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The Pianola Journal - Volume 1, 1987.

The Pianola Journal - Volume 1, 1987

  • Editorial
  • The Pianola and its Institute: Rex Lawson
  • The Rachmaninov Legacy: Lionel Salter
  • Stravinsky and the Pianola (Part 1): Rex Lawson
  • Review of the Pianola Institute Inaugural Concert: Dan Wilson
  • The Duo-Art Pianola Rolls of the Enigma Variations: Trevor Fenemore-Jones
  • On Writing for the Mechanical Piano: Ernst Toch
  • Book Reviews


The Pianola and its Institute: Rex Lawson

The pianola is a curious instrument; putting its conception in a nutshell, it was developed back in the 1890s in order that the untalented daughters of rich American businessmen should be able to play salon music at least to a mediocre standard of artistry, and to save their mothers and fathers from the social embarrassment of a silent piano. Expressed more seriously, it provided amateur pianists with an immediate and faultless digital technique, but was not originally intended as the subject of serious musical study, any more than is the compact disc player nowadays.

However. two unique features of the pianola soon became apparent, that were on occasion to elevate it from the level of a domestic enterprise and into the realms of a concert instrument. The first and most obvious of these was its facility to provide all the correct notes of a piece, without placing any great restrictions on individual interpretation. Since its music was not recorded, but transcribed directly from the printed score on to master rolls by hand, there were no inherent dynamic controls and no elements of rubato or phrasing. Thus the operator - pianolist is the approved term - was free to make as much of a piece as possible, and a few professional demonstrators and devoted amateurs began to elicit far more musical performances from roll than the pianola's inventors had, in the writer's opinion, foreseen.

The Rachmaninov Legacy: Lionel Salter

It is deeply ironical that the only way for the musical world at large to hear and study piano-roll recordings has been by having them transferred to disc, a medium which they once challenged. Even so, assessment has often been clouded by obvious maladjustments or imperfections in the reproducing pianos employed, and/or in the re-recording process. However, the recent issue on seven well-engineered stereo LPs of recordings from Ampico piano rolls by Rachmaninov, Lhévinne and Rosenthal reproduced on a fine Estonia-Ampico instrument - thanks to the expert and devoted efforts of Norman Evans, who checked, adjusted, repaired or rebuilt every detail of its action - now makes it possible to form a clear opinion of these performances, and to compare them with those (where such exist) by the same artists given for the gramophone.

The piano roll's ability to reproduce fine tonal gradations is admirably exemplified in Rachmaninov's airy transcription of Wohin? from Schubert's Schöne Müllerin. He takes a little longer over the disc recording, which is recognisably the same interpretation. For another Schöne Müllerin piece, Liszt's transcription of Das Wandern, I prefer the excellent 1925 disc version: the roll, though deliciously precise, is rather more careful-sounding and less light-hearted for a lad setting out on his travels. John Culshaw, a great Rachmaninov admirer, found it difficult to like his Schubert A flat Impromptu, taking refuge in calling it 'individual' and 'deft'. Deft it certainly is, and the gramophone version is tonally limpid; but the roll sounds rushed (it is half a minute faster) and superficial, and the 'pecking' staccato applied to the chords after the initial runs is strangely unconvincing. The frequently encountered accusation that roll performances are nearly always untruthfully quicker (as against wax recordings, any modification of whose speed would have affected the pitch) finds no support in two Chopin Valses, the roll taking appreciably longer in both cases.

The Duo-Art Pianola Rolls of the Enigma Variations: Trevor Fenemore-Jones

Perhaps because of his own appetite for listening to music and his concern for the increased dissemination of the musical experience and knowledge, Elgar was always well disposed towards the reproduction of music by mechanical means. His particular enthusiasm for the gramophone is by now well known; his interest in the player-piano or 'pianola' is, however, virtually unchronicled. This pneumatically operated piano played by means of a music-roll was invented in 1897 and was in its heyday in the first three decades of the twentieth century. In his lecture entitled 'English Executants' given at Birmingham University on 29 November 1905, Elgar acknowledged the instrument as capable of good execution. By 1910 he actually had a pianola at Plas Gwyn, and by 1916 he was advocating it in an interview in The Music Student (August 1916, p. 346) in the following terms: 'I am not sure that the pianola is not our best means of hearing piano works well performed today ... properly used, the pianola can play with a very beautiful touch ...' Exactly how far and how deep Elgar's interest in the pianola went is not clear at present, but there is evidence that he was in touch with the Orchestrelle Company (an early manufacturer of pianolas and related reed-organ instruments) as early as 1904 and some recordings may have resulted. Certainly we know that on three consecutive days in April 1910 he visited the Orchestrelle Company's premises to indicate correct tempi for rolls of the A flat Symphony and that Lady Elgar adjudged the performance 'quite fine'. Further research is required to clarify the whole subject of Elgar and the pianola.

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The Pianola Journal - Volume 2, 1989.

The Pianola Journal - Volume 2, 1989

  • Editorial
  • Stravinsky and the Pianola (Part 2): Rex Lawson
  • The Player Piano on Record: Denis Hall
  • The 'Pianola': the Future Educational Force in Music: Sir Henry J Wood
  • Maurice Ravel: Frontispice for Pianola: Rex Lawson
  • Concert Review
  • Book Review


Stravinsky and the Pianola (Part 2): Rex Lawson

In 1924 Stravinsky enlarged his player-piano activities to include the Duo-Art reproducing piano, signing a contract with the Aeolian Company which began in the October of that year. His first recording session came in early 1925 in New York, when at least the first movement of the Concerto for Piano was automatically transcribed on to roll from his own playing. But the total of these recorded Duo-Art rolls that have survived was small; only one movement of the Concerto and three rolls of the 1924 Piano Sonata, although further movements of the Concerto were listed in various catalogues as being in preparation. There was also a roll of the Berceuse and Finale from The Firebird for the Aeolian Duo-Art pipe organ, a large and sophisticated breed of residence organ with automatic changes of registration and swell pedalling, much prized nowadays by those collectors who value rarity above all else. The repertoire of the organ was not very great, and its tone colours those of a home orchestra, so that a roll of The Firebird no doubt represents one of the pinnacles of its achievements. At any rate, it would be most interesting to hear!

Besides these recorded rolls, a set of The Firebird was produced for the Duo-Art piano, in the AudioGraphic series masterminded by Percy Scholes, the British music critic. There are indications in this set, from the style of the dynamic coding, and from the fact that the tempo lever has to be reset during the course of certain rolls, that the Pleyela Firebird was used as a basis. One very obvious difference, however, can be seen in the fact that the Duo-Art Firebird begins with the Introduction, whereas the Pleyela version omits it, so that Stravinsky must clearly have been involved in at least a modicum of extra transcription. In any case, the Duo-Art coding must have demanded the composer's own suggestions and approval.

The Player Piano on Record: Denis Hall

It is ironic that the great majority of people today listen to the player piano by means of its erstwhile rival, the gramophone. In the early years of this century, when the player piano and reproducing piano were being developed, the quality of sound available from the gramophone was so poor that the music lover turned to the concept of the real piano playing in his own home. As we now know, this state of affairs was to last only until about 1930, by which time the sound quality of music recorded on disc had advanced to such a state of comparative perfection that almost overnight it ousted the expensive, luxury player piano. Nonetheless, during the 30 years' hey-day of the player and reproducing pianos, a library of music rolls of all types of music was built up for the pianolist to interpret, as large as that of sheet music at that time, and in the field of the reproducing piano, more than 10,000 classical titles alone were recorded by every pianist of note active at the time, and probably as many again popular rolls.

A number of these reproducing piano recordings has been transferred to tape and disc. This article makes no claim to being a comprehensive survey of these recordings, but rather a pointer to some of the better ones. It provides some guidelines for assessing what one is listening to, and sorting out the good from the not-so-good. It will concentrate on reproducing pianos, purely because recordings of pianolists are so few in comparison.

In criticizing a recording of a 'live' pianist, one is conscious of whether or not one is listening to a good recording per se, and the ear quickly adjusts to the bad sound if the performance is worthwhile; the important point is that the interpretation will not be affected by a bad recording. In dealing with a recording of a reproducing piano, the sound coming off the disc (or tape) may be magnificent, but if the piano is not working properly, the interpretation will be distorted. How is the non-technical listener to know?

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