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A Pianola Recital - Aeolian Company Catalogue, Paris, France, c.1908.

One might be forgiven for thinking that a piano player is simply someone who plays the piano! This is quite true, of course, but on this website we mean the roll-operated variety. The piano players that we have in mind are devices which sit in front of normal pianos, and play them with a set of small fingers, made from some combination of wood, metal and felt. The use of felt avoids harming the keys of the piano, as it is even softer than human fingernails.

Piano Players versus Player Pianos
On the whole, piano players pre-date player pianos, the latter being the special pianos with all the roll mechanisms built in. The reasons for this are not technical, but simply the vagaries of business in the USA; in the mid-1890s one or two manufacturers tried to market pianos with roll mechanisms, but they were rather unsuccessful. Many musically inclined people already had their own pianos, and did not particularly want to buy another complete upright or grand simply in order to obtain the unproven roll-playing facility, especially since these very early instruments were not generally available in well-known makes of piano.

An early Angelus-Mathuschek Player Grand Piano - Meriden, Connecticut, 1895.

You would have to be a real enthusiast for piano rolls to purchase a grand piano with a roll half out of sight under the keyboard, and casework down to the floor! Not surprisingly, this design was not commercially successful, and it was the push-up piano players which laid the foundation of the player industry throughout the world. Wilcox and White, manufacturers of the Angelus, trumpeted loudly that they had been the first to produce player pianos, but the Aeolian Company had also constructed them to special order during the 1890s.

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Early Developments
It is quite difficult to pinpoint the early history of the piano player, because it was not well documented until it became commercially successful. Nevertheless, it is clear that a number of inventors made their own contributions, from the 1870s onwards. A very early pneumatic player attachment was designed by Merritt Gally of New York, and illustrated in Scientific American in June 1879. It is drawn as though placed in front of a seven octave piano, although the accompanying text refers mostly to reed organs.

Merritt Gally's Autophone Attachment - New York, 1879.

John McTammany's influence on the piano player came at second hand. McTammany worked in the 1880s for the Munroe Organ Company of Worcester, Mass, which manufactured many of the organs and organettes sold by the Mechanical Orguinette Company. McTammany's assistant, William D. Parker, ended up at Wilcox and White when Munroe went out of business, and in the early 1890s co-operated with Edward H. White in producing the Angelus mechanism. However, although the Angelus was patented in 1895, it was not produced as a piano player until February 1897, by which time the Pianola was also being manufactured on a limited basis.

Angelus Advertisement - London, England, November 1903.

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The Aeolian Company's Pianola
Whatever the claims to priority of invention may have been, it was certainly the Pianola which outshone all the rest, as the first truly musical piano player. The very first Pianola was built in early 1895 by Edwin Votey, in a workshop at his home in Detroit, and his Farrand & Votey Organ Company made several trial models during 1896 and 1897. The first commercial use of the Pianola trademark occurred on 15 January 1898, and by the autumn of that year production in Detroit had started in earnest, with instruments being sold by the Aeolian Company in New York and elsewhere in the USA.

The Original Pianola - Aeolian Company Catalogue, New York, 1898.

Like most other piano players, the Pianola worked by suction, created by foot pedals, and it played 65 notes of the piano, losing about an octave at each end of the compass. Its rolls were perforated at a scale of six notes to the inch, the same as the contemporary 58-note organ rolls, and both types of roll had pins that protruded from each spool end, where they attached to the Pianola mechanism. On the photograph above, one can just see the various control levers, at the front of the roll compartment. From left to right, they are a sustaining pedal lever, a dynamic subduing lever, a tempo lever that moves over a curved scale, and a forward/re-roll lever. Only the earliest of Pianolas are as simple as this.

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Worldwide Pianolas
Export of Pianolas to Europe began in 1899, and Queen Victoria, for example, owned a Pianola for the last two years of her life, although one might surmise that she never actually played it herself. The rest of the world followed very quickly, and Australia undoubtedly took the prize for the most novel means of transport.

Carrying Pianolas in the Outback - 600 Miles from Melbourne, Australia, c. 1909.

The French, priding themselves on being an artistic nation, derived poetic inspiration from the Pianola on a number of occasions. The unnamed wordsmith on the cover of La Vie Parisienne found a succinct way of likening the humble music roll to one of Cupid's darts, although the young cherub's feet are hardly helped in reaching the pedals by his sitting on two unmatching volumes of Larousse.

Le Pianola de l'Amour - Aeolian Company Advertisement, Paris, December 1909.

Dédaignant sa dure traîtrise
Et les flèches qu'il affila,
Pour les belles qu'il favorise
Amour se sert du Pianola;
Et séduisant par l'harmonie
Un coeur qu'il aurait pu percer,
Désormais bienveillant génie,
L'Amour triomphe sans blesser!

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The Metrostyle
In 1903, Aeolian introduced the Metrostyle, invented in 1901 by Francis L. Young, an American member of staff seconded to the Orchestrelle Company, the Aeolian subsidiary in London, England. Young seems to have been a keen Pianolist himself, and he recognised a weakness in the instrument from the point of view of the average Pianola owner. Since music rolls were arranged mechanically, they had no dynamics or phrasing within themselves; these had to be created by the Pianolist by means of the foot pedals and hand levers. While dynamic indications were already being printed on the rolls, and a rough, overall tempo was stamped at the outset (Tempo 70, for example, indicated a roll speed of 7 feet per minute), an inexorable tempo did not make for musical performances, and was no doubt the source of much prejudice against the new instrument. Young invented a wavy red line, printed on the roll, to be followed with a pointer attached to the tempo lever, so that the ebb and flow of musical phrasing could be measured and reproduced. The new device was called the Metrostyle, and from the autumn of 1903, the Metrostyle Pianola was aggressively marketed.

The Metrostyle - Aeolian Company, New York, Autumn 1903.

It is not immediately obvious from the photograph above, but at around the same time, the pneumatic mechanism of the Pianola was split in two, between E and F above middle C, and the subduing lever, operated by the left thumb, was similarly split, so that each range of the Pianola could be independently controlled.

Most Metrostyle lines were created by staff musicians, but in some cases they were prepared under the supervision of famous pianists, or indeed by the composer of the work in question. For example, in 1904 Edvard Grieg worked for a week with George W.F. Reed of the Orchestrelle Company, who had visited him at his home in Norway with a recording version of the Metrostyle Pianola. The result of these labours was a series of fourteen rolls, annotated with detailed indications of Grieg's preferred interpretations. The signature below is dated 1906, when Grieg called on the Orchestrelle Company in London, during a visit to England for the conferment of an honorary degree by the University of Oxford. A translation of the Norwegian reads, "The Tempi in this Roll are in Accordance with my Intentions - 26/5/06 - Edvard Grieg".

Roll Leader of Papillon by Grieg, Metrostyled by the Composer - Troldhaugen, 1904.

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The Themodist
The duality of the Metrostyle Pianola, split between bass and treble, paved the way for another new device, the Themodist, based on an invention of James W. Crooks from 1900, but not introduced commercially until the autumn of 1906. The Themodist was so called because it helped the Pianolist to distinguish the themes in the music being played, and it operated by means of ditto mark perforations at each edge of the roll, one set for treble and the other for bass. By judicious use of the subduing levers, the player was able to reduce the level of accompanimental passages, while those notes occurring at the same instant as a theme perforation were brought out at the full dynamic level being created by the foot pedals. The following illustration is taken from a 65-note Themodist Pianola roll of the G minor Fugue from Book 1 of Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues - the music plays from bottom to top as the roll unwinds. For the purposes of this webpage, the entry of the fugal subject in the bass has been coloured blue, as have the first three notes of the subsequent entry in the treble, at the top right of the picture, so one can see quite clearly how the Themodist perforations marry up with the beginning of each important note.

A 65-note Themodist Roll: G Minor Fugue from Bach's 48 - Aeolian, London, c.1912.

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The Pianola Model 'K'
As the market for the Pianola increased, the Aeolian Company sought to interest those with more restricted budgets, and a simple and compact model of the Pianola was introduced in Europe, known as the Model 'K'. This had the Metrostyle but not the Themodist, and it was a little smaller than the old Metrostyle Pianola, thanks to the development of more efficient pneumatic mechanisms.

The Model 'K' Pianola - Aeolian Company Catalogue, Paris, France, c. 1909.

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The Full Scale Pianola
One of the disadvantages of most early piano players was the fact that they played only sixty-five notes, whereas most pianos had a range of eighty-eight. The more seriously the instrument was regarded by the musical public, the more glaring the omission of the top and bottom octaves, and in December 1908 the piano industry came together for a conference in Buffalo, New York, at which a universal standard for 88-note rolls was agreed. Technical developments through the first decade of the 20th century meant that smaller roll perforations could be used, and so by squeezing the notes in at nine to the inch, 88-note rolls could fit into the same width (11 9/32", plus or minus 1/32") as the old 65-note variety. Like a few other manufacturers, Aeolian brought out a Pianola that could play both types of roll, with a double tracker-bar and pneumatic switching arrangement.

An 88-note Pianola in Concert - Queen's Hall, London, England, 14 June 1912.

The 88-note system began to spread around the world in 1909. The first such instruments manufactured by Aeolian were delivered in January of that year, and the Pianola became ever more musically respectable. Public recitals at the Aeolian Company's worldwide showrooms had always been a feature of its sales campaigns, but in the years preceding the First World War, it was used in chamber music, for vocal accompaniment, and even as the soloist in concertos with orchestra. In the drawing above, Easthope Martin, a minor English song composer and the Aeolian Company's main Pianola demonstrator in London, performed as soloist in the Grieg Piano Concerto at the Queen's Hall, accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Arthur Nikisch.

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Other Piano Players
Even as the Pianola was carving out its youthful reputation, other manufacturers were following suit. The Angelus, the Apollo, the Cecilian, the Simplex and the Triumph were the best known of the American systems, while in Europe the Pleyela and the Phonola took a large share of the market. In order to avoid this webpage growing out of all proportion, each of these competing piano players has its own separate page, accessible by clicking on the picture in question.

The Angelus

The Apollo

The Cecilian

The Simplex

The Triumph

The Pleyela

The Phonola

Other Piano Players

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The inventor of the Pianola, Edwin Votey, spent some time in Europe in 1890, selling reed organs, and studying the building of pipe organs. Did he visit Italy, one wonders? High up in the Appenine hills, near the delightful university town of L'Aquila, is a little village that might just have inspired him. The Aeolian Company wrote in 1923 that the name of the Pianola came about because Edwin Votey suggested Pianolian for his new piano player, while H.B. Tremaine wanted something shorter, and so the two men compromised and agreed on Pianola. But did Edwin's travels actually take him to the Italian hills? It's an interesting thought!

Edwin Votey's Inspiration? - Near L'Aquila, Italy, April 2006.

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Website Links and Other Sources of Information

The Player Piano Page - A website run from London, England, by Ian McLaughlin, with historical and technical information, and many links.

Pianolas in Patagonia, Argentina - Horacio E. Asborno's personal webpages, with pianola history and photographs in Spanish.

The Pianola Museum - The Dutch Pianola Museum in Amsterdam, with a choice of four languages, but there is most detail in the Dutch version.

Pianolas in New Zealand - Robert Perry's view on Pianolas from down under, with many MIDI scans of piano rolls.

Pianolas in Australia - Michael Waters, using part of his firm's webspace to create many pages about his enthusiasm for player pianos.

Ernest Newman - The Piano-Player and its Music (The Musician's Handbooks - no. 1), Grant Richards, London, England, 1920.

NB: This is a very wide-ranging subject, so look at our links and bibliography pages as well.

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