Day of the Player Piano

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Meanwhile, something much loftier was beginning to encroach on the scene. In 1904 a respected old German firm in Freiburg, M. Weite & Söhn, introduced to the market a player piano with a difference: its rolls were made not by a mechanical perforating device from the score but as a result of a careful transcription of an actual performance by an artist. When the keyboard of Welte’s master piano was played, little carbon rods beneath each key dipped into pools of mercury, and the resulting electric contact caused marks to be made on a moving paper roll, registering the duration of notes played as well as pedalwork. The artist’s shading was noted on a copy of the score by a musician listening closely to the performance. These indications were then added to the master roll when it was perforated, in the form of extra holes that controlled the power of the vacuum operating the small bellows doing the mechanical playing. It was a complex but workable system, and the performing artist was able to edit the final result before the roll was released to the public (missed notes supplied, wrong notes corrected, greater emphasis here, less there). Weite called this “reproducing” machine Mignon, and the Welte-Mignon had the distinction of being the first popular self-playing piano whose rolls were actually “made” by the great pianists of the day. Freiburg suffered heavy bombing during the Second World War, and the Weite factory was ruined. Weite had, however, thoughtfully hidden its three thousand master rolls and the playing gear in the Black Forest. These were bought, after the war, by a Californian enthusiast named Richard Simonton, who transcribed them to phonograph records. Hearing the Weite instrument play a roll recorded by Claude Debussy is a remarkable experience; accustomed as we became to Leopold Stokowski’s wispy mauve-and-pink interpretations of Debussy, it is a surprise to find the old master lively, brilliant, and anything but wispy when he played his own music.

The success of the Welte-Mignon in Europe and America ensured that American makers would catch up as soon as possible, and in 1913 Aeolian proudly unveiled its Duo-Art reproducing piano. Like the Welte-Mignon, the Duo-Art re-created as accurately as possible the artist’s original performance; it was capable of sixteen degrees of dynamic intensity (although a British critic claimed that the ear could distinguish only seven). Aeolian entered into a contract with Steinway under which Duo-Art mechanisms were installed under Steinway grand pianos and even in Steinway uprights. Though a Steinway Duo-Art grand piano cost more than four thousand dollars in 1920, the company was hard pressed to fill orders.

There is a certain straining of the imagination required here to understand the fascination the player piano exerted on the twenties. The piano was unquestionably the most popular instrument then (as probably the guitar is now), so there was a lot of interest in hearing it. The phonograph had come along, but until the advent of electric recording records of piano music were miserable. Any player piano was superior; it played for you right in your own home, lively and bright and satisfying. To emphasize the potency of this vibrant, intimate music, Aeolian offered an expensive cabinet called a “Concertola” into which the owner could put a number of rolls, which were then operated by a remote-control, electric push-button device. The rolls, one by one, threaded themselves, played the piano, then rewound themselves and rotated to the next roll. Advertisements of the time show a number of handsome, thoughtful people solemnly listening to roll after roll on the Duo-Art as the evening went by.

The advent of the reproducing piano caused a considerable stir in the musical world. The Wagner biographer and music critic Ernest Newman listened to a performance in London in which passages of a Liszt rhapsody were played on a Duo-Art in Aeolian Hall, alternately by a pianist and by a roll he’d made. “With one’s eyes closed,” Newman remarked afterward, “it was impossible to say which was which.” So great was the excitement that musicians began to take the player piano seriously as a teaching medium. Aeolian helpfully provided Audiographic rolls for the Duo-Art that included all sorts of information: bar lines, phrasing marks, indications of the formal development of the music, even literary explanations—all “signed” by the famous artist who’d made them. It was a far cry from “Kitten on the Keys.”

One excellent side result of this interest in the player piano was that really fine jazz musicians were hired to make piano rolls, and not only the expensive reproducing rolls. Thomas (Fats) Waller and Jelly Roll Morton made a number of splendid rolls. In the early days of ragtime, a good many composers turned their music over to the new piano roll companies, and some fine early ragtime tunes that never made it to a printed score have survived on piano rolls.