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MMD > Pictures > Welte > Hist > intro_en

A Short History of the Welte-Mignon in USA:
From the book, Player Piano Treasury, by Harvey N. Roehl, pp. 47-50,
© 1961 by  Harvey N. Roehl; published by The Vestal Press, Vestal, New York.

The concept of a mechanically operated piano which has the inherent capability of playing not just mechanically, but with all the musical heart and soul that the human artist can put into his playing, is one that must have intrigued many an early-day inventor in this field.

The honors for first having succeeded in this endeavor go not to Americans, but to Germans.  Shortly after the turn of the century, machines capable of actually reproducing the expression of the human artist were marketed both by the Hupfeld organization and by M. Welte & Söhne (M. Welte & Sons) -- both firms already well established in the orchestrion business.  The Hupfeld machine was known as the "DEA," and the Welte machine was labelled "Mignon" -- to distinguish the fact that by comparison with the products normally made by the company, it was indeed small, for some of the orchestrions built by them were truly enormous.

The Hupfeld DEA apparently was never marketed to any extent in America, but the Welte concern conducted a vigorous marketing effort, starting around 1906, and eventually established an American factory at Poughkeepsie, New York -- only to have it seized as alien property during World War 1.

M. Welte & Söhne, the Welte organization of Freiburg, Germany, was started by Michael Welte in the first half of the 19th Century, as a result of his efforts in building music boxes and, later, orchestrions -- which he is given credit as having helped perfect.  The typical European orchestrion is not based around a piano, as were the later American versions, but rather consists of sets of pipes, drums, and reeds operated from a glorified music box cylinder -- or, in its later development, paper rolls.

At any rate, by 1900 the market for these had pretty well evaporated, and Edwin Welte, a grandson, worked with his brother-in-law, Karl Bockisch, to perfect a machine to keep their business alive.  The result was the Welte-Mignon reproducing piano, and by 1905 they were getting various composers and artists of the day to sit down and play to make paper rolls which would have punched into them in the process not only perforations capable of recording the proper notes as played, but additional perforations to record the expression and interpretations of that particular individual.

As the years went on, practically all the great artists of the day recorded at one time or another for either Welte or Hupfeld, and many of these interpretations were later adapted for American-made machines of other types.  But not only were the pianos capable of playing back the reproducing rolls exceedingly costly, in terms of the average person's income, but the rolls themselves had staggering price tags.

The 1912 Welte-Mignon roll catalog of several hundred numbers lists many rolls costing $10, $15, and up to $17 each, and some much more, considering that very often compositions had to be divided between two and three rolls owing to their length.  Little wonder that today these original German-made Welte machines are scarce.  Not many people could afford them in their day, and those people of means who could do so undoubtedly were the types who could afford to discard the instruments as soon as they [became] tired of them.

Some Welte mechanisms were placed in American-made pianos, and the experience of hearing some of this early music in a magnificent piano such as the Mason-Hamlin is not easily forgotten by connoisseurs of this type of device.

After World War I, the Welte firm again established a manufacturing operation in America, even after having licensed rights to its original patents to the Auto-Pneumatic Action Company in this country.  In the nineteen-twenties they made cabinet-style piano players, similar in operative principle to the early-day push-up players, but the market for these was always a limited one.  Welte made its last reproducing instrument in 1931, and Edwin Welte died in 1957 at the age of 82, after having in his lifetime seen the entire span of popularity of the reproducing piano take place.

Other American firms

It is rather surprising that no American concern managed to produce a reproducing device until as late as 1913; perhaps none had been really perfected, or perhaps the manufacturers were convinced that no market really existed until that time.  However, the Steinway Duo-Art Pianola was introduced in that year, as a result of a contract which had been made between the Aeolian Corporation and the Steinway Company in 1909.  Aeolian purchased pianos in special cases from Steinway, and then proceeded to install their newly-perfected Duo-Art reproducing mechanism in them.

In succeeding years these mechanisms were also installed in the makes actually built by Aeolian; these were for Weber, Steck, Wheelock, Stroud, and Aeolian pianos, in that order of quality and price, for the American market.  Many Steinway models were made in special Art-cases with much ornate woodwork and the least costly of any of the models produced was around $4500; other pianos in the line could be had for prices closer to one-third that much.

As in the case of the Welte, this also meant that only the wealthy could afford reproducing pianos, and that the market was always bound to be a limited one.  But rolls were made for much lower selling prices (a Duo-Art roll was high if it brought $4) in an attempt to capitalize on the possibilities of this part of the market.

Again, as in the case of Welte, the Aeolian Corporation induced as many of the great artists of the day to play for them as it possibly could, and then it made double use of these person's names through all kinds of endorsements ... and following the example set earlier by Tremaine, plugged its new wares through tremendous advertising campaigns.  Of course a discerning reader can detect a note of similarity in all the endorsements; it is hard to believe that many of these people actually said what was printed!

The Duo-Art was installed up until the mid-thirties, when the factory in New York City suffered a disastrous fire, after which the Aeolian Company merged with the American Piano Company and moved its production operations to East Rochester, New York.  Rolls continued to be made for several years, however, and there was in this period much inter-relationship between the AMPICO reproducing piano activity and the Duo-Art, no doubt resulting from the fact that everything was then under one roof.

Today authorities disagree as to whether or not the Duo-Art reproducing mechanism could replace human artistry as satisfactorily as would the other pianos produced in this country with that presumed capability; this is a moot point.  But the fact is that it reached the market early, it always had a good share of the market, and it was right there until the bitter end when all reproducers, along with the more conventional players, finally lost out as the price of progress.


14 August 2002

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