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.

This England - - Contents - Brian Wil­ley

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.

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