Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Player Piano at the Symphony

The Duo-Art piano taking Harold Bauer's place as soloist with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Alfred Hertz conductor, at the regular symphony concerts, Curran Theatre, San Francisco, Friday, January 31st and Sunday, February 2nd

image source: Alfred Metzger, "Bauer's recording of Saint-Saens Concerto on Duo-Art piano creates a big sensation," Pacific Coast Musical Review vol. 35, no. 19 (February 8, 1919), p. 1

Although it is institution that fosters and sustains a classical tradition, over the years the symphony orchestra has also adapted to technological innovation. The twentieth century brought the San Francisco Symphony into contact with many such changes, some that were fleeting, others having long-lasting implications.

One early experiment tried by the Symphony was the use of a player piano as a soloist under the auspices of the Aeolian Company. The audience at the January 31, 1919 performance of the Symphony witnessed a piano without a bench or pianist render the solo part of Saint-SaĆ«ns’s Piano Concerto in G minor as performed by Harold Bauer on a Duo-Art piano roll. While piano rolls are considered archaic today, they were a popular alternative to sound recordings on disc and cylinder during the early 20th century. The sonic fidelity of such recordings would be far superior to disc recordings for many years.

To get a sense of the event, we can read the account of Alfred Metzger, the exacting music critic of the Pacific Coast Musical Review.
Surely we have arrived at an astounding epoch of the world's musical history when a conscientious music critic can review with all sincerity the performance of a piano concerto, at a legitimate symphony concert, under the direction of one of the world's greatest symphony conductors, when the soloist of the occasion was none other than a so-called mechanical instrument.

Metzger was impressed with the how much of the performer’s personal style he could recognize in this reproduction.
If you have ever heard Harold Bauer interpret any composition ... and your sense of observation is sufficiently developed to retain impressions accurately in your mind, you will at once recognize Mr. Bauer's individual style of performance the moment the Duo-Art impersonates the great piano virtuoso. There is, above all, the firm, solid touch whose dignity and deliberation is so well known to the musical public. Then you hear that rippling, clear and almost more than human accuracy of technic also accentuated with that firmness and solidity with which Mr. Bauer invests all his readings.

He also was aware of the potential of musical recording -- that it could create an ideal, possibly impossible standard of performance through the ability to make repeated takes and edit a performance. Metzger continues:
It might here be added that this Bauer record on the Duo-Art piano possesses even a greater artistic value in some respects than Mr. Bauer's own performance, or it reveals a perfection of technical execution which a mere human being could not possibly retain. Mr. Bauer has been able to edit and re-edit this record until he has attained in it the utmost accuracy as to technical perfection.

In his review he also heaped praise upon conductor Alfred Hertz for his sensitivity in follow the subtle fluctuations of tempo of Bauer’s performance.

Looking back on this event, it’s fairly safe to say that it was a publicity stunt, albeit one with high artistic standards. This is belied by the Aeolian Company’s advertisement in the Metzger’s Pacific Coast Musical Review directing his readers to Sherman, Clay & Company to buy their own Duo-Art piano with accompanying piano rolls. It also seems that this was the first and only time that the San Francisco Symphony has welcomed a player piano to the stage as a solo instrument.

image source: Alfred Metzger, "Bauer's recording of Saint-Saens Concerto on Duo-Art piano...," p. 2.

Nevertheless, for a time these mechanical instruments were widely viewed as a way to elevate the standard of music appreciation. This is evidenced by volumes The Appreciation of Music by Means of the 'Pianola' and 'Duo-art' (1925) by musical journalist and scholar Percy Scholes and The Piano-player and its Music (1920) by musicologist Ernest Newman.

Harold Bauer plays Saint Saens 2nd piano concerto, 2nd movement, Allegro scherzando

Harold Bauer plays Saint Saens 2nd piano concerto, 3rd movement, Presto

These Youtube videos recreate some of the sensation that these piano roll recordings provided to an audience. It's almost as if Mr. Bauer is an apparition summoned to our time, performing as he did on that evening of January 31, 1919.

Don't forget to visit the two library exhibits celebrating the San Francisco Symphony centennial before they close on January 9, 2012!

Further reading:

The Appreciation of Music by Means of the 'Pianola' and 'Duo-art': A Course of Lectures Delivered at Aeolian Hall, London by Percy Alfred Scholes (1925).

Duo-Art Piano Music: A Classified Catalog of Interpretations of the World's Best Music Recorded by More than Two Hundred and Fifty Pianists for the Duo-Art Reproducing Piano (The Aeolian Co., 1927).

The Piano-Player and its Music by Ernest Newman (G. Richards, Ltd., 1920).

Player Piano Treasury; The Scrapbook History of the Mechanical Piano in America as Told in Story, Pictures, Trade Journal Articles and Advertising by Harvey N. Roehl (Vestal Press, 1962).

Alfred Metzger, "Bauer's recording of Saint-Saens Concerto on Duo-Art piano creates a big sensation," Pacific Coast Musical Review vol. 35, no. 19 (February 8, 1919), 1-2 [available as a scanned document at]

We also have a phonodisc of Alfred Cortot featuring "a re-enacted performance from Steinway Duo-Art reproducing piano":

Alfred Cortot plays concert I [sound recording] (Klavier Records, 1974).

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