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Pianos and Pianists - Consultant Editor Ates Orga


A Plaine and Easie Introduction

'The Artist Re-enacted'

The single most technically important development of the automatic piano medium was the appearance of the Reproducing Piano - veritably 'the artist re-enacted'. 'The reproducing piano,' David L Saul has observed, 'should never be thought of as merely a player piano with a few extra devices added. [It] incorporates, particularly in later models, a level of engineering refinement placing it in a class far removed from its mass produced cousin'. Patented in Germany in 1904, the reproducing piano offered significant advantages. First and foremost it was an 'expression' instrument, conveying through its mechanism and the digitalised marginelia of its rolls, an artist's tempo, dynamics, relative intensity/loudness, pedalling, touch, articulation, phrasing and rubato. In theory at least it purported to offer an accurate reproduction of an individual performance. Not always in practice, of course, because the conditions under which an artist cut a roll (reponse to studio ambience and type of instrument, for instance) are impossible to reproduce identically, and gross distortions can result through mis-tracking, damage to the roll, or incorrectly set speed (a roll can be played at any tempo without changing pitch). Further, dynamics were often the separate responsibility of an editor, working on notes taken down during the cutting session. Reproducing pianos were frequently split into two pneumatic areas (bass and treble), each separately controlled for greater fidelity. The 'expression' principle was not new (touch and pedalling having been tried out in America in 1887) but this was the first time it had been so ambitiously tackled - with documentary consequences of arguably far-reaching historical value.

The Big Three

The big-three brandnames of the reproducing piano revolution were, in Germany (Freiburg), Welte (launched in 1905 - initially as the 'Welte Artistic Player Piano'); and, in America (New York), Duo-Art (Aeolian Company, originally the Duo-Art Pianola [February 12th issue]) and Ampico, both launched in 1913. Fierce rivals, they all shared the same artistic goal - to faithfully convey a pianist's pianism - but radically disagreed on how best to do so mechanically. None of their systems were compatible, and rolls were non-exchangeable (though they could be transferred).


'Every detail [and "degree of pressure"] of the artist's playing is graphically recorded while he plays. With this absolutely authentic "tone picture" as a guide, the making of records ... is free from every vestige of guesswork. Nothing is added or subtracted that the artist does not himself put into his music, so the record is not a mere approximation, but an exact reproduction of his playing. What may be called the "film of the music camera" receives impressions of every detail of both his fingering and pedalling' (from a Welte catalogue). Welte was associated with the Hamburg Steinway, Blüthner, Bechstein and Ibach - besides over a 100 other makes, 'a line unequalled in the piano industry by any other reproducing mechanism' (1927 advertisement). They offered the highest standard of engineering and quality, and a better-than-average degree of musically-rounded realism. No millionaire, no crowned head of state, was without one. Like Duo-Art, early instruments opted for externally-housed vacuum pumps. The 'vorsetzer' [February 5th issue] was also popular.

Based on a fixed mezzo-forte dynamic constant with twin 'expression' units controlling bass and treble on either side of Middle C, Welte favoured varying amplitude ('floating crescendo'), and slow (crescendo) and quick (sforzando) reaction valve assemblies. Early rolls operated at variable speed, later ones were fixed. Red Weltes and (the later) Green Weltes were so-called because of the predominant colour of the paper used for manufacturing music rolls, which also differed in width and running speed (Red: 12.7/8 inches, faster; Green: 11.1/4 inches, slower). The Welte factories in Freiburg, a university town, were at the peak of their glory in the years immediately before the Great War, with visiting artistes enjoying luxurious privacy in an adjoining mansion thoughtfully provided by the mananagement. Allied bombing destroyed the site in reprisal for German raids on Coventry, 1940/41.


'Through the medium of a new, electric-pneumatic action and specially prepared music rolls, the Duo-Art Pianola will reproduce the actual performances of eminent pianists, with all the charm and individuality of the original rendition' (1914 advertisement, New York Times). The New York Steinway was the preferred prestige piano of Duo-Art. An extension of the 1900 Aeolian Themodist principle (limited to two power levels), their 'expression' system comprised separate units for accompaniment and melody . Both were 16-step systems, the former graded from very soft to moderately loud, the latter rather more forcefully. The accompaniment dynamics controlled the overall level of the performance, except when melody notes occured: these were boosted by an over-riding 'theme power' switch. Unlike their competitors, Duo-Art remained essentially unchanged between 1913 and 1935. But their late mechanisms were newly designed in consequence of the company's merger with Ampico (summer 1932). From 1927 they were active in education and music-appreciation rolls.


'The supremacy of the Ampico in the field of Reproducing Pianos is incontrovertible at every point from which such instruments are intelligently judged' (1926 advertisement). Responsible in 1922 for patenting the term 're-enacted,' Ampico enjoyed considerable fame either side of the Atlantic. In the US their mechanisms were associated with Chickering, Knabe, Mason & Hamlin and (post 1932) Steinway; in England with Broadwood, Chappell, Collard & Collard, Marshall & Rose and Rogers; and on the Continent with Bösendorfer and Grotrian-Steinweg. Their 'expression' brief was for intensity and crescendo. Intensity was via seven steps, providing accents or sudden dynamic contrasts in any sequence. Crescendo was a two-speed system designed for gradual changes in level. Both were capable of being merged or summed. The Ampico Model A mechanism (c 1920, retained in uprights after 1929) comprised a 'Subdued-Medium-Brilliant' modifying switch, manual control of dynamics via finger-operated expression buttons, a double crescendo device controlling bass and treble, and a linear-scale sliding tempo indicator. The new design Model B (1929), found only in grands, was generally simpler but more refined and sophisticated in reproduction, with longer-playing rolls [February 5th issue].

'Godowsky versus Godowsky's Record.' The first formal public presentation of the Ampico system - featuring a Knabe-Ampico instrument with Leopold Godowsky appearing both 'live' and on music roll - took place at the Hotel Biltmore, New York, Sunday afternoon October 8th 1916. So 'remarkable,' 'extraordinary,' unprecedented and 'work of the devil' feat of reproduction was 'the affair at the Biltmore,' the New York Globe concluded (October 11th), that the very thought of it 'would have been a scandal five years ago.'

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© Ates Orga February 19th 1999