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 5, 1993.

The Pianola Journal - Volume 5, 1993

  • Editorial
  • Etude pour Pianola by Igor Stravinsky: Rex Lawson
  • Ambiance, Musical Style and Authenticity: Drue Fergison
  • On the Roll: Rex Lawson
  • The Camera and the Pianola: Colin Osman
  • The Player Piano on Record - a Discography (Part 3): Denis Hall
  • A New Method of Analyzing Music Style by Means of the Reproducing Piano: Guy Montrose Whipple
  • CD Review
  • Concert Review
  • Book Review


Etude pour Pianola by Igor Stravinsky: Rex Lawson

Igor Stravinsky's activities with roll-operated instruments were just about as diverse as they could be, encompassing the pianola, the Pleyela, the Duo-Art piano and the Duo-Art pipe organ, in addition to mechanical cimbaloms in his ballet, Les Noces. This interest extended over a period of nearly fifteen years, from late 1915 to early 1930.

As a Russian citizen from a well-to-do family, the young Stravinsky must have had at least a passing acquaintance with player pianos, in the same way that any musician of today would be aware of recordings on compact disc. Rachmaninov owned a foot-operated pianola, on which we know he enjoyed playing the Themodist rolls of his Second Piano Concerto, the German firm of Welte held roll-recording sessions in St Petersburg, and in general the player-piano business was well-established in pre-revolutionary Russia.

It is possible that Diaghilev's Ballets Russes used rolls on occasion for rehearsal - certainly the idea of doing so came to Stravinsky's mind in 1912, when he was concerned about the ability of mere human hands to cope with the piano score of the Rite of Spring. However, the first actual rolls to be made of Stravinsky's music appear to have come from England, where in 1915 the late Esther Willis, formerly an honorary member of the Player-Piano Group, cut her own arrangements of several early works, including Fireworks and the Scherzo Fantastique. The composer may well have heard these rolls, since copies of them were owned by Alvin Langdon Coburn, who photographed Stravinsky during his visit to London in late 1921.

The initial stimulus for the Etude pour Pianola seems to have come about for two main reasons, financial and musical. In the first place, in the autumn of 1915 the Orchestrelle Company expressed an interest in making rolls of the Rite of Spring, which had received its London premiere some two and a half years before. The negotiations over this project, which subsequently included Petrushka as well, lasted throughout 1916 without coming to any successful conclusion at that time. Nevertheless, they clearly indicated to the exiled composer the financial advantages of writing a series of new compositions for the instrument.

The original manuscript book from 1917 proudly carries the title Etudes pour Pianola, though only one such study was ever completed. Stravinsky initially offered a suite of such compositions to the Orchestrelle Company in July 1917, in return for 50 per cent of the retail value of any rolls made, although in the end he simply sold the one Etude outright for 500 Swiss francs.

The opening of the "Etude pour Pianola", by Igor Stravinsky.

The Camera and the Pianola: Colin Osman, Hon. FRPS
(Editor of the PhotoHistorian)

There can be only one place to start this brief discussion and that is with Frederick H. Evans (1853- 1943). He was by trade a bookseller of rare books and a dealer in oriental swords. George Bernard Shaw (1858-1950) called him the 'ideal bookman' but he was haunted throughout his life by poor health and took a very early retirement. He turned his amateur genius for photography to full time use producing his famous cathedral studies and many portraits including GBS.

Evans was also a vigorous defender of the pianola and on three occasions stated the case for it by comparing it to the camera and its operator in the columns of the Amateur Photographer, at that time the leading magazine for photographic art and technique. In November 1904 the Camera Club in central London held a one-man exhibition of Evans' architectural photographs of cathedrals and on the opening day he gave a concert on the pianola. As reported in the Amateur Photographer, it included the 'Fire Music' from Wagner's Ring and the Beethoven Appassionata Sonata; a demanding programme. The anonymous special reporter may have been Shaw who had been for many years writing weekly musical criticism for magazines.

Mr Evans is widely known as a most skilful player on that instrument, and although pianola playing is often regarded as an impersonal and mechanical performance, he has succeeded in giving it that individuality which very many, including himself, have imparted to camerawork. In fact this parallel was often referred to in the course of the discussion, and the general opinion was expressed that the pianola had come to stay, in spite of the fact that some musical people looked upon it much as artists with the brush looked upon photography when it first made its debut.
Dealing with the criticism that a pianola was merely a machine, Mr Evans said that it was a machine - when a machine controlled it. The performer was absolutely the maker of the musical value of each note and phrase and should have the entire credit of the performance.

George Bernard Shaw introduced a later concert of pianola music by Frederick Evans at the same Camera Club in 1911. Shaw, not only a playwright and music critic but a photographer and pianolist himself, opened the evening.

[Mr Evans] is a gentleman who has dedicated himself to an art which is disparaged by those who believe that when a lens is in a box it is mechanical, but not when it is in a man's head. That being the case, it is natural that Mr Evans should have done the same thing in connection with the art of music. Here also it is said to be mechanical to use a lever in a box, but not mechanical when the lever is to be found in the human hand.

back to top

The Pianola Journal - Volume 6, 1993.

The Pianola Journal - Volume 6, 1993

  • Editorial
  • A Ramble on the Duo-Art Theme: Patrick Handscombe
  • The Reproducing Piano (Introduction, Part 1, Part 2): John Farmer
  • The Player Piano on Record - a Discography (Part 4): Denis Hall
  • Concert Review
  • Recent Piano Roll Issues: Dan Wilson


A Ramble on the Duo-Art Theme: Patrick Handscombe

We know from at least one source that the American Aeolian Company was stung into offering a reproducing piano system of its own following the enormous success of the German Welte-Mignon in the United States from about 1905.

Reproducing systems are distinguished particularly by their ability to emulate accurately - or at least convincingly - the recording pianist's original dynamics. We can be sure that a company of the size and prestige of Aeolian - maker of the famous Pianola and the world's largest player-piano manufacturer - would have used every resource to produce the finest practicable system, and as soon as possible. Even so, development took about seven years, which disproves the suggestion that it was a hasty contrivance, and the Duo-Art, 'that is, representing two arts - the art of the performer and the art of the interpreting pianist' was launched in the Autumn of 1913.

At present we know virtually nothing of the Duo-Art's actual designers. However we can be fairly certain that the inventor of the original pianola, E. S. Votey, was involved: he was apparently Aeolian's Technical Director when he visited the company's London branch in about 1919 or 1920. Another may have been J. W. Crooks, inventor in 1900 (following E. M. Skinner of the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company) of the Themodist accenting device [fig.1] which was retained as the basis of the Duo-Art.

Doubtless a significant proportion of the development period was occupied in devising and mastering the recording part of the system and in polishing the first rolls for its debut, and it is likely that the Duo-Art's first recording producer and engineer W. Creary Woods was responsible for much of this.

Aeolian, like similar companies, sought the fullest patent protection for its products. No one patent is found for the Duo-Art as it finally appeared however, because rather than risk pre-emption by competitors, applications were filed on individual components at the earliest opportunity - which allows some insight into the development process - and were intentionally written in such a way as to divert attention from their real significance. Three successive patents are found which reveal all but one of the Duo-Art dynamic control mechanism's four essential components.

The Reproducing Piano (Introduction, Part 1, Part 2): John Farmer

In the twenty-six years which have passed since these articles were first written, our state of knowledge of the Ampico recording system has improved. Interviews with roll editors, some recording artists and, most importantly, Dr Clarence Hickman, who worked with Charles Stoddard, have been published by the Musical Box Society International. Some of the ground covered in these interviews was also dealt with in unpublished interviews conducted by the author with Edgar Fairchild and Dr Hickman. In addition, we have the diaries of Dr Hickman for the period 1925 to 1928. It was thanks to the efforts of Larry Givens in the first instance and the subsequent investigative activities of Nelson Barden in the second, that most of this material has come to light. From all these sources the following facts have emerged.

  1. Ampico did not develop a note dynamic recording system until 1926.
  2. It follows that virtually all recordings prior to 1927 were subject to full editorial supervision and the insertion by the recording editor of the dynamics against the note traces on the recording master sheet.
  3. The object of the spark chronograph was, as far as possible, to eliminate the musical editor from the recording process and, for that matter, the pianist as a supplementary editor.
  4. However, editing remained a necessary part of finished roll production, because the recording system contained many imperfections which needed to be overridden and corrected by a person with trained musical judgement. Nevertheless, the time consumed in producing a finished master roll was greatly reduced.

One fact emerged from these interviews which has not, to date, received any comment. The author was told by Edgar Fairchild that many Welte rolls were reissued as Ampico rolls after re-editing, transposition, and recoding. This occurred with big name pianists in the period prior to 1924, and probably includes the first Jos. Lhévinne rolls and the Rubinstein rolls. Whereas Hupfeld transfers are designated on the label, no such attribution occurs in the case of the Welte re-issues. This practice may have ceased when Ampico acquired confidence in the superiority of its own system and, at the same time, a sufficiently large roll repertoire for its catalogue. Fairchild had a poor opinion of these transfers.

back to top