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This page is still in preparation, but may nevertheless be of interest in its incomplete state.

The Label from Stravinsky's Etude pour Pianola, published in 1921.

It should always be remembered that the pianola was invented so that musical amateurs could play a large repertoire of music, of whichever type they enjoyed; it was not developed for public concerts, and it was certainly not envisaged at the outset that it might be used for original compositions. But, like many human inventions, musical instruments take on a life of their own, and both composers and performing musicians seek to leave their mark. The 1720s pianofortes of Cristofori are a far cry from modern Steinways, and it has been mainly the imagination of composers and the demands of performers which have spurred the changes.

So, when considering the musical qualities of any pianola composition, one needs to be aware of the philosophy behind it; Hindemith's pieces for Welte-Mignon were written with a quite different aim from Stravinsky's re-compositions of his early orchestral works for Pleyela. Similarly, Conlon Nancarrow's obsessive and witty studies for Ampico were designed for an instrument bearing little resemblance to the warm-toned Edwardian pianos that inspired the likes of Arnold Bax or Herbert Howells. And even at the end of the twentieth-century, John Adams' Grand Pianola Music and Century Rolls, though not written for pianola, nevertheless owe part of their character to this particular composer's perception of what makes a piano roll different from a pianist.

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Earliest Works
As far as can be ascertained, the first composition ever written for the Pianola was Homer Newton Bartlett's Introduction and Andante Grazioso, published in early 1904. This was one of a series of three rolls, the others being two Improvisations in C# minor for the Pianola by Bartlett and Jacques Friedberger, apparently the first hand-played rolls to be published by Aeolian. Perhaps the Improvisations represented the wistful gaze of two New York admirers towards the distant exoticism of Rachmaninov's Russia, or were they simply an attempt to cash in on the same key as the famous Prelude in C# minor? You can make your mind up by listening to the following mp3!

mp3 BARTLETT: Improvisation in C# Minor.  [X.X Mb]
Performed by Rex Lawson - April 2008, London.

This roll was performed on an Aeolian Pianola, attached to a Steinway grand piano, in London in April 2008. The audio recording is the copyright of the Pianola Institute, 2008.

Part of Homer Newton Bartlett's entry in the 1905 Aeolian Pianola catalogue.

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European Experiments
Although America, as the country where the pianola was invented, was the first to inspire direct composition for the instrument, it was left to Europe to take up the challenge thereafter, and even the various compositions for the Aeolian Pipe Organ, referred to briefly at the foot of our Player Organs page, were created by two Englishmen, an Irishman, a Frenchman, a German and a Pole!

Two inveterate experimenters, Ferruccio Busoni and Percy Grainger, set their minds to the task in the years preceding the First War. Around 1908, Busoni arranged Mozart's Die Zauberflöte overture for the 65-note compass of Aeolian's early Pianola, and he even began a sketch Für die Pianola, though never completing more than a page or so. Incidentally, his treatment of the Pianola in German as a feminine entity (Die Pianola) was incorrectly influenced by his Italian vocabulary: the word is in fact neuter in German (Das Pianola), as opposed to Hupfeld's equivalent, which is feminine (Die Phonola).

An excerpt from "Shepherd's Hey", by Percy Grainger.

Percy Grainger liked to get his hands dirty, as can be seen from the Free Music machines which he and his collaborator, Burnett Cross, constructed themselves, so the idea of punching and editing his own piano rolls must immediately have appealed to him. Living in London from 1901 onwards, his interest in English folk-song led to two special Pianola arrangements of Molly on the Shore and Shepherd's Hey in 1914. Indeed, on his moving to the USA later in that year, he transferred his fascination with superhuman music rolls to Aeolian's new Duo-Art Pianola Piano, for which he "recorded" a number of similar arrangements, quite probably adding extra perforated notes by hand.

Ákos Buttykay (1871-1935).

Hungarian composers also contributed to the Pianola's special repertoire at this time, resulting in three rolls of Hungarian Folksongs by Akos Buttykay (1871-1935), and the Hungarian Festival Overture of Dezsö Demény (1871-1937), both rather florid examples of enthusiastically national music. Giacomo B. Marchisio, an Italian composer and mandolin player who had settled in London in the late 19th century and who was for a time the chief musician at the Kastner Autopiano factory in north London, made a special arrangement of his second Cosacca, a roll which went on to find fame in the 1940s blockbuster movie, Scott of the Antarctic.

Cecil Meares at the Broadwood player piano in the Antarctic, circa 1911.

Against this background of rolls where the special composition or arrangement is specifically mentioned on the box labels, it is worth remembering that a number of other composers were probably involved in helping the process of transcription of some of their more complex works, though solid evidence is very hard to find. Rachmaninov owned an upright player piano and played his Second Concerto on it, according to his sister-in-law, and since these three rolls are arguably the most sensitively arranged of all Aeolian's concerto issues, the probability that the composer advised in some way is quite strong. Similarly, Ravel's Daphnis and Chloë, published in its entirety on seven rolls by Aeolian in London, contains passages which are significantly different from the normal four hand version by Léon Roques. Since Aeolian's musical staff would have had neither the knowledge nor the authority to make such musical alterations, it seems likely that Ravel was involved. He was, after all, approached to write a composition for Pianola, as is noted in the next section.

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Aeolian Company Commissions : 1917 - 1921
Thus far, all compositional activity with the Pianola was sporadic and experimental. Although the instrument was very well established and universally accepted, to a degree which we often fail to recognise today, no-one had set about using it for direct composition in any integrated way. But then Igor Stravinsky, who loved to be at the cutting edge of the avant-garde, realised the multiple possibilities of the music roll: as a compositional medium, as a means of setting down his own ideas of interpretation, and as a source of income, always important for a dispossessed Russian composer, transplanted with his young family to Western Europe.

After contacting the Aeolian Company in London and enquiring into the technical capabilities of the Pianola, Stravinsky hit on the idea of writing a series of Studies for the instrument, although in the end he only composed one, the Etude pour Pianola of 1917. His musical novelty took four years to be accorded its first public performance, by which time the British music critic, Edwin Evans, had extended the range of Aeolian's new commissions, by inviting a number of other European composers to contribute original works, as part of a series of fifteen special music rolls issued in the autumn of 1921.

The Fifteen Rolls of the Aeolian Company Commissions - London, Autumn 1921.

Eugene Goossens, Herbert Howells, Alfredo Casella and Gian-Francesco Malipiero all responded enthusiastically with new compositions, and nine other British composers provided suitably unplayable arrangements of their own music. Ravel appears to have started on a suite of pieces, but finding the financial conditions unsatisfactory, he abandoned the project, donating the short opening movement, Frontispice, to his friend, the poet Ricciotto Canudo, who published it as the preface to a book of poems.

All five compositions, and several of the arrangements, from this Aeolian series have recently been published on the NMC CD label, in performances by Rex Lawson, and audio excerpts are available at NMC's website.

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Activities at Pleyel in Paris : 1919 - 1930

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