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

The Pianola Journal - Volume 11, 1998.

The Pianola Journal - Volume 11, 1998

  • Editorial
  • Towards a History of the Aeolian Company: Rex Lawson
  • Vladimir de Pachmann - an Appreciation: Samuel Langford
  • Review of the Siobhan Davies Dance Company Tenth Anniversary Tour May-November 1998: Jeannette Koch


Towards a History of the Aeolian Company: Rex Lawson

In July 1998 my Pianola and I travelled to Greece to accompany the Siobhan Davies Dance Company in a performance of '88', a choreographic work created around some of the dazzling player-piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow. High up amongst the olive groves, in the balmy twilight that envelops the little hillsides above the Peloponnese coastline, birds chattered the gossip of the day and the echoes of Orthodox chant drifted upwards from the cupolas of a sun-ripened basilica. I sat on the steps of a baking greystone amphitheatre in Kalamata and reflected that this Arcadian setting was the nearest my Pianola had ever come to the music of the winds. The Aeolians were, after all, one of the early Greek tribes.

My modish musings were interrupted by a friendly Scottish accent asking me to play some of the louder Nancarrow excerpts for a sound check, and I blinked my eyes and returned to the twentieth century. Thus it was that I came to meet Ronnie Thomson, a Highlander with a personality as sunny as the surrounding Mediterranean coastline, and who, it later turned out, had recently removed to Manhattan, close by Union Square.

Later in the year, visiting the USA for work, I telephoned Ronnie and arranged to visit him and his partner one Sunday afternoon in their spacious apartment at 12 East 14th Street. Note well the address. A pleasant evening ensuing, and the following morning elapsing with a visit to Merce Cunningham's dance studios, I found myself on the Monday afternoon with a few hours to kill before the return bus for Pennsylvania was due to leave.

How better and more productively to spend one's time than to visit New York's grandiose Public Library and consult the ancient city directories in search of the origins of Aeolian incorporation? Back in the volume for 1879 I found the Mechanical Orguinette Company, and before that, the earliest musical instrument manufacturer with a direct Aeolian succession, the piano firm of Lighte & Ernst, with factories at Nyack, NY, and showrooms in Manhattan. There stood the entry, in the volume for 1875: Lighte & Ernst, pianos, 12 East 14th Street.

Were I a believer, I should have reckoned that Harry B. Tremaine, Edwin S. Votey and perhaps even Orpheus himself were watching me from on high and laughing heartily. As it was, my rationalist tendencies simply made me glad of the serendipitous hook on which to hang the start of this essay, and it drove home to me the almost village-like nature of the musical instrument industry in mid-nineteenth century New York. At 11 East 14th was the Mechanical Orguinette Company, and at 14 and later 21 East 14th were Tremaine Brothers. Since 1866 Steinway Hall had been on East 14th, replacing the concert facilities of the burned out Academy of Music further down the street, and George Steck was also close by. In short, East 14th Street was the epicentre of New York musical life, a fitting birthplace for the once largest musical instrument corporation in the world.

Vladimir de Pachmann - an Appreciation: Samuel Langford

Introduction by Denis Hall
The great Russian pianist, Vladimir de Pachmann, was born 150 years ago on 27 July 1848. It is curious that this important anniversary has gone virtually ignored. To what can this be attributed? That he was eccentric is indisputable, and his approach to music and the piano is not currently fashionable. Yet he had a long and successful career, and was admired by Liszt, Godowsky and Friedman. It was probably his non-musical activities - the obsessional adjusting of the height of the piano stool on stage, his conversations with the audience while playing, and so on - which divided the musical public. There seems little doubt that he was well aware of what he was doing, and thoroughly enjoyed the publicity it brought him; what is important is that none of these foibles got in the way of his playing; but they were all part and parcel of a unique personality.

Pachmann, November 1925
Pachmann was in good vein for his recital at the Brand Lane Concerts, and played more finely than he has done here for some years. It was mainly in his additional pieces that his greatest skill was shown, and possibly it was his good fortune in coming on so well in pieces of rapid execution that disposed him to extend his recital so far. It is almost forty-two years since he first played in Manchester at the Hallé Concerts, on January 3, 1884, when he played Chopin's F minor Concerto, the Barcarolle, and other pieces. Our own first recollection of him is at his second appearance a year later, when he played Mozart's D minor Concerto as it has never been played since, with an irresistible animation which seemed to beam not only from the music but from his whole being. Never, surely, did a player appear at the concerts who was so openly and graciously delighted with himself. He ended with a performance of Henselt's study 'Si oiseau j'étais', which made this piece the most popular of all pianoforte pieces for many a long day, and which still remains, in our own mind, as a performance that has never been at all nearly approached. The notes seemed absolutely to be borne up by the air and to have had no material being whatever. Pachmann has always been unquestionably among the greatest pianists in the world; yet hardly among the world's greatest interpreters of music. He himself, in his moments of ecstasy, has always pointed to his fingers as the secret of his magic; and there is no need for the world to quarrel with the verdict. He has always been one of the first purists of his instrument, and has been almost first a lover of the pianoforte, and a lover of music afterwards.

back to top

The Pianola Journal - Volume 12, 1999.

The Pianola Journal - Volume 12, 1999

  • Editorial
  • A Window in Time: Julian Dyer
  • A Window in Time - a response: Denis Hall
  • Cleaning the Windows of Time: Rex Lawson
  • The Pianola as a Means of Personal Expression: Alvin Langdon Coburn
  • Robert Casadeus (1899-1972) and the Duo-Art: Denis Hall
  • Review: Stravinsky: Les Noces (arr. pianola by Stravinsky and Larmanjat) and other music for pianola, Rex Lawson (pianola), Aeolus 101: Nigel Simeone
  • Obituaries: Norman Evans and Rein Groos


A Window in Time: Julian Dyer

Wayne Stahnke's recent A Window in Time CDs of Rachmaninoff's Ampico recordings have surprised listeners with the musical quality obtained by using computerised techniques to read and play back the reproducing piano rolls. Exercises of this nature are regarded with suspicion, assuming the computer introduces all sorts of indefensible changes. This reaction is due largely to a lack of understanding of the process. This article describes the process in a fairly non-technical manner to show that, far from being black magic, it is driven by a logical and musical approach to the problem, and has clear analogies with setting up a reproducing piano. Some consideration is also given to reasons why this new process may well be better than traditional instruments for performing 1920s reproducing piano performances on modern concert grand pianos.

The Pianola as a Means of Personal Expression: Alvin Langdon Coburn

Almost anyone can play a pianola, but to play one well means practice. It requires two hours a day to really master the instrument, but this of course compares very favourably to with the more laborious method of playing 'by hand'. Just fancy drudging one's life away and making night hideous and infant days a little purgatory, just to be able to give a very indifferent and inadequate rendering of some of the lesser and more banal pieces of Chopin, until these works of that really quite excellent composer, who undoubtedly knew something of the instrument for which he wrote, have become almost unbearable to the really musical.

There are some who are born with an appreciation of music but whose tender years have not been made unbearable by musical drudgery. Hours of 'five-finger exercises' with the thoughts on the playground, and lessons from an uncongenial teacher, never did a child any good, and never will. All art-expression should come as a pleasure, a welling-up of inner joy. Without this, art is dead, a stale and tasteless thing, and, as I have said, some have this innate musical instinct slumbering and dormant in their natures, unable to find a way of expressing itself, and to such the pianola comes as a positive exultation! For the first stages of pianola playing are so easy. The melody flows on evenly and smoothly, almost uncontrolled. There is something inevitable about it, like the music of a brook. Then gradually with knowledge and familiarity comes almost unconsciously the critical faculty, and the personal element enters in, and this personal element is the thing that matters.

Questions of technique are resorted to by nonentities to cover up the fact that they have nothing to say. A great artist, whether in music or paint, or any other medium, was never at a loss for a method of expressing himself; if a technique did not exist to suit his particular purpose, he invented one instanter.

Now your great musician will not sneer at the pianola, for he will realise its value as a means of education, and its marvellous perfection in rendering almost impossible piano pieces, and quite impossible transcriptions of orchestral works. Furthermore, if he is a 'modern composer', he will know that it will be a means of hearing his own works performed. You will always find, however, that the most deadly enemy of the pianola, is the mediocre pianist. He will enquire 'Where is the handle?' and 'Is it a self-starter?' and speak of it with a curling lip as 'mechanical', as if a piano itself were not mechanical as well!

back to top