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Text Only Version

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

An Early Aeolian Company Pianola Catalogue - New York, July 1905.

Many Styles of Music
Literally hundreds of thousands of different musical titles were transcribed on to normal player piano roll, over the course of the complete twentieth century. Although you will read elsewhere that player pianos have their own particular "sound", this is only true if they are played in an insensitive way, or used exclusively with a particular style of music roll. The truth is that player pianos are just as dependent on good or bad playing as any other musical instrument.

When this page is completed, it will give you some idea of the ranges of music available on music roll, from Palestrina to Pennsylvania 6-5000, from Stravinsky to the Stripper! In the meantime, scroll down the page to read what has been written so far, and on your way try out these two musical examples of a Pianola Piano. The first is an mp3 audio file of Bach's Organ Prelude in C minor, BWV 546. It makes a feature of using harmonics, which would be difficult to play by hand, as a way of imitating a pipe organ.

mp3 BACH: Organ Prelude in C minor, BWV 546,  [4.6 Mb]
Performed by Rex Lawson - January 2005, London.


This roll was performed on a Steck grand Pianola Piano in London, in January 2005.
The musical arrangement and the roll are the copyright of Rex Lawson, 1995, and the audio recording is the copyright of the Pianola Institute, 2006.

For the second musical example, you will need to visit New Zealand, and in particular Robert Perry's pianola website. Scott Joplin is (incorrectly) reputed to have made seven hand-played rolls, one of which, Pleasant Moments, seemed to have been lost without trace. Robert recently found a copy on Ebay, and in line with the new spirit of co-operation in the player piano world, is making copies available at cost to anyone who wants them. There is an mp3 of the music on his website, complete with the original wrong notes. Any roll with an inexorable six perforations per beat can hardly be called hand-played, and so this performance, by Worn Axles, introduces the occasional element of rubato, as Joplin himself might well have done.

mp3 SCOTT JOPLIN: Pleasant Moments,  [2.1 Mb]
Performed by Worn Axles - August 2006, London.


This roll was performed on a Steck grand Pianola Piano in London, in August 2006.
The audio recording is the copyright of Robert Perry, 2006.

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A Song Roll of the Middle Ages!

Western Classical Music
1: Renaissance and Baroque Music

Well, perhaps music rolls had not quite been invented in 1445, when Stefan Lochner (who sounds as though he might have been a roll perforator!) painted his Adoration of the Child, but around 450 years later (1895-1930) the Aeolian Company catalogues included music by Arcadelt (1504-1568), Palestrina (1514-1594), Byrd (1539-1623), Caccini (1551-1618), Gibbons (1583-1625) and Purcell (1659-1695). The Arcadelt was in an arrangement by Liszt, and the Palestrina was on organ roll, but the other composers made it to piano roll with their own compositions, be they keyboard pieces from Parthenia, madrigals or sonatas.

Palestrina and Byrd on Music Roll.

Once we reach the era of Bach and Handel, there was a good deal of choice for the enterprising pianolist. Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues, 2-part and 3-part Inventions were available from at least two different roll companies, together with the Goldberg Variations, the Italian Concerto, various keyboard suites, many arrangements of organ music, and some excerpts from choral works, such as the Magnificat and the St Matthew Passion. Inevitably, Handel appeared more as a composer of vocal and choral music, with a good range of arias and choruses from the Messiah, Judas Maccabeus, Alexander's Feast and other operas and oratorios.

Bach's "48" - Book 1, Aeolian Company, and Book 2, Perforated Music Company.

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2: The Classical Era
In the early part of the twentieth-century, performers and audiences alike regarded music as a progression of the "Great Composers", so between Bach and Handel, and Haydn and Mozart, there was little in the Aeolian Company's Pianola catalogues, apart from some selections from Gluck's operas and a couple of sonatas by C.P.E. Bach. On the other hand, the musical staff at Pleyel, with their Gallic responsibilties in mind, managed to find room for a little Lully and Rameau.

Rameau's Le Rappel des Oiseaux, on Pleyela roll no. 8745.

Generally speaking, however, and compared to the repertoire available on disc or cylinder, piano rolls were a real treasure trove of rarely-heard music, and Aeolian in particular went to great lengths to extend the musical knowledge of its patrons. Its "New Musical Education", a series of special rolls and accompanying booklets, was published in 1905, and written and edited by Thomas Whitney Surette, an early proponent of Musical Appreciation.

The New Musical Education: Vol. 2, Haydn and Mozart - New York, Aeolian Company, 1905.

As well as appearing on such educational rolls, Mozart was represented by most of his piano sonatas, some four-hand arrangements of the late symphonies, the entire Requiem, five of the piano concertos, the overtures and many of the arias from the well-known operas, and a good selection of chamber music arranged for piano. Haydn was not quite as widely published by Aeolian, with fewer symphonies, fewer sonatas, and choral works restricted to excerpts from The Creation. One unusual entry in the roll catalogues, however, was a set of rolls of the composer's Seven Last Words from the Cross. In Paris, Pleyel included five Haydn symphonies in their Pleyela catalogue, while Tel-Electric of Pittsfield, Mass, whose player pianos were controlled by miniscule perforated brass rolls, had no less than nine of them available.

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3: The Romantic Composers
From Beethoven onwards, there was so much classical music put on to roll that it is quite impossible to describe it in the restricted space of a single webpage. A deliberate attempt was made by the Aeolian Company to perforate every single one of Chopin's works, and almost the complete piano music of many others, such as Beethoven and Brahms. As an example of the very kernel of pianola repertoire, the Chopin Scherzo in B flat minor takes some beating. It is one of the main works of the composer whose music was most highly favoured at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This recording was made with the standard Aeolian Company 88-note roll, and just for the record, there are no automatic dynamics or rubato of any sort on the roll itself.

mp3 CHOPIN: Scherzo in B flat minor, Op. 31,  [9.8 Mb]
Performed by Rex Lawson - May 1996, London.


This roll was performed on an 88-note Pianola, attatched to a Steinway 'D' grand piano.
The audio recording is the copyright of the Pianola Institute, 2008.

For lovers of orchestral music, four-hand arrangements of symphonies abounded, with many by Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Dvorak, while somewhat disappointingly, Beethoven's symphonic works were frequently perforated in the two-hand Liszt arrangements. An honourable exception to this policy was the series of special Beethoven arrangements made by Jacques Larmanjat and Roger Féry of Pleyel. The Scherzo from the Fifth Symphony provides a rare opportunity to play the pianola with an air of mystery!

mp3 BEETHOVEN: Scherzo from 5th Symphony,  [4.2 Mb]
Performed by Rex Lawson - November 2008, London.


This roll was played back on a Steck grand Pianola Piano in London, in November 2008.
The audio recording is the copyright of the Pianola Institute, 2008.

Sydney Smith using the Triumph to accompany a violinist, Kastners, London, 1904.

Roll companies devoted separate sections of their catalogues to accompaniment rolls, to play alongside both singers and instrumentalists, and they even provided the piano parts for chamber music, and concerto rolls for use with orchestra. Even though there were solo concerto rolls in the catalogues by 1900, the first documented use of a piano-player with orchestra discovered so far came in 1904, when a young British musician, Sydney Smith, pedalled a Triumph cabinet player, as the soloist in Mendelssohn's G minor Piano Concerto at St James' Hall in London. Incidentally, the man behind Sydney Smith in the photograph above is Maximilian Kastner, the founder of Kastner Autopianos.

Wagner's operas may seem too long-winded to be transferred adequately on to roll, but Rollos Victoria in Barcelona published the whole - yes, the whole - of the Ring, on about 85 rolls, with Die Meistersinger on another 30, and Tristan on a similar number. Aeolian put Richard Strauss' tone poems into their catalogues, with Heldenleben, Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan, as well as significant chunks of operas, including Elektra, Feuersnot, Salome and Rosenkavalier. Some late romantic composers also helped to indicate their preferred musical speeds: Elgar's First Symphony, first perforated in 1909, was re-issued in 1910, after the composer had conducted Easthope Martin, the English song composer and pianolist, as he marked the resulting tempi by means of a recording Metrostyle Pianola. And Italian opera was also well represented, with many rolls of overtures and vocal selections, including some with sing-along words in multiple languages, rather like the surtitles which are so expertly handled at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

"Vissi d'Arte" from Puccini's "Tosca" - Italian and French Song Rolls.

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4: Twentieth Century Music
Discussion of serious music composed after 1900 inevitably overlaps with the the special compositions and arrangements made for player piano under the auspices of the different roll companies. So if you are seeking information on Stravinsky's or Nancarrow's player piano works, then look instead at the pages on this website which are devoted to them. Other special compositions and arrangements made by their respective composers are dealt with under Compositions for Pianola or Contemporary Music.

However, the normal repertoire of early twentieth century classical music was well represented on music roll. Inevitably, since travel was not as widespread as it is now, there tended to be national differences; if you wanted Fauré or Pierné, for example, then you might first look to Pleyel or L'Edition Musicale Perforée in Paris. However, the catalogues of the Aeolian Company in London surpassed those of all the other houses, notably in their amazing range of Debussy and Ravel, which came about as a result of an individual enthusiast and millionaire, Claude Johnson, commissioning an extraordinary quantity of special rolls, which subsequently found their way into the standard catalogues. Johnson was the first secretary of the Royal Automobile Club, and the invisible founder and business brains behind Rolls-Royce, with a passion for French music and the Pianola.

Claude Johnson's Personal Rolls of Debussy's La Mer.

There being no roll companies in Russia, it was left to the rest of the world to make up the balance, and Rachmaninov was universally popular on roll, with Scriabin and Glazounov also widely available in various countries. It is possible that Rachmaninov himself had a hand in the conception of the Aeolian version of his Second Piano Concerto, since he owned an upright Pianola Piano at his country estate at Ivanovka, and his sister-in-law remembered him pedalling gleefully through the set of three music rolls.

The involvement of composers with the pianola did not necessarily come about through writing for it. Both Elgar and Humperdinck are known to have been keen pianola players, and it may well be that the practice was not recorded in other cases; pianolas were, after all, ubiquitous. Even Lennox Berkeley in England came to music through the family player piano, though he never wrote for it, as far as is known. Some small amounts of Schoenberg were issued by Aeolian, Hupfeld and Pleyel, though in the latter two cases by means of the so-called "hand-played" music rolls. Lord Berners' Funeral March for a Rich Aunt was that composer's only example of perforated music, on the British S & P label, and Vaughan Williams was similarly singular, with a song roll of Linden Lea on Aeolian. Perhaps most surprisingly, Gustav Holst's The Planets suite never made it on to roll at the time, even though it was originally composed for two pianos, and it was not until the 1990s that it was finally issued, on the Perforetur label.

Mars, courtesy of the European Space Agency and Perforetur Music Rolls.

But we should not expect early twentieth century music on roll to reflect our own perceptions of the relative importance of composers from a hundred years ago. Our present-day fashion for Bruckner and Mahler is not mirrored in roll catalogues of the time, whereas other composers whom we have now almost forgotten, such as Josef Holbrooke, Edouard Schütt or Wassily Sapellnikoff, are widely represented on music rolls from a number of sources. Tastes change, making the serendipity of pianola discoveries all the more entertaining.

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