Etude pour Pianola by Igor Stravinsky: Rex Lawson
Igor Stravinsky's activities with roll-operated instruments were just about as diverse
as they could be, encompassing the pianola, the Pleyela, the Duo-Art piano and the Duo-Art
pipe organ, in addition to mechanical cimbaloms in his ballet, Les Noces. This
interest extended over a period of nearly fifteen years, from late 1915 to early 1930.
As a Russian citizen from a well-to-do family, the young Stravinsky must have had at
least a passing acquaintance with player pianos, in the same way that any musician of
today would be aware of recordings on compact disc. Rachmaninov owned a foot-operated
pianola, on which we know he enjoyed playing the Themodist rolls of his Second Piano
Concerto, the German firm of Welte held roll-recording sessions in St Petersburg, and in
general the player-piano business was well-established in pre-revolutionary Russia.
It is possible that Diaghilev's Ballets Russes used rolls on occasion for
rehearsal - certainly the idea of doing so came to Stravinsky's mind in 1912, when he was
concerned about the ability of mere human hands to cope with the piano score of the Rite
of Spring. However, the first actual rolls to be made of Stravinsky's music appear to
have come from England, where in 1915 the late Esther Willis, formerly an honorary member
of the Player-Piano Group, cut her own arrangements of several early
works, including Fireworks and the Scherzo Fantastique. The composer may well
have heard these rolls, since copies of them were owned by Alvin Langdon Coburn, who
photographed Stravinsky during his visit to London in late 1921.
The initial stimulus for the Etude pour Pianola seems to have come about for two
main reasons, financial and musical. In the first place, in the autumn of 1915 the
Orchestrelle Company expressed an interest in making rolls of the Rite of
Spring, which had received its London premiere some two and a half years before. The
negotiations over this project, which subsequently included Petrushka as
well, lasted throughout 1916 without coming to any successful conclusion at that
time. Nevertheless, they clearly indicated to the exiled composer the financial advantages
of writing a series of new compositions for the instrument.
The original manuscript book from 1917 proudly carries the title Etudes pour
Pianola, though only one such study was ever completed. Stravinsky initially offered a
suite of such compositions to the Orchestrelle Company in July 1917, in return for 50 per
cent of the retail value of any rolls made, although in the end he simply sold the one
Etude outright for 500 Swiss francs.
The opening of the "Etude pour Pianola", by Igor Stravinsky.
The Camera and the Pianola: Colin Osman, Hon. FRPS (Editor of the
There can be only one place to start this brief discussion and that is with Frederick
H. Evans (1853- 1943). He was by trade a bookseller of rare books and a dealer in oriental
swords. George Bernard Shaw (1858-1950) called him the 'ideal bookman' but he was haunted
throughout his life by poor health and took a very early retirement. He turned his amateur
genius for photography to full time use producing his famous cathedral studies and many
portraits including GBS.
Evans was also a vigorous defender of the pianola and on three occasions stated the case
for it by comparing it to the camera and its operator in the columns of the Amateur
Photographer, at that time the leading magazine for photographic art and technique. In
November 1904 the Camera Club in central London held a one-man exhibition of Evans'
architectural photographs of cathedrals and on the opening day he gave a concert on the
pianola. As reported in the Amateur Photographer, it included the 'Fire Music' from
Wagner's Ring and the Beethoven Appassionata Sonata; a demanding
programme. The anonymous special reporter may have been Shaw who had been for many years
writing weekly musical criticism for magazines.
Mr Evans is widely known as a most skilful player on that instrument, and
although pianola playing is often regarded as an impersonal and mechanical performance, he
has succeeded in giving it that individuality which very many, including himself, have
imparted to camerawork. In fact this parallel was often referred to in the course of the
discussion, and the general opinion was expressed that the pianola had come to stay, in
spite of the fact that some musical people looked upon it much as artists with the brush
looked upon photography when it first made its debut.
Dealing with the criticism that a pianola was merely a machine, Mr Evans said
that it was a machine - when a machine controlled it. The performer was absolutely the
maker of the musical value of each note and phrase and should have the entire credit of the
George Bernard Shaw introduced a later concert of pianola music by Frederick Evans at
the same Camera Club in 1911. Shaw, not only a playwright and music critic but a
photographer and pianolist himself, opened the evening.
[Mr Evans] is a gentleman who has dedicated himself to an art which is
disparaged by those who believe that when a lens is in a box it is mechanical, but not
when it is in a man's head. That being the case, it is natural that Mr Evans should have
done the same thing in connection with the art of music. Here also it is said to be
mechanical to use a lever in a box, but not mechanical when the lever is to be found in
the human hand.