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 9, 1996.

The Pianola Journal - Volume 9, 1996

  • Editorial
  • Writing Halifax: Robin Walker
  • George Antheil's Ballet Mecanique: Rex Lawson
  • Pianola - a poem: Arno Reinfrank
  • Hindemith - Toccata fur Mechanisches Klavier: Rex Lawson
  • Tone-Variation and Time Variation in relation to Tempo Rubato: John B. McEwen
  • Concert Reviews
  • Book Review
  • AMICA London 95: Denis Hall
  • Shura Cherkassky - a personal memoir: Robert Taylor
  • In Memoriam - Charles Davis Smith: Richard J. Howe


Writing Halifax: Robin Walker

I have just re-read part of Robert Craft's book Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents. Clearly mystified by his great mentor's regard for the pianola Craft attempts, without convincing himself, to account for this interest:

Stravinsky's infatuation with the instrument is one of the inexplicable eccentricities of his career - not the delight in the novelty of the machine reflected in the Etude,. . . nor even his profligate expenditures of time and labour in transcribing his music for this dodo (since he earned substantial sums of money thereby), but in his musical enthusiasm for it. (p. 164).

Further down this same page Stravinsky himself offers two reasons for his 'musical enthusiasm' (neither of which, incidentally, seem to register any effect on Craft's denigration of the instrument in subsequent paragraphs). In The New York Times Magazine, January 18, 1925, he firstly suggests that the player piano holds 'unplumbed possibilities' in 'polyphonic truth.' Secondly, he writes in Les Nouvelles Littéraires, December 8, 1928:

'I explained to Erik Satie that I was interested in the mechanical piano, wanting to find in it not an instrument to reproduce my works but one that could reconstitute them.'

The 'polyphonic truth' of the pianola, and its ability to 'reconstitute' already-written music seem to me to be two compelling musical reasons for engaging with it. Illustration of these points can be found in the pianola version of The Rite of Spring. For example between figure 181 and 186 of the orchestra score, the pianola offers a clearer and more incisive rendering of lines ('polyphonic truth') than in the richly textured original, and from figure 186 to the end where the tonal consistency and clear attack of voices afforded by the pianola 'reconstitutes' the cadence as a harmonic experience, as well as it being a rhythmic one.

Composers select instruments to write for because they correspond to their expressive intentions, and this was doubtless Stravinsky's reason for employing the player piano, The pianola's mechanical reproduction of acoustic sound is for me a powerful symbol of the ritual control of human emotion, which need I say - is at the heart of a composer's artistic activity. Far from it being Craft's 'dodo' I have found the pianola entirely responsive to the demands of a modern artistic vision - the period of its erstwhile fashion in no way defining the period of its life or relevance.

An excerpt from "Halifax", by Robin Walker.

The piece I have written for pianola is named after the town of Halifax in the West Riding of Yorkshire. I visit it regularly, always moved by the vast complex of disused carpet mills rising out of the deep stone cleft of Dean Clough, and by other examples of uniformly structured buildings placed in dramatically sculpted landscape. The piece I have written is not a musical portrait of the town, rather the landscape of the town corresponds in metaphor to the rifts and structures of my own mind. Using the vocabulary of my Stravinsky preamble you could say that the landscape of Halifax is reconstituted in the process of composition into a musical landscape of the mind.

Hindemith - Toccata fur Mechanisches Klavier: Rex Lawson

One of the idiosyncrasies of twentieth-century player piano composers is that so many of them have thought themselves to be the first breakers of ground with regard to the instrument. Even Conlon Nancarrow was largely unaware until recent years of the considerable repertoire produced in earlier decades. In fact the first traceable pianola composer was Homer Newton Bartlett, one of the founders of the American Guild of Organists, whose Introduction and Andante Grazioso, Op 213 first graced the tracker bars of New York push-ups around 1902/3, though this and a couple of other essays in the form by Bartlett and Jacques Friedberger have not come publicly to light since player pianos attained scholarly status.

Hindemith and his German colleagues in the mid-1920s were at least in part attracted to the roll-operated piano because of its perceived novelty as a compositional medium. There had been articles in Der Auftakt and Musikblätter des Anbruch, including an important contribution to the latter in January 1926 by H.H. Stuckenschmidt, entitled 'Musikautomaten', and it was at the Donaueschinger Musiktagen in July of that year that a number of important German roll compositions received their premieres. The Toccata reproduced here was first performed in public on Sunday 25 July 1926, along with pieces by Ernst Toch and Gerhard Münch, being repeated at a number of locations in Germany during the following year, including Ulm and Chemnitz, no doubt with the willing co-operation of a Welte company sharing the imminent and general worldwide slump.

The opening of the "Toccata für mechanisches Klavier".

back to top

The Pianola Journal - Volume 10, 1998.

The Pianola Journal - Volume 10, 1998

  • Editorial
  • Duo-Art Rolls: a description of their production and an assessment of their performance: Denis Hall
  • Granados as Pianist: Lionel Salter
  • Busoni: By One of his Pupils
  • Conlon Nancarrow - a memoir: Charles Amirkhanian
  • Concert Review


Duo-Art Rolls: a description of their production and an assessment of their performance: Denis Hall

Duo-Art pianos and rolls were manufactured in America and England. This article aims to detail the processes by which the rolls were recorded, edited and finally approved by the artist, at which stage they were ready for production. It also assesses how successful the rolls and pianos were in reproducing the performances recorded. The variations in Duo-Art player actions obviously impinge on the way the rolls were edited, and so reference is made to the specifications of the pianos at various times in so far as they seem likely to have affected the rolls.

The Duo-Art system is an amalgamation of a number of patents held by Aeolian dating back to 1901, culminating in what is a virtually complete mechanism, patent 13,715,700 of 1913; Aeolian never patented the final system. For a description of its development and operation, see Pianola Journal no. 6, 'A Ramble on the Duo-Art Theme' by Patrick Handscombe. The reader should also be familiar with the basic working of the Duo-Art system as described in the Duo-Art Service Manuals published by Aeolian.

Granados as Pianist: Lionel Salter

Present-day pianists tackling the works of Enrique Granados often find themselves on the horns of a dilemma: if they treat them with a good deal of flexibility and expressive rubato they risk losing the basic pulse and shape and producing a maudlin effect: if they take the printed text too literally they can miss the music's Schumannnesque romanticism and be accused of being prosaic. In thc circumstances it would seem entirely logical to seek guidance by studying the composer's own performances, and fortunately a number of his recordings are extant. Leaving aside the nine titles on the now virtually undiscoverable Hupfeld piano rolls and the eight on Pleyela (which cannot be considered proper reproducing rolls as no dynamics were cut into them), there exist four Odeon 78 rpm discs from 1912, nine Welte Mignon rolls from about the same time, and ten Duo-Art rolls made in 1915/16 when Granados was in New York for the première of the operatic version of his Goyescas.

Granados was a very considerable pianist (as the virtuoso demands of the original keyboard Goyescas make clear) and had an impeccable pianistic pedigree back to Liszt: he had studied with Juan Bautista Pujol, whose teacher had been Liszt's Mallorcan pupil Pedro Tintorer. (In turn the successful academy which Granados founded in Barcelona passed, on his death, to his pupil Frank Marshall - best remembered now as accompanying Conchita Supervia - and thence to his pupil Alicia de Larrocha, so that the tradition is kept alive.) The Welte Mignon rolls of Goyescas movements in particular, with their Lisztian complexities, bear witness to his keyboard facility, behind which a keen musical sensibility is always perceptible.

But there are problems in adopting him as a model. The published texts of his music are notoriously inexact (especially in matters of accidentals), but even so his performances frequently depart, sometimes seriously, from what he had written: in the Spanish dances particularly he seems to have been either relying on a fallible memory or -- since the divergences are much the same in the various recordings -- indulging in a composer's licence to have second thoughts about works already in print. Then there is the big question of the recordings. As the Odeon discs could not have been edited, they must stand as accurate representations of his playing. The Welte Mignon rolls (to which I have been listening on excellent reproductions made by Ken Caswell in Austin, Texas, on a large Feurich upright) are very convincing in matters of speed, dynamics, articulation and pedalling, and give the impression of real performances. But the Duo-Art (heard on a piano owned by Denis Hall or on a Klavier LP transfer using a Steinway B grand) are much less satisfactory, often eccentric or jerky in rhythm and unreliable in matters of dynamics. It should be remembered, however, that their technicians were fairly inexperienced (the system had been initiated only a year previously, whereas Welte Mignon had been in operation for seven years). One might have suspected that Granados had not had the opportunity of approving these rolls before he left the USA on his ill-fated return to Europe, had not a Duo-Art advertisement claimed that he had listened to his El Pelele, denied that there was 'even the slightest suggestion' of anything mechanical in the reproduced performance, and declared that it was 'so truthful, so lifelike, so exact a replica of my very touch that my pupils...could detect no difference'.

back to top