Reproducing Pianos and 19th Century Piano Performance

I’ve been a student of piano all of my life, and have always preferred hearing to reading when learning a new piece. My piano teachers cautioned me against this approach,  since reading music would open a much larger window onto the classical world. There simply weren’t recordings of all the music I would like to learn. I applied myself to reading music on the printed page.

Forty years later, I find recordings of many of the pieces that interest me, and best of all, they’re performed by musicians of the era or even the original composer. How? The reproducing piano recordings available on the Web. I alluded to my favorite composer, George Gershwin, in an earlier post,  but in a recent dive down the rabbit hole, I discovered a trove of music from the early in the 20th century that offers a window into European piano practice of the 19th century. Amazing.

In the short era of the reproducing piano, thousands of rolls were produced. At the time, they were largely out of reach for all but the wealthy, but these recordings still manage to capture a sizable slice of classical and popular culture of the era. Today, there is a small but dedicated cadre of collectors and enthusiasts who are determined to preserve this musical resource.

That’s not to say that the YouTube recordings are all excellent. The quality varies widely and this is understandable when you think about producing such a recording. First, one has to own or have access to a reproducing piano. These haven’t been made since the early part of the 20th century and the companies that made and supported them are long gone. Almost certainly, a period instrument will have to be rebuilt to work at all, and the quality of the remaining pianos varies widely.

Second, one has to collect the increasingly rare piano rolls. Made of paper, these rolls can be very fragile, and playing them on an instrument puts them at risk. Most of them are around 100 years old. Nevertheless, they exist and collectors strive to keep them usable.

Finally, one has to make a good recording of the instrument while it is playing. Pianos are notoriously hard to record, even in a studio setting. Most collectors I’ve seen have their instruments in a living or music room for the enjoyment — not surprising since they have probably invested a considerable sum in them. The rooms are often not the best recording environments. Still, you have salute the generous impulse to collect, restore and record these magnificent instruments so that others can enjoy them.

When it comes together though, it is magic. Let me share a couple of examples. Two collectors I follow on YouTube produce good recordings and own or have access to well-maintained instruments. Besides Gershwin, I also love Rachmaninoff. Between 1919 and 1929 he made several reproducing piano recordings for the American Piano Company (Ampico) including 12 of his own compositions. This piano roll of his Elegie in E-flat minor (Op. 3, No. 1) was made on April 4, 1928.

There were many other interpreters of classical works as well. George Copeland, who studied at the New England Conservatory, and Florence, Berlin and Paris fell in love with the music of the then relatively unknown Claude Debussy. While not the first to play his works in the United States, he was a noted interpreter of Debussy playing at least one of his works on each recital from 1904 until 1964.

Incredibly, Debussy played his own works on the reproducing instruments as well. This recording of “Le plus que lente” was performed on Welte-Mignon equipment in 1913 and is heard again on this performance of a restored instrument in 2000. When Debussy heard the playback of his recording he was thrilled and later wrote to Edwin Welte “Dear Sir, It is impossible to attain a greater perfection of reproduction than that of the Welte apparatus. I am happy to assure you in these lines of my astonishment and admiration of what I heard.” (full article on Head-FI)

Debussy made other recordings with the Welte company. Unfortunately, free versions of these recordings are not available on the Web. They are available from Amazon as a CD or digital downloads however.  “The Composer as Pianist: The Caswell Collection, Volume 1” contains all 18 of the only recordings Debussy made in his lifetime.  In his article, Mike Dias shares some of the recording’s history. It is definably worth a listen. (full article on Head-FI)

As I searched for these Debussy recordings I was reminded of a personal connection with Ken Caswell. During the 1990’s, I managed a recording studio for the University of Texas School of Music in Austin. At the time, Mr. Caswell was affiliated with the Austin Symphony, a regular client of our studio facility and the University of Texas Performing Arts Center. He invited me to see his Welte-equipped piano and I was thrilled to hear the Debussy rolls on the instrument in his home. He was looking for a way to produce and distribute a recording, and am very glad to find the result so many years later. It is a remarkable achievement.

The International Association of Mechanical Music Preservationists lists over 12,000 recordings in their online database, many of which are available as MIDI file downloads. While not the same as hearing them on a real instrument, it is possible to hear these recordings using a sampled piano with Apple’s Garageband or the Windows Media Player. I will describe the process in a future post, but leave you with a performance of Debussy’s “La Cathedrale Engoutie’ performed by William Murchoch on the Aeolian Duo-Art reproducing piano in 1921. Enjoy!