Gershwin and Armbruster
By Douglas Henderson
|Hi Robbie, you wrote:|
> Dear Douglas, please tell me more about Gershwin and Armbruster.
> 1. Did Gershwin play the Duo-Art recording piano for the 2-roll
> Duo-Art issue of the Rhapsody?
He probably played the source material for that 'Primo' roll I wrote about, going at Tempo 100, using the 'Secundo' piano for the orchestra. It has mathematical editing for some of the repetition but is definitely of the 'hand-played' source, masked by the faster roll speeds. I never claim that Gershwin made it, of course, but always bring up the similarity to his acoustic Victor 78. This was 1924, not 1925 and 1927 when the two Armbruster-ish rolls came out. The commercial releases appear to come from sheet music more than anything else, or a mix of the two sources with sheet music the dominant one.
I have a 1970s letter in which Armbruster discusses his work on that music for a variety of purposes, including Alternating Rolls of Rhapsody in Blue. Alternating Rolls were always made from catalogue releases, so the Tempo 60 (Roll I) and Tempo 70 (II) elevator-music set that Duo-Art issued came out after Gershwin left Aeolian, which was after the debut of his music at Aeolian Hall. They have Armbruster's dynamic building, pedal and connected notes. Several people might have worked on it, but Gershwin was not part of the equation.
> 2. Was Armbruster the primary editor?
Aeolian broke the music into popular, dance, classical and salon music, for the most part.
Armbruster was in charge for the demonstrations at Aeolian Hall, which involved 'Primo' rolls vs. the actual pianist on a 2nd grand. He did the salon music and light classical pieces, and Rhapsody in Blue was released in that category, along with Brides & Butterflies (etc.) music.
W. C. Woods did much of the classical scoring for the major artists like Hofmann, Paderewski, Bauer and others.
Aeolian was a corporate holding company, so many rolls might have had various hands on them anyway.
Rudy Erlebach did the earlier fake-Gershwin fox trots and much of the editing after Arndt died in 1918. Milne did arranging only, starting in the 1920's and continuing with his graph paper methods through Aeolian- American. Milne's rolls of Gershwin music are the later ones: Kickin' the Clouds Away, That Certain Feeling, etc.
Armbruster turned the phrased fox trot "So Am I" from "Lady, Be Good!" into a typical slush-ballad in Gershwin's name.
I don't know who assigned these projects, but I can usually identify traits that lean to one person's method of doing things. Back in the '50s I used to say that Robt. Summers and Henri Bergman had the same dynamics and sustaining pedal as Robt. Armbruster -- and they turned out to be pseudonyms, when he was interviewed many years later.
Think of the person in-charge of roll policies then as the "City Editor" at an old newspaper. The jobs were similar, meaning that not everything was done by the person in charge.
> 3. Did the editor of the Rhapsody do anything differently for
> Gershwin than for other Duo-Art artists?
The released Gershwin rolls follow the same extended note formulae of the period. Many pianistic accents are mushed-along as crescendi, something Gershwin would have never done. There are no wild accents either, another Gershwin performance characteristic.
The 'Primo' roll is the only roll and "closest" to Gershwin's audio recordings I've ever heard.
So many that bear his name, such as the Mel-O-Dee rolls, are just Erlebach, and reflect standard thematic material of whatever particular year one selects. I have noticed that Gershwin's name appears on rolls in which he was the "pit pianist" (as in Kern's 'Miss 1917') or had some capacity in the musical, or was the composer. Perhaps Erlebach put the Gershwin name on the label (and the picture got in the Catalogue too!) on some Aeolian arrangement here.
> 4. The phono recordings of Gershwin indeed sound very mechanical, and
> I guess he played this way all the time. Didn't Gershwin himself
> remark that he preferred Oscar Levant's performances over his own?
I don't know. Gershwin couldn't stand Levant when they first met, with the latter being a prodigy and the other a now-successful Broadway composer. Levant went to Hollywood a bit earlier to write film music (skipping Gershwin's failure 'Delicious' for Fox in 1931) and they reunited about that time. Levant had the Gershwin "style" and played Gershwin's music very well, of course.
My favourite is the Columbia 78 and/or LP with Whiteman's Orchestra (but who knows?) with Levant, from the 1940's.
[ My favourite, too. I think it's the Philadelphia Orchestra
[ with Eugene Ormandy, and possibly a few 'ringers' from the
[ Whiteman band, notably the clarinetist. -- Robbie
I'm certain that Levant played better than Gershwin in the Hollywood (short) years, since the composer's brain tumor was already causing problems, diagnosed as "anxiety" by many friends in the business.
Gershwin's radio programs and Fox Movietone shorts don't sound "mech- anical" to me, just with highspeed repetition added in between the romantic melodic line. Mine on the MHS Cassette from a radio show for Feen-A-Mint introduces all sorts of little in-between effects, just as 'Strike Up the Band' for a Fox newsreel has many "extra" notes, mostly of the repetition sort. I really like Gershwin's 1926 Columbia 78's with Fred and Adele Astaire from the English cast version of "Lady, Be Good!" They really show his interplay with Fred's tapping on some numbers.
> 5. Why did Duo-Art produce rolls at Tempo 60 if they couldn't
> maintain the staccato sounds the artist actually performed?
Aeolian was selling pianos and producing background music. On a '30s radio transcription about Gershwin who had just died, Harold Arlen (or somebody in that set) said that "Few people knew how to play Rhapsody in Blue for many years. They didn't grasp the style." (The style which Levant later made nationally famous, in my opinion). The Armbruster-ish fake rolls, by Duo-Art, sound just like somebody steeped in Salon Music who was given the jazz-oriented score, don't they?
> 6. What is the source-recording of the Aeolian Hall demonstration
> roll? Is the note field taken from the same "master" recording as
> the production Rhapsody? This seems unlikely, because of the tempo
> difference. Is it a Gershwin performance?
The roll came from a trash can at the Aeolian plant in Dorchester MA, and came to a friend of mine when he bought the former employee's Stroud pedal upright Duo-Art. I hounded him for 18 years before he let me copy (44 rolls only) the original, with shredded margins. The hastily-edited roll was done on the standard Aeolian (Meriden CT) perforating equipment, however, suggesting that Aeolian Hall had at one time a small run of copies, for use when demonstrations came up. There was no serial number and it's not in any catalogue. (By the way, I "read" the unplayable roll in my head and knew what it would sound like if and when I'd get my hands on it, for copy purposes.)
My copies were all hand-edited against the master, itself an Aeolian copy from a perforated one.
> 7. What is the evidence of "hasty editing"? Is the editing different
> from the typical classical productions? Could it have been edited
> by a pop music editor instead of a classical music editor?
Don't have time to go into this now, but most demonstration rolls had serial numbers, and extra holes for cues, stops, starts, rhythm, etc., since a podium or off-stage control was usually part of the equation here.
This had pencil marks going back and forth (to be seen at a distance by the 2nd pianist) and it wasn't a true 'Primo' since it overlapped in order to get the 2nd piano "into" the music at the proper musical insertion point.
The roll goes to the *complete* extremes here, unlike the background music one the public bought. All the demonstration rolls I have (made for large pianos and/or hand-tooled from commercial releases) use the pp to ff range, not the Armbruster mp to mf range with a "touch" of Intensity #10 (between mf and f) here and there. (Crash is #15.)
> 8. How do rolls altered for concert performance differ from ordinary
> production rolls? How can one tell an altered roll?
Different perforations in most cases. They reroll or turn off in the middle of the music, due to different tracker bar layouts!
Regards, Douglas Henderson
(Message sent Tue 1 Apr 1997, 03:18:29 GMT, from time zone GMT.)