1919 Part III: Refugees and Reproducers

Thus far I haven’t really gotten into reproducing pianos too much, as they are a rather different animal than the instrument I have.

However, there are certainly a few relevant things worth mentioning, again pertaining to the 1919 era.

Picking up where we left off in the last post (WWI); one of the smaller silver linings of war (for the winners of course), is the absorption of desirable immigrants fleeing conflict zones. We are generally talking scientists, political or religious figures, intellectuals, and sometimes even artists. In the 20th Century, as the Allied powers came out on top (at least in the first half), they therefore benefited from such émigrés in large numbers. One specific example, for the purposes of this post: Sergei Rachmaninoff. For those who are not familiar, Rachmaninoff was a late-Romantic Russian composer and pianist, one of the towering musical talents of the early 20th Century. He was one of the many notable “first wave” or “White émigrés” to leave Russia in the wake of the Revolution, and subsequent Civil War.

So, what exactly does this have to do with player pianos? I’m glad you asked!

As nicely summarized here by Mike Springer, Rachmaninoff arrived in America in late 1918. Like many refugees he was not exactly flush with cash, despite his fearsome talents and abilities. In order to make money, Rachmaninoff eschewed composition and reembarked on the life of a virtuoso concert pianist. In addition to maintaining a demanding touring piano schedule (his first tour was 40 concerts in 4 months – undertaken in his late 40’s), he also recorded (in a conventional acoustic fashion) for Edison and Victor (later RCA/HMV) AND in the fledgling format of reproducing pianos, for the American Piano Company (AKA Ampico).

Sergei Rachmaninoff (date/source unknown)
Sergei Rachmaninoff (date/source unknown)

This is probably a good time to mention that Ampico was a type of reproducing system for the piano. Reproducing pianos were superior to standard player pianos, in the sense that they were capable of more nuances, including pedal expression and tempo articulations, which were recorded directly in the encoding of the piano roll. This is a critical distinction; because although it meant sacrificing some of the interactive aspects of the musical rendering (for the pianola player), the gains were in having a superior level of expression by great artists, built in to their interpretations of the piano music. Listening to a good playback on a reproducing piano is a surprisingly accurate approximation of listening to the piano masters of the past, at the piano. Along with Duo-Art and Welte, Ampico made up the the lion’s share of the reproducing piano market.

Ampico Magazine, June 1927, featuring Rachmaninoff  (courtesy Terry Smythe/Joel Cluskey/AMICA)
Ampico Magazine, June 1927, featuring Rachmaninoff
(courtesy Terry Smythe/Joel Cluskey/AMICA)

At any rate, apparently Rachmaninoff was sufficiently impressed with the process (upon hearing the reproduction of his first Ampico performance played back to him) that he is quoted as saying to Ampico executives: “Gentlemen, I have just heard myself”! Whether he was just being polite or not, who can say? In another promotional quotation, he is recorded as stating, in 1919 : “I have played my own works for the reproducing piano because of its absolute faithfulness and capacity to preserve beautiful tone painting”. (This quote and those of other famous contemporary pianists can be seen here).

While quotes like this may just seem like self-serving marketing, it is important to keep in mind as well (again paraphrasing Springer, who may or may not be paraphrasing Good) that the sound of a nicely maintained piano was actually better than that which contemporary recording technology could offer at the time.
In other words: given the choice, why pick a live, relatively unedited recording which was primitively captured and played on a pitiful “lo-fi” speaker; when you could have a polished performance played back on an actual piano, the instrument for which it was specifically encoded?

I think that in 1919, it probably would not have been a difficult choice at all!

This concludes the history portion of the blog 😀