The history and development of the Pianola was the subject of a fascinating talk to Dover Rotarians by Michael Boyd (the Deputy Mayor of Rye), one of only three or four people in the UK who restore such instruments professionally. It is believed he is the only one who exclusively restores the instruments full-time.
Originating in 1895 in Detroit, the pianola was the first really musical playing device in the world and the name came to be used for any type of piano playing device or player-piano. Such instruments sat in front of normal pianos and were played by means of pneumatic bellows mechanisms and a series of felt-covered fingers and were known as piano-players. They became the exclusive preserve of the wealthy as it was a signal of status to own one, being very expensive machines and an example of the cutting-edge technology of the time.
Gradually the mechanisms were introduced into normal pianos which from a generic point of view were called player-pianos, the peak of production of which was in 1925. Thereafter other forms of music projection through the gramophone and radio began to replace them. The 1950s saw a new generation of player-pianos in a culture of nostalgia. Pianolas and reproducing pianos were foot-operated machines where notes were determined by a perforated roll.
Mr Boyd showed examples of such rolls many over a hundred years old. Many major pianists and composers such as Stravinsky, Ravel, Gershwin, Paderewski and Debussy made rolls for the reproducing piano, which recordings form an important historical record of romantic piano music and interpretation as well as jazz and ragtime.
He operates from a workshop in Rye and has a property in southern France where instruments from continental Europe are sent for restoration. He added that the instruments “continue to fascinate and entertain music-lovers”.