The Great Pianola Experience Christmas just isn’t the same without a self-playing piano!
Christmas 100 years ago might have seen the family around the self-playing piano for entertainment. Brian Willey outlines this curious machine’s history.
THE Pianola is a piano that everyone can play.” So declared magazine adverts in the opening years of the 20th century, and the statement was undoubtedly true, for it was essentially a mechanical piano-playing device.
Those early adverts also suggested it was an ideal purchase for Christmas.
“Though the roaring Yule log fire is now no more, and the boar’s head and peacock have given way to simpler fare, one tradition survives through all the years – the tradition of music as the most adequate mode of expressing the Christmas spirit. The pianola piano keeps the old Christmas tradition in your home.”
The machines began life as elegant pieces of furniture which, when pushed up against a piano keyboard, depressed the keys with protruding, felt-covered levers and became magical musicmaking devices.
In order to play a tune a perforated paper roll – the equivalent of a musical box “barrel and pin” movement – would be inserted. With hands on the controls and feet working the pumping pedals, air pressure created the required suction to read the perforations in the rotating roll.
Invented in America, the pianola evolved from many creators but is generally ascribed to Edwin S. Votey, whose machines were marketed by the Aeolian Company from 1897. It was an appropriate
trade name, the word derived from Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds.
The instruments were an immediate success, and within the next ten years the British public became equally obsessed with them. They were sold through all the major outlets – Harrods, Maples and Selfridges – and could be purchased on easy payment terms.
Many households in the early 1900s owned one, even King George V’s!
It took some experience to use its controls to create a realistic performance of the piano repertoire, but you didn’t have to be a musician to make them work.
The original machines, known as “push-ups”, were advertised with the slogan: “The pianola masters any piano – anyone can master the pianola”, but it wasn’t long before the mechanism was being built into single units, including grand pianos.
Instruments with built-in mechanisms became known as “player pianos” for, although the word pianola later became synonymous with any automatic piano, it was, in fact, the Aeolian Company trademark for its original “push-up” version.
At the turn of the century, and operating under the name the Orchestrelle Company, Aeolian moved into London at 225 Regent Street and, with a showroom in Farringdon Road, began to prosper. A decade later it had acquired a grand building at 135-137 New Bond Street, and named it Aeolian Hall. A factory was built in Hayes, Middlesex, to manufacture their pianos, pianolas and piano rolls, and the business thrived through the decades before WWII.
Many other manufacturers sprang up, of course, all having to create and patent their own systems.
Parisian piano-maker Pleyel had the Pleyela, Boyd of London invented its
Pistonola contraption, and Germany’s Hupfeld Company made a Solophonola.
In Britain, Aeolian dominated the British market and adverts proudly announced that, apart from their own instruments, the necessary mechanism was additionally being installed in the pianos of Steinway, Weber, Steck and Stroud.
The manufacture of piano rolls also became a lucrative industry, the rolls varying from 65-note to 88-note capability and covering every existent genre of music.
Words were also provided, and popular song rolls had the lyrics printed on them, allowing family and friends to gather around the pianolist to read and sing a chorus or two while their host pedalled the paper roll through its routine.
The perforations in the rolls were generally cut to a format from printed music sources, often with extra holes achieving chords that would be impossible to play with only ten fingers.
They could also be automatically created on a reproducing piano which not only played the notes, but also duplicated the expression of the human artist by means of specially coded music rolls.
The genuine performer-notated ones became valuable archives, enabling us to hear the playing of legendary classical concert pianists, including Paderewski and Godowsky; composers Percy Grainger, George Gershwin, Edvard Grieg, Igor Stravinsky, and ragtime star Scott Joplin, who was around too early to record for the still-imperfect gramophone.
The sale of pianola pianos peaked in the mid-1920s, but the perfection of gramophone recording, amplification and the arrival of radio eventually caused their popularity to wane.
They continued to be newly available well into the 1930s and always remained rather expensive.
A 1929 advert offered conventional upright pianos ranging from £33 to £63, whereas its player piano versions were priced from £90 to £120.
Although the manufacture of the instruments ceased many decades ago, small quantities of piano rolls still remain in production.
With the demise of the instrument’s popularity, the Aeolian Company had ceased to trade by the end of the 30s, and in the mid-1940s Aeolian Hall became the headquarters of BBC radio’s Variety and Light Entertainment departments.
It was there I spent some 30 years of my life working within its walls –sadly without a single pianola in sight.
Apart from a multitude of offices, the building contained a grand, brass-railed staircase leading to its impressive concert hall. Another showroom area on the second floor was used as a studio, and there were also several rehearsal rooms.
The front first-floor office I occupied contained a large walk-in safe, obviously intended to hold a great deal of money!
The building, rented rather than owned by the BBC, remained in use by Radio Two until the mid-1970s, and then, when vacant, developers wrecked and removed the grand staircase, despite the preservation order placed upon it.
Later, when taken over by Sotheby’s, it even endured a name change to Renoir House, and has since been seriously renovated.
I find that hearing an actual piano being played by a ghostly Edvard Grieg, Paderewski or Scott Joplin remains an uncanny experience.
The rolls covered every type of music
The instruments were found in drawing-rooms throughout the land.
A Steck upright pianola piano.