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The Pianola Journal - Volume 21, 2010.

The Pianola Journal - Volume 21, 2010

  • Editorial
  • Reminiscences of Liszt: Francis Bowdery
  • On The Right Track - Dynamic Recording for the Reproducing Piano (Part Two): Rex Lawson
  • Paderewski and the Player Piano: Denis Hall
  • Review: Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 16 - CD and Blu-ray disc: Robert Matthew-Walker
  • Appendix - CD: Aeolia 1005: Paderewski - His Welte-Mignon Rolls


Reminiscences of Liszt: Francis Bowdery

When the Welte Mignon reproducing piano was launched, Franz Liszt had been dead for less than twenty years. His presence through his teaching, his compositions, and the memory of his unique and powerful playing, remained a compelling one. Commentators on both gramophone and piano roll recordings would lament that the new technologies had narrowly missed capturing the playing of a figure who had single-handedly revolutionised concert life and piano playing in the nineteenth century.

Franz Liszt and his Students, 1884

Welte successfully persuaded pianists of European stature to record in 1905, the first year of the Mignon piano's commercial activity. Many of the leading pianists of the day had been Liszt's pupils or had come into his sphere of influence. Naturally, they too were approached to make recordings, and many did. In some cases, such as Friedheim, we have at least a broader view of their art than that afforded by the gramophone. In others, such as Reisenauer and Stavenhagen, piano rolls are the only remaining evidence of their pianism. Among the latters' recordings are two by each, labelled "Nach persönlicher Erinnerungen an Franz Liszt." It is a significant gesture. If the age of recording - and immortalisation, of which performing artists were well aware - had missed Liszt, perhaps it could recall him at second hand through his disciples.

On The Right Track - Dynamic Recording for the Reproducing Piano
(Part Two): Rex Lawson

In 1905, in response to the Welte-Mignon, Hupfeld's engineers were given the task of creating both a recording and a playback system for piano rolls, similar to that used by Welte, but in addition for the production of rolls with no dynamic coding, so that the Phonola player at home could add his or her chosen dynamics by means of the foot-pedals. History does not relate who exactly designed the Dea, but it must have been a team led by Robert Frömsdorf, Hupfeld's factory manager and technical superintendent, who is often to be seen operating the roll recording machine in early Hupfeld photographs. Amongst the Company's other technical experts at the time were Ivan Bajde and Karl Hennig, both of whom were involved in the development of the Phonoliszt Violina, Bajde in particular having developed over many years a means of playing violin strings with a bow, by means of a piano keyboard.

An Advertisement for the Upright Dea, Leipzig, April 1909

By a lucky quirk of fate, we have a reasonable description of Hupfeld's recording process, though there are grounds for gentle caution in examining it. The author, Ludwig Riemann, was present when Grieg recorded, on 11 April 1906, and probably on many other occasions too. In passing, one may remark that Grieg noted in his diary for this day that he had played six of his piano pieces for Hupfeld's "Phonolist" (sic) player piano, confirming, even with its slight mis-spelling, that the Dea was by no means in evidence at that time. Riemann was a music educationalist from Essen, who also acted as second pianist for a few four-hand arrangements published on Hupfeld's rolls, and who was, with Dr Otto Neitzel, joint author of a book analysing and describing the music in Hupfeld's Phonola and Dea catalogues, "Musikästhetische Betrachtungen."

Paderewski and the Player Piano: Denis Hall

Paderewski has left a good representative collection of disc recordings of the shorter works in his repertoire, made over the period from 1911 right up to 1938, when he paid his last visit to the HMV studios at Abbey Road to complete those titles he had undertaken the previous year. What is not so well known generally is that, like most pianists active during the first thirty years of the twentieth century, he also made a substantial number of reproducing piano roll recordings, and it is these which are the subject of this article.

Mr and Mrs Paderewski listening to a Duo-Art Roll

His first attempt at setting down his interpretations for replay at a later time was not actual reproducing rolls. In the very early years of the twentieth century, the Aeolian Company, makers of the "Pianola" piano player, developed and patented a device called the Metrostyle for use with its Pianola rolls. It advertised it as "Music's Life Line", and this took the form of a red line drawn the length of the roll which moved from side to side, to the left when the music slowed down, and to the right to accelerate. By following this line with a pointer attached to the Pianola's tempo lever, it "enables anyone to play the Pianola with genuine musicianly feeling and expression". This claim by Aeolian, if a trifle optimistic, is not so fanciful as it may seem, and many of the early Metrostyled rolls, with the line created by a house musician, can work remarkably well. A development of the use of the Metrostyle line was to get famous artists to create the line, with the aid of a member of Aeolian's staff. Paderewski was one of those who participated in the scheme, putting his name to a number of compositions. In the light of his future piano roll activities, these Autograph Metrostyle rolls today are little more than historical curiosities. At that time, however, Paderewski must have been enthusiastic, and he had two Pianolas in his residences in Switzerland and California.

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The Pianola Journal - Volume 22, 2012.

The Pianola Journal - Volume 22, 2012

  • Editorial
  • Piano Roll Speeds: Denis Hall
  • On The Right Track - Dynamic Recording for the Reproducing Piano (Part Three): Rex Lawson
  • Piano Tone and Voicing for Player and Reproducing Pianos: Denis Hall
  • New Perspectives in Pianoforte Playing: Carroll Brent Chilton
  • Musical Expression Through the Player Piano: Fred James Hill
  • Review: Concert and Broadcast: Flights of Fancy, BBC Radio 3, 24th October 2011: Francis Bowdery


Piano Roll Speeds: Denis Hall

We live in a digital age: a command is either on or off, information must be right or wrong - no in between analogue shadings! In the field of music, we demand 100% accuracy in our Urtext scores, note-perfect performances, even at the expense of any display of personality, and speeds according to a composer's metronome markings. Having become used to that approach in many fields, it would be forgiveable to take for granted that our reproducing piano rolls would be correct in every respect. After all, they are digital recordings - aren't they? But in spite of this, has it ever struck you that your favourite fantastic virtuoso performance on the Duo-Art might be just a bit too good to be true? Well, your doubts may be justified. Roll companies took a lot of trouble in their preparation of rolls, but in such a large industry, inevitably the odd mistake was bound to slip through.

Welte-Mignon Speed Control Lever, from a 1922 Steinway Piano

So, if you do suspect the speed of a performance, how do you tell if it is an eccentric old-fashioned interpretation playing at the correct speed, or a more conventional approach at the wrong one? Regrettably, there are no easy answers, but sometimes there are alternative sources to which one can refer to check on particular examples, and also some faults which are peculiar to particular player or reproducing makes. In this article, I will look into a few of the more obvious difficulties in judging roll speeds.

On The Right Track - Dynamic Recording for the Reproducing Piano
(Part Three): Rex Lawson

The three main types of Philipps domestic player pianos were the Duca, the Ducanola and the Ducartist, introduced in 1908, 1911 and 1921 respectively. Most unusually, the Duca, the first to be put on the market, was a full reproducing piano, whereas the Ducanola, which followed three years later, was a normal foot-pedalled player piano, though the firm's recorded music rolls were available in versions for both instruments. Thus the Philipps line of instruments developed in the opposite way to those of all the other important reproducing piano manufacturers, who all began with standard player pianos and progressed to the fully automatic reproducers. One might smell a slight hint of a rat in this unusual circumstance, although in 1903 Philipps had brought out its Pianella brand of automatic pianos and orchestrions for public places, so it did at least have some experience of pneumatic player mechanisms.

Willy Rehberg recording for the Philipps Duca, Frankfurt, probably May 1909

In the photograph above, of Willy Rehberg recording for the Duca, a roll-marking machine can clearly be seen, together with a number of wires that mostly originate under the piano, from an indeterminate mechanism somewhere behind the likely position of the piano hammers. We know that Welte's note contacts ran through a cable that was connected to its recording machine through the side of the piano case, so at first glance the decision of Philipps to route a number of wires from underneath the piano suggests a different procedure. However, a closer look at the Duca recording photograph shows only a small number of wires, and we should remember that such wires, a hundred years ago, were not the discreet, electronic-sized connectors to which we are nowadays accustomed. For example, the playback connector for the Telektra, an electrical player piano operated by solenoids was a very fat cable indeed, and much larger than the size of cable that can be seen under Willy Rehberg's piano. The more probable explanation of the Duca photograph, therefore, is that the note contacts were indeed relayed to the recording machine through a connector in the case of the piano, which accounts for the position of the recorder in any case, but that the much smaller cable that leads from underneath the piano was used for relaying the dynamic information. There is also a wire (probably two) which leads from the pedal lyre, as might be expected.

Piano Tone and Voicing for Player and Reproducing Pianos: Denis Hall

Piano tone is very much a matter of taste - and fashion. A piano may sound full and warm to one listener, and to another, as if the hammers were made of cotton wool! Nevertheless, in the noisy world of 2012, power and volume are held in greater esteem than the subtler qualities of quieter levels, and it has to be said that one of the big advances in modern piano design is the remarkable improvement in the bass quality of small pianos over what was achievable 100 years ago. In spite of this there are certain features which are desirable in any piano, however large or small, new or old.

Putting aside for the moment the nature and condition of a piano's hammers, a well designed piano should be well balanced in its tone right from the bass through to the treble. This should be even both in power and tone quality. There should not be a noticeable change at the break between the bass wound strings and the treble wires. However, a weak area in many pianos is around the fifth and sixth octaves, and there is a good reason for this. The piano soundboard needs to be flexible in the bass, but stiff in the treble. The critical area where the conflicting requirements meet is around that weak point, and this results in either less power or a shorter duration of sound. It is particularly disappointing that this feature should be in the area where a pianist needs a good response from the instrument, since so much of the piano repertoire has melody lines there.

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