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The Pianola Journal - Volume 23, 2013.

The Pianola Journal - Volume 23, 2013

  • Editorial
  • Mechanical Troubles - Performing Nancarrow's Player Piano Studies Today: Dominic Murcott
  • On The Right Track - Dynamic Recording for the Reproducing Piano (Part Four): Rex Lawson
  • How Do You Like Your Debussy?: Denis Hall
  • On Making One's Own Music Rolls: J.H. Morrison
  • Review: Off the Record: Performing Practices in Romantic Piano Playing, by Neal Peres da Costa: Dr Chiara Bertoglio


Mechanical Troubles - Performing Nancarrow's Player Piano Studies Today: Dominic Murcott

The US born and Mexican naturalised composer Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) was preoccupied with exploring complex temporal relationships in his music. In 1947, following a number of disappointing attempts at getting accurate performances, he turned to the player piano and took complete control of the composition, performance and production of his own work. Over the next forty or more years he produced a unique collection of pieces that have become part of the musical canon despite, or perhaps because of, their frequent mathematical density.

Nancarrow in his Mexico City Garden

While solving one problem, however, he created another: there have been remarkably few opportunities to hear the works 'performed' on the instruments they were written for, and these have diminished in reverse proportion to the rise in the composer's popularity. In April 2012, to mark the centenary of Nancarrow's birth, London's Southbank Centre, in collaboration with the London Sinfonietta and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, hosted a weekend festival of his work, featuring the complete studies for player piano on an instrument identical to the composer's own. This report highlights some of the problems that needed to be overcome in order to present these pieces, as well as considering the future of the music in performance.

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

The Ampico was the earliest of the American reproducing pianos, launched by the American Piano Company of New York in the autumn of 1911. It seems to have been designed to be roughly compatible with the Hupfeld Dea, since its initial repertoire was taken almost entirely from the existing catalogue issued by Ludwig Hupfeld, with whom the Company had an exclusive agreement for the publication of hand-played rolls in North America. Its first roll bulletin was published on 1 October 1911, and out of 51 pianists listed in its pages and quoted in Music Trade Review, only one, Hans Hanke, was not a Hupfeld artist.

An Early Advertisement for the Ampico, New York, 1916

Although it came to be known simply as the Ampico, taking its name from the initial letters of the American Piano Company, the instrument's first title was the Artigraphic player, available in the Knabe piano, with a Chickering model following by the December of 1911. It is clear that very few instruments were produced at this early stage, and it was not until mid-1912 that any substantial number were being sold. Rolls were also not very plentiful, and a San Francisco correspondent of Music Trade Review noted in June 1912 that the supply of Artigraphic music had been rather short, perhaps implying problems of production as the roll editing got under way.

How Do You Like Your Debussy?: Denis Hall

In the 150th anniversary year (2012) of the birth of Debussy, it is hardly surprising that there is considerable interest in the way the composer interpreted his own music. There are written descriptions, from quite precise comments on how he approached the piano keys and the sort of tone he could produce, to less helpful, general, admiring vague reports as to just how wonderful he was! More objectively, we can actually hear him playing, firstly accompanying Mary Garden in his Ariettes and an excerpt from Pelléas et Mélisande on G & T disc recordings made in 1904, and now available in the best ever transfers by Marston (Legendary Piano Recordings - 52054-2) in which the pitch unsteadiness which bedevilled these discs has been corrected. Then there are the somewhat problematic Welte-Mignon piano rolls which Debussy recorded in 1912, but which ought to give us a greater opportunity to assess his playing. I will return to these later.

Debussy at the Piano

Academic studies, analysing Debussy's playing have been undertaken including, for example, those by Roy Howat (The Pianola Journal no. 7 - 1994) and Cecilia Dunover ('Early Debussystes at the Piano', Debussy in Performance, 1999). One of Jan Holcman's essays ('Pianists: on and off the record', Debussy on Disc, 1912-1962) lists and comments on many recordings, but the only version of the Welte rolls available at that time for him to comment on was the one put out by Columbia (ML4291) in 1950. An aspect of Debussy interpretations which has not, as far as I am aware, been considered is how those pianists active at the turn of the twentieth century approached his music, which was new, and must have appeared very strange compared to anything which they had encountered up till then. For the purposes of this article, I am only considering recordings made before 1914, the year of the outbreak of the Great War, after which so much changed in the world. There are very few disc recordings up till then, but there does exist quite a collection of recordings on reproducing piano roll, most of which are unknown, largely due to the lack of awareness of the resource available in this format. It would be marvellous if some of the pianists who were close to Debussy, and to whom he dedicated his music, had left recordings, but for whatever reason, many did not, and there is no point in regretting this. There were, however, pianists around at that time who did not know the composer, but had a go at playing his music before a tradition of interpreting it had been established, and these are the ones who fascinate me, and who make up the core of this article. They had nothing to go on except the published scores, which they approached with the background of the nineteenth century romantic tradition, and there are more than a few surprises for the listener in 2012 to come to terms with!

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The Pianola Journal - Volume 24, 2014.

The Pianola Journal - Volume 24, 2014

  • Editorial
  • Joseph Hunter Dickinson and the Origins of the Duo-Art: Rex Lawson
  • Schools of Ragtime - The Piano Rolls of Scott Joplin: Francis Bowdery
  • Review: Chopin's Prophet: The Life of Pianist Vladimir de Pachmann, by Edward Blickstein and Gregor Benko: Denis Hall


Joseph Hunter Dickinson and the Origins of the Duo-Art: Rex Lawson

The player piano is often associated with ragtime in the minds of the general public, and certainly ragtime took its place in the history of the instrument, though there were other styles of music which predominated at different times. But ragtime and jazz play a useful role in reminding us of the contribution to the player piano made by the black community. Joplin, in his reputedly polite and classically based way, was followed by many others of African American heritage, such as James Scott, James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller, all of whom found their way on to early rolls, either as pianists or composers.

But we hear much less about the position of black piano builders and black inventors. Where such information does make it to the Internet, alas, it tends to be taken up by writers whose enthusiasm outweighs their regard for accuracy. Joseph Dickinson is a case in point; look him up on Google, and you will find that he invented the player piano, patented the reed organ, won a prize for a pipe organ that he designed for the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, and was asked to build a similar instrument for the Portuguese Royal Family. All these examples are not strictly true, and some are glaringly wide of the mark, but they nearly all contain grains of truth, obscured by an understandable desire to right the wrongs of many centuries of social inequality.

Joseph Hunter Dickinson, 1855-1936

But Joseph Dickinson deserves better than to be misreported. He was clearly a very clever man, the main contributing inventor of the Duo-Art reproducing piano, and for years he was Superintendent of the Aeolian Company's Experimental Department at its factory in Garwood, New Jersey. Such achievements, over a century ago, can stand on their own merits, and they don't need to be distorted by the Hollywood treatment. At any rate, this article is an attempt to portray the real Joseph Dickinson, at least as far as we can discern him from our far-off viewpoint at a distance of over a hundred years.

Schools of Ragtime - The Piano Rolls of Scott Joplin: Francis Bowdery

1914 was the year of Scott Joplin's last solo piano self-publication, and the beginning of the short final chapter of his brief life: he would die in his forties in April 1917, in the Manhattan State Hospital, New York, USA. The onset of symptoms of dementia paralytica had begun some eighteen months earlier.

His priorities as a composer had shifted from the short piano pieces and rags which had made his earlier career to larger forms, especially opera. Treemonisha, his second such work (the first, A Guest of Honor, almost certainly is lost), was started around the time of his arrival in New York City in 1907, and self-published in 1911. Recent research has established that a limited tour of the piece did in fact take place, although it failed to attract a major backer in New York City itself. Correspondence, newspaper articles and accounts of Joplin's last years meanwhile mention a symphony, a piano concerto and a musical comedy (possibly a revision of Treemonisha), as well as short piano pieces and songs and the inevitable round of piano teaching. Joplin also self-published 'revised extracts' from his opera, in part to coincide with performances of individual numbers.

Scott Joplin, 1867/1868 - 1917

Amidst all this, in the spring of 1916 Joplin recorded seven piano rolls, one for the Aeolian Company (Metro-Art/Uni-Record) and six for the Connorized Music Company, both of New York. Piano rolls, and especially hand-played rolls, were big business in the United States. Aeolian and QRS had issued American recordings as early as 1912, at which time the Welte Artistic Player Co. was already producing rolls with equipment derived from the German parent company. By 1916, besides non-expression roll production, the Ampico and Duo-Art reproducing piano systems were also established in the market. Although it would not be until the 1920s that black music and performers would establish a substantial presence on piano rolls and discs, the volume market for popular music ensured early interest in ragtime from the music roll companies. Thus to have popular music recorded by one of its major names was an asset for the companies concerned, particularly in the case of Maple Leaf Rag, a best-seller of its day. Posterity would thus gain an illustration of the playing style of 'The King of Ragtime Writers'. In the absence of contemporary disc recordings of the major black players of the day - Tom Turpin, Louis Chauvin, Tony Jackson, James Scott - Joplin's seven piano rolls are among the few documents of pre-novelty piano ragtime style. At least, they should be. By 1916 Joplin's health was in decline, as may be seen from the death certificate cited above, and from Eubie Blake's recollections of meeting him around 1915, when the composer was called upon, and reluctantly agreed, to play Maple Leaf Rag.

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