We are absolutely delighted to welcome Sally Rumsey as a Johnson volunteer with special responsibility for blog posts. Sally is a musician, so where better to start than some of the uncatalogued, undigitised musical treasures in the Collection!
As autumn set in, the comfortably-off 1920’s family could happily bid farewell to their summer pursuits – angling, punting, golf, camping, playing cricket. They could contentedly leave behind their outdoor activities – hiking wearing the latest stylish plus fours and camping – knowing that their pianola awaits in their living room.
Having dressed for dinner, the whole family could be entertained by the concert at home on their very own Pianola. No musical skill was necessary – the instruments were self-playing by means of a perforated roll of paper and some pedal-power.
Although the beautifully attired lady is poised in this illustration as if she were playing the piano – her hands are resting near the keys – in fact it is her feet that are doing the ‘playing.’ By operating the two pedals, a suction mechanism operates the instrument. A rotating drum holds a perforated paper roll, the ‘music,’ which is loaded in the front of the piano.
The advertisement is a in fact a 4-page leaflet, with colourful prose – waxing lyrical about the heady days of summer and anticipating the ‘hygge’ of autumn. It entices potential buyers by tantalising images of what they would be able to play, if they only purchased ‘the cheapest luxury of a luxury loving age….Why not start now and let your home be a ‘Pianola’ home this winter?’
If you missed your chance when the weather turned inclement in the Autumn, there was always the opportunity to purchase, or even hire a pianola, from the Orchestrelle Company in time for Christmas (A pianola for Christmas). Clearly the Orchestrelle pianola was an instrument for the more discerning player. When writing to request details one had to ask for the “Connoisseur” catalogue. At £65 in 1902 it would have been a significant purchase – equivalent to over 6 months wages of a skilled tradesman (source: TNA)
The earlier advert must have been produced when the Orchestrelle Company was an American firm with a branch in London, before it was taken over by the British Orchestrelle Co. Ltd. in July 1912 (Hoffman, 2004).
In both adverts the individual playing the instrument was a woman. During the Victorian period ‘it was women who dominated home music-making, a fact acknowledged by Macmillan’s Magazine: ‘our young ladies . . . are the principle interpreters of our domestic music.’ (in Scott, D.B.2001). This practice appears to have continued into the early 20th century when entertainment was often home created. In the earlier image from 1904, all were wearing sizeable hats of lustrous rich fabric – no lady would have been seen without her hat in polite company. By the 1920’s the hats have gone, and it is possible to make out what is bobbed and Marcel waved hair on the women – the height of fashion – created using heated tongs.
The 1904 advert is decorated with an Art Nouveau style border, very much in vogue at the time. The sales pitch is a lyrical description of how the purchase of this magnificent instrument enables anybody, even non-pianists, to ‘grasp the idea of a musical composition’ in the same way one would ‘appreciate the plot of a story.’
Although it is easy to dismiss such an instrument as a folly and deception for those who cannot play a ‘real’ piano, later player pianos enabled lifelike performances by such greats as Rachmaninov and Debussy to be captured. In the days when audio recorded music was in its infancy and, to be frank, the result was far from hi-fidelity, having a piano roll of a musical maestro really was like listening to live music played by a professional. These were known as reproducing pianos because they captured the nuances of the performer – pedalling, rubato and dynamics. For example, there is a remarkable recording of ‘Rhapsodie in Blue’ released in 1976 by the Columbia Jazz Band under Michael Tilson Thomas, accompanying the real George Gershwin at the keyboard in the form of a piano roll he recorded in 1925.
The paper rolls were either created by ‘recording’ the playing of a pianist performing the piece, or they could be created artificially by manually punching holes into the paper.
This opened up another opportunity presented by player pianos: that of being a superhuman pianist – performing works that can be captured by punctuated paper rolls that a human being could not physically play.
In a move that would be approved by modern standards enthusiasts, an agreement was made for a standard size of paper roll and the numbers of holes punched to the inch.
The history of the paper piano roll player piano like the ones in these adverts is relatively short. The first instruments were created around the 1890’s, they reached their heyday in the 1920’s, and went into decline in the depression of the 1930’s. This coincided with the rise in broadcast music (the BBC is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, 2022) and music electrically recorded for capture on discs.
Watch this space for some weird and wonderful examples from the John Johnson Collection’s boxes of ephemera relating to Musical Instruments.