not of the rich bourgeoisie, but of peasant folk, with all the excitement and mishaps that this entails.
Rex Lawson's CD of Les Noces and other works.
So in trying to represent this peasant quality in music, Stravinsky combined a pianola, played in a deliberately mechanical way, two Hungarian cimbaloms, a harmonium, and a great deal of percussion. These two Russian cimbalom players, found amidst the bustle of the Brussels flea market in March 2005, are the contemporary equivalent of Stravinsky's peasants: a far cry from the tail-coated world of the orchestra pit.
Gypsy cimbaloms in Brussels, March 2005.However, in the aftermath of the First World War, it was not easy to find virtuoso cimbalom players who could perform contemporary Western music, and so the Parisian firm of Pleyel decided to construct two keyboard cimbaloms, that could be played by music roll if necessary. The design was undertaken by a Belgian organ-builder, Georges Cloetens. Unfortunately, the project was not a simple one, and although the new instruments, known as "luthéals", were designed and patented in 1919, they were not finally ready until 1924. Since Stravinsky had sold the exclusive rights of "Les Noces" to Diaghilev for a three-year period beginning in 1920, he had to abandon his ideal instrumentation in favour of the final version for four pianos and percussion.
Georges Cloetens' Luthéal, manufactured by Pleyel.
Some accounts of "Les Noces" even claim that Stravinsky at one time intended the work to be accompanied by four pianolas. However, a letter to the composer, sent in March 1921 from the publishing house of Chester's in London, makes it clear that the four were only needed on account of the duration of the music, which was far too long for only one roll. Two normal pianolas and two cimbalom pianolas were envisaged, one of each for the first two tableaux, and a second pair for the remainder, in addition to all the other instruments.
Pianola Arrangements for Pleyel
During the 1920s, the firm of Pleyel, which was the major musical establishment in Paris, furnished Stravinsky with a studio in its headquarters in the rue Rochechouart. The building was much more than a simple piano showroom, with a fine concert hall, where Chopin had played, and facilities for the editing and manufacture of its Pleyela music rolls.
The historic Salle Pleyel at the Rue Rochechouart.
Stravinsky was able to use his studio as an office, a congenial location for composition, a workshop for creating new piano roll versions of most of his early works, and as a pied-à-terre for entertaining guests, not least his future wife, Vera Soudeikina. In close co-operation with Jacques Larmanjat, Pleyel's head of music rolls, he made new arrangements of Firebird, Petrushka, the Rite of Spring, the Song of the Nightingale, Pulcinella, Les Noces, and a host of smaller works.
Advertising the Pleyela in December 1921.
Pleyel cannot have made much money from the sale of Stravinsky's rolls, for they paid the composer on five counts for each and every roll of his that they manufactured, whether or not it was subsequently sold. These payments were for the mechanical copyright, for exclusivity (since the rolls represented the very first "recordings" of the works concerned), for the arrangement of the work for music roll, for the performance of the work (even though Stravinsky did not actually record any of the rolls at a keyboard), and for the musical copyright of the original work. A special roll leader was commissioned, which can be seen here, as adapted for use in a Pianola Institute concert in 1985.
A Pianola Institute concert flyer, based on the design of Stravinsky's Pleyela rolls.
Three of these arrangements, the Rite of Spring, Petrushka and Les Noces, have been recorded on CD, in recordings made by Rex Lawson during the 1990s. The first recording combines the piano roll Rite with the orchestral version, played by the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. The Orchestra's conductor has placed low-fidelity mp3s of the whole version on his own website, at www.benzander.com. The links to the different tracks are as follows:
Part One - Introduction
The Augurs of Spring
Ritual of Abduction
Ritual of the Rival Tribes
Procession of the Sage
Dance of the Earth
Part Two - Introduction
Mystic Circles of the Young Girls
Glorification of the Chosen One
Evocation of the Ancestors
Ritual Action of the Ancestors
Rex Lawson's second recording of the Rite is coupled with Petrushka and the Etude pour Pianola. The CD is now out of print, but there is an audio excerpt from Petrushka at the Other Minds website in San Francisco, taken from Tableau 1. It may take a little while to download. Les Noces is included on a CD entitled "The Virtuoso Pianolist", available from Other Minds, and also on the Pianola Institute's own CD label, Aeolia. Click here to be linked to the Other Minds webstore, or click here for details of Aeolia 1001.
In 1924, Stravinsky's contract with Pleyel was acquired by the Aeolian Company in New York, and in January 1925 the composer travelled to America for a concert tour, and to record some piano rolls for the Duo-Art system. The Sonata for Piano was actually published on roll before the sheet music appeared, and the first movement of the Concerto for Piano was also issued.
Stravinsky at the Duo-Art recording piano in New York - January 1925.
The Aeolian Company was keen to publish many of Stravinsky's works in its new "AudioGraphic" series of rolls, on which copious programme notes and illustrations could be printed, so in addition to his actual keyboard recordings, Stravinsky worked on preparing Firebird, Petrushka, Apollon Musagète, Baiser de le Fée and other works for the new system. Unfortunately, the Depression of the late 1920s caused the abandonment of this project, and much of the work was destroyed. However, a series of six rolls of the Firebird was published.
The illustrated title from one of Stravinsky's AudioGraphic Firebird rolls - January 1929.
Although Aeolian became Stravinsky's main music roll publisher, Pleyel retained the rights to sell its own rolls of his music in France and one or two other European countries, and so he remained quite close to the company throughout the 1920s, appearing as conductor at the opening of the new Salle Pleyel in Paris in 1927. Pleyel in the first half of the twentieth century was a most remarkable enterprise, thanks in large measure to Gustave Lyon, its imaginative and resourceful managing director for over forty years.
Gustave Lyon (1857-1936), Managing Director of Pleyel, and Designer of ...
... the new Salle Pleyel in Paris, painted by André Devambez for L'Illustration in 1928.
For further information about Stravinsky's pianola works, you can read Rex Lawson's article, 'Stravinsky and the Pianola', spread over issues 1 and 2 of the Pianola Journal. See our Pianola Journal pages for more details.
Authorship and Sources
The Pianola Institute's website is frequently used as source material for Wikipedia and printed books, so it seems wise for it to provide its own sources. This webpage was written and researched by Rex Lawson of the Pianola Institute. Much of it was gleaned from Stravinsky's own correspondence, and the author is grateful to the Paul Sacher-Stiftung in Basel, Switzerland, for its generosity in allowing him to carry out the necessary work. Unless indicated otherwise, the illustrations have been taken from magazines, music rolls and CDs in the author's own library, and the more modern photographs were taken by him.
The Strange Case of Igor Fiodorovitch
An Ivory Coast Postage Stamp, from May 2012, featuring Stravinsky and the Pleyela.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. One comes across some remarkable images on the Internet, such as this first-day cover of a new stamp from the Côte d'Ivoire. Published in May 2012, it is clearly based on this very webpage, and in particular the CD cover of Aeolia 1001, which was published in 1998 and designed by Sue Oldfield. More of our illustrations, such as the Petrushka bookmark and the Pleyela advertisement, are also incorporated into the stamp design. There is no artist credited on the stamp, so one cannot either shout "J'accuse!" or indeed congratulate the perpetrator on their bare-faced enterprise. If the Postmaster General of the Côte d'Ivoire would care to comment, we shall be happy to print his reaction on being found out!
The Inspiration for the Stamp - a Number of Illustrations from this Webpage.
Website Links and Other Sources of Information
Boosey & Hawkes Main Stravinsky Page - Many subsidiary pages, including biography, many sound samples and list of (Boosey) works.
Chester-Novello Main Stravinsky Page - Many subsidiary pages, including the best web biography of Stravinsky, good portrait, and list of (Chester) works.
Schott Music Stravinsky Page - Biography and list of (Schott) works and forthcoming performances.
Amazon.com's Discography of Stravinsky - The BBC used to have the best Stravinsky web discography, with many sound samples, but sadly it is no longer available, and Amazon is now the most comprehensive information available.
Groningen Museum Education Site - Many audio examples of Stravinsky's ballets, and even video, if you can choose the correct ballet in Dutch!
Stephen Walsh - The New Grove Stravinsky, Macmillan, London, England, 2002.
Stephen Walsh - A Creative Spring: Russia and France, 1882-1934, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA, 1999.
Stephen Walsh - The Second Exile: France and America, 1934-1971, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA, 2006.
Richard Taruskin - Stravinsky and the Russian Tradition, University of California Press, Los Angeles, USA, 1996.