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Rachmaninoff at the Ampico Recording Piano, New York, early 1920s.

Like most musical Russians at the start of the twentieth century, Rachmaninoff must have been aware of the Pianola's existence. Pianolas were first introduced into Russia by the Leipzig businessman, Julius Heinrich Zimmermann, who had large retail establishments in St Petersburg, Moscow and Riga, as this 1913 Cyrillic advertisement for the Steinway Pianola Piano confirms. By 1903, Czar Nicholas had an Aeolian, puchased for him by his wife, the Empress Alexandra, and most members of the Imperial Family followed suit. One can imagine that roll-operated instruments were not immediately important for a pianist of Rachmaninoff's stature, although as a composer he may have had some passing interest, since his music began to appear on perforated piano rolls as early as 1900.

The Pianola Piano in Russia - Julius Heinrich Zimmermann in 1913.

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Early Rachmaninoff Rolls from the Aeolian Company - 1900 to 1906
The first of Rachmaninoff's compositions to appear in an Aeolian Company Pianola catalogue were the Prelude and Polichinelle from Opus 3, and the Waltz and Melodie from Opus 10. These were all published in the nineteenth century, given that the new century technically began in 1901. By the time of the July 1901 roll catalogue, several hundred more classical titles had been prepared, with roll numbers higher than the pieces by Rachmaninoff, so, working backwards, the four were almost certainly in existence by 1900, within two years of the launch of the Pianola in the autumn of 1898. In particular the Prelude in C sharp minor was performed publicly on the Pianola on June 6th, 1900, during the very first Pianola recital in Brooklyn, at the Aeolian Company's recital rooms at 500 Fulton Street. The Elegy and Serenade from Opus 3 were added towards the end of 1901, and all six titles were re-published between late 1904 and early 1906 in the Aeolian Company's Metrostyle series, with undulating red lines to indicate the use of the tempo lever.

Many composers were more closely involved with the Pianola than we might imagine nowadays, but much of the evidence was transitory, and especially so in Rachmaninoff's case. In 1917 a revolutionary mob burnt the composer's country estate and its contents, while he and his family looked on in dismay. In order to arrive at the probable truth, therefore, we need to consider both circumstantial evidence and the recorded memories of his relatives. In particular, Rachmaninoff's sister-in-law, Sophia Satina, recalled him playing through rolls of his own Second Piano Concerto on a Pianola at Ivanovka, the estate several hundred miles south-east of Moscow that was later destroyed. To find out why and when this early association with piano rolls might have occurred, it will be useful to follow the composer's footsteps in the years preceding the First World War.

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Rachmaninoff in Dresden - 1906 to 1909
In November 1906, the Rachmaninoff family moved to Dresden in Germany, remaining there during the autumn and winter months of each year until 1909, and living in a rented house at Sidonienstrasse 6. This was a street just off the main shopping thoroughfare of Prager Strasse, not far from the Hauptbahnhof, the central station. One may find references on the web to another Dresden mansion where the Rachmaninoffs stayed in the 1920s, the Villa Fliederhof, and it is important to realise that these were not at all the same location, nor indeed the same area of the city.

Rachmaninoff's entry in the Dresden Street Directory for 1908.

From the Dresden street directory of 1908, which is available online, it is clear that the main Sidonienstrasse building was split into many apartments, but there were also a garden house (GG) and a rear building (HG) that served as an artist's studio in the leafy plot of land hidden away behind the scenes. It was to one of these, the garden house, that Rachmaninoff moved his family in 1906, and it must have provided a real oasis of calm, but nevertheless in an area of Europe that allowed the composer to keep up with the very latest musical developments. In 1904 the inhabitant of the garden house had been Franz Koppel-Ellfeld, the Intendant of the Hoftheater (the Semperoper) at Dresden, and a well-known author and opera librettist of the time, so it is easy to see how Rachmaninoff's opera connections might have played a part in finding the ideal location. The whole property can be seen in the Dresden street map of 1911, and it is here coloured turquoise for clarity.

A detail of the Dresden Street Plan for 1911.

Also coloured turquoise is a building at Prager Strasse 49, for reasons which will become apparent in due course. This complete area was destroyed, like most of central Dresden, on the night of 13/14 February 1945, when the Allied bombing caused a firestorm to annihilate much of the city, but it still existed in 1944, when the following aerial photograph was taken. The photo points more or less due north, and two locations have been marked in sepia, the one on the left being the main Sidonienstrasse building, with the two garden properties behind it. It may be remarked that nos. 8 and 10, Sidonienstrasse had by this time been replaced by further commercial development, so that Rachmaninoff's former Garden of Eden was by now rather less hidden.

An aerial view of Dresden in 1944.

The other sepia-coloured building in the photograph (turquoise in the map) is also very important. It is at the southern end of Prager Strasse, where it used to join the Wiener Platz, diagonally opposite the main entrance to the Hauptbahnhof. Prager Strasse was Dresden's main shopping thoroughfare, and it is a testament to the thoroughness of the city's destruction that it no longer exists. The highlighted building is Prager Strasse 49, and roughly in the summer of 1907, the Choralion Company, the German subsidiary of the Aeolian Company, established a retail showroom there. Clearly it must have been a wonderful location, since everyone coming out of the station more or less had to pass it. No doubt that included the Rachmaninoff family, who, on the return from one of their summer sojourns at Ivanovka, might perhaps have remarked on the new establishment, even if they were passing slowly by in a horse-drawn cab. Here is a clearer view of the building, housing two or three individual shops, just to the left of the tower on the corner, which latter formed part of the Kaiser Café on the Wiener Platz.

The Choralion Showroom in Dresden, at Prager Strasse 49, c. 1911.

The more general point here is how physically close Rachmaninoff was to the Pianola between 1907 and 1909. The main showroom in Dresden was no more than five minutes' walk from his house. In view of the destruction of Ivanovka, nothing is written down and recorded, alas, but it would surely have been very strange if Rachmaninoff had not visited what was effectively a new showroom for pianos and allied instruments, and been warmly welcomed by the representatives of a company that was already publishing some of his music on roll. Given that the Pianola has for many years been associated more with Scott Joplin than it has with Rachmaninoff, it should be noted that any special association with ragtime or dance music comes more from the tastes of present-day collectors than it does from the original period. Naturally, all musical styles were represented in the roll catalogues, but serious music was definitely at the centre of the instrument's repertoire, as this advertisement from Dresden in November 1909 makes clear.

Pianola Advertisement, Salonblatt, Dresden, November 1909.

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Rachmaninoff and the Aeolian Company - 1909 to 1917
Until roughly 1906 all rolls for the Aeolian Pianola had been made in America, at the Company's factory in Meriden, Connecticut, but the market in Europe was expanding very fast, and somewhere between 1906 and 1908 a small roll workshop was opened in London, in the Covent Garden area of the city, though initially only producing copies from American master rolls. In 1910 a much larger factory was built at Hayes, not far from the present location of Heathrow Airport, and a musical staff was engaged to produce new music rolls from scratch. Over the succeeding decades, it was London which provided the most interesting classical repertoire for the foot-pedalled Pianola, and several separately numbered series of rolls were introduced.

An important technical development at this time was the agreement between player piano companies, in Buffalo in December 1908, when an international standard for the newly devised 88-note rolls was agreed upon. Prior to that date, most rolls had covered only 65 notes of the piano keyboard, losing about an octave at each end. It was the development of smaller and more sophisticated pneumatic valves that allowed rolls with smaller perforation sizes to be used, thereby expanding the range available in rolls of normal width, which was roughly 11 1/4 inches. But it should not be imagined that all rolls were suddenly published at the new standard, and 65-note remained the main system for at least a couple of years thereafter.

The Orchestrelle Company was the Aeolian Company's subsidiary in London, and its June 1910 catalogue of 65-note rolls bears witness to a sudden flurry of new Rachmaninoff issues. The most important of these, published no more than a month before the catalogue was issued, was a three-roll set of the Second Concerto, available in both standard and Metrostyle rolls, but also around the same time there were the first six Preludes from Opus 23, plus an additional arrangement of no. 5 (G minor) by Siloti, and three of the Opus 16 Moments Musicaux, nos 2, 11 and 16. Here is a musical example of one of these issues from shortly after the Dresden period, a very simple 65-note roll of the Eb Prelude from Opus 23, taken from a concert given in London a few years ago.

mp3 RACHMANINOFF: Prelude in Eb, Op. 23, no. 6,  [2.4 Mb]
Performed by Rex Lawson - October 2011, London.

This roll was played on an Aeolian Pianola, attached to a Steinway 'B' grand piano.
The audio recording is the copyright of the Pianola Institute, 2011.

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