1-3 February 2019

If you want to listen to music today without being able to play an instrument yourself, it is a simple matter of turning on the radio or scrolling down the Spotify list to find the tune you want to hear. At the turn of the twentieth century though, before radios were a common feature of people’s living rooms, the pianola or player piano was the solution of choice: an automatic piano that played with the help of a perforated paper roll. To begin with, a player device was placed in front of the piano, but soon pianos with an integrated mechanism started being manufactured as well. In the early years, several operating systems co-existed, including a pianola with pedals that was operated by a human pianola player. Ultimately, however, the fully automatic pianola was the one that cornered the market.

Although ‘pianola’ was actually a brand name belonging to the Aeolian Company in the United States, various manufacturers capitalised on its success. They brought out other instruments, with poetic names such as the Angelus, Cecilian or Pleyela. Millions of instruments took pride of place in American and European living rooms and piano rolls sold like hot cakes, with a gigantic repertoire ranging from simple folk songs to adaptations of entire Beethoven symphonies. When radio broadcasts and gramophone records emerged in the 1930s, the pianola quietly faded away.

One of the most interesting characteristics of the pianola was its ability to enable great pianists and composers to play music onto a piano roll. We can hear from these early ‘recordings’ how composers such as Edvard Grieg, Sergei Rachmaninov and Maurice Ravel interpreted their own work – and this often comes as a surprise to today’s listeners. Furthermore, composers discovered the technical advantages of the pianola mechanism. However often a pianist practices, they only have ten figures and there is a physical limit to their virtuosity. A pianola, on the other hand, can catapult an unlimited number of notes into the living room or concert hall, a fact which sent some composers’ creativity running wild. Igor Stravinsky, Ernst Toch and Paul Hindemith were already composing music that was impossible for humans to play before the First World War. From the end of the 1940s until the 1990s, the American Conlon Nancarrow composed studies for the player piano, experimenting with harmony, jazz colours, polyphony and polyrhythms.

PIANOLAinPRIMETIME presents various facets of the fascinating and magical mechanical piano. Famous masters come back to life and ‘impossible’ music takes you into an undiscovered world of sound. The pianola will accompany silent films, and AMUZ itself will be converted into an authentic dance hall. Come and discover the pianola and its astonishingly diverse repertoire!

Geelvinck Pianola Museum in Amsterdam & the Dutch Pianola Society & Beatrix Hocker

Blüthner grand piano, 1897, from Yvo Verschoor’s collection
88-note Aeolian player device, ca. 1912, from the Max Lakeman / Dutch Pianola Society collection
Steinway Aeolian Pianola Grand, 1917, from the Max Lakeman / Dutch Pianola Society collection
Steinway Welte, 1920, from the Amsterdam Pianola Museum collection
Steinway Duo-Art, 1925, from the Amsterdam Pianola Museum collection Mason & Hamlin Ampico B, 1932, from the Max Lakeman / Dutch Pianola Society collection
Bösendorfer Ampico A, 1927, from Jürgen Hocker’s collection