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MMD > Archives > November 2002 > 2002.11.27 > 04Prev  Next

Impact Of the Player Piano Upon Society
By Dan Wilson, London

My grandmother had a 65-note Steck upright "pianola" piano from
1912 and my father gave my mother an 88-note Cramer player upright for
their wedding in 1923.  So our family was the typical "pianola" public:
middle income, music-aware, careless of the advantages the player was
supposed to give.  I was probably the only enthusiast for it.  I was
taken at the age of 4 to the Harrods department store Christmas roll
sale in 1938 -- and chose Beethoven rolls because I could see ragtime
would be severely rationed.  (Also the pop rolls available in England
then were pretty uninspiring stuff to a jazz lover.)

The cultural history of the player piano is integral from America
where it originated to Europe.  As conceived by the inventor Edwin
Votey, it would enable ordinary people with poor keyboard skills to
enjoy the classics.  This required at least some facility for phrasing
the music by altering the speed of the roll as you played, balancing
left and right hands and accenting the theme and the instrument was
developed in the 1900s to meet these needs.

The ultimate "classical" pianola systems were the two similar ones
in America/Canada/Australia/UK, Themodist-Metrostyle, and Hupfeld's
"Phonola" in Germany.  They can produce results which, behind
a curtain, can fool the most exacting piano music critic.  (I have
a story about my player-hating stepmother which I think Robbie has
already heard.  She mistook me playing Dvorak's well-known Humoreske
for her accomplished pianist grand-daughter Genevieve -- and lost her
temper in a big way.)

American workers, however, were able to buy player pianos where
European ones were not.  This year I was on a visit to the massive mill
complex in Lowell, Massachusetts, and learnt that in the 1910s the mill
workers there were earning twice as much in real terms as the British
ones in Lancashire.

This meant that there was a massive American market for pianos that
would just thunder out the latest hit tunes, without any need for
fiddly levers and buttons to modify the music.  The big player
companies in the USA discovered this just as they had produced their
very fine top-class players, and reversed their home policy.  America
was swamped with players made down to a price and thousands of pop
rolls -- very jolly stuff a lot of them too -- were thundered out by
over 30 companies in what is now proving to be highly perishable cheap
paper.  The craze spread to coin pianos and there were sufficient black
customers for a serious incursion by roll-makers into classic jazz
(happily for folk such as Robbie and I).

In Europe, the middle class held sway in sales, so the player stayed
sober and the Themodist and Phonola instruments dominated the continent
- even though in most cases the owners had not the remotest idea what
all the controls were for.  However, even here the romping pop music
from the USA had some impact and there was a fair catalogue of it being
repunched at the Aeolian Company's main roll plant in Hayes, Middlesex
outside London.  By 1918 the parent company in New York was sourcing
its now small demand for classical titles from the Hayes plant -- and
even the Otto Higel company in Canada, too.

This situation was mirrored at a higher income scale in the relatively
rare "reproducing" instruments, which replicated an actual pianist's
performance.  While Aeolian's Duo-Art system stayed largely with
classical music, Ampico (AMerican PIano COmpany) specialised in
beautifully edited, exciting swing music from a stud of house pianists
as well as some well-known names, now of course historical records.
The German Welte-Mignon reproducing system, thanks to the Great War,
had split into German and American branches.  You could get hot stuff
on Welte "Licensee" (America) but almost nothing but schmaltz on the
home rolls from Freiburg in Germany.

I attribute the fall of the player to the combined forces of
electrical recording in 1927 and the moving-coil loudspeaker in 1928,
which together brought about the electric phonograph and the modern
radio, giving a reasonably good level of reproduction.  The great
Depression of the 1930s just acted as the coup de grace.

In England, the Aeolian Company retired from the fray in 1932 and
later became associated with increasingly poor production standards,
after merging with Ampico.  Here Aeolian-made pianos are valued by the
trade as being well-built and musically superior to the other minor
British makes.  A result is that old players still exist here in
fossilised form in stupendous number - far more than can ever be
adopted by the thousand or so aficionados.  The cost of restoring them
increases as their condition deteriorates, so there is now unlikely to
be a great resurgence in interest.

But when modern commentators tell the general public that the
electronic keyboard instrument with disk or CD playback is the
"present-day equivalent of the pianola", they only demonstrate their
ignorance.  The pianola enabled you to have the music just the way you
liked it.

Did the pianola have an "impact on the public"?  Not a permanent one.
When we demonstrate the pianola in shopping centres (usually in the
form of a keyboard-player playing a resident grand piano) only a very
few elderly people show any familiarity with or remembrance of it.  The
most entranced are music students, who are astonished that "Really?
This music is coming out of just those little holes?"

Dan Wilson

(Message sent Tue 26 Nov 2002, 23:10:00 GMT, from time zone GMT.)

Key Words in Subject:  Impact, Piano, Player, Society, Upon

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