WHAT I guess to be the Museum's Player Piano is, more precisely, a Reproducing Piano. The roll plays Rimsky-Korsakov's The Flight of the Bumblebee, a crowd-pleasing classical choice for a machine in much the same spirit as Khachaturian's Sabre Dance, which would become an early jukebox hit in 1940s America.
Owen explains the differences between a player piano and a reproducing piano. "it's reproducing because it plays recordings of real pianists. A player piano plays the right notes in the right order. A reproducing piano, in addition to that, plays them back exactly as the original pianist did. So this roll will have extra perforations which tell the piano the dynamics of playing, how loudly to play each note, when to put the soft and sustaining pedal on. On this system there's about half a dozen perforations at each edge of the roll which control the dynamics."
Watching the keys depress by themselves is an uncanny sight. How well were such machines initially received? "They really hit the market running. By 1900 hundreds of thousands a year were being made in western Europe and the USA. They were aimed at middle-income families and they brought music to the masses. If you didn't have one of these you either played the piano or you might have a gramophone or a musical box if you were lucky, but you wouldn't have access to good quality music. These changed that."
"When the reproducing systems came out in 1904 in Freiburg, Germany, they took the world by storm. Top pianists and composers who were pianists lived in the right cities in the world really pushed to get their music and piano playing recorded. So Edvard Greig, who died in 1907, made piano rolls as did George Gershwin, Rachmaninov, Mahler. All the popular American pianists, and people in this country like Myra Hess and Percer Grainger, before the days of good quality microphones would try and make piano rolls."
"If you look at the trade press, by 1930 piano industry sales were going down to a fraction of what they'd been. They were only being bought by musicians rather than by people who wanted entertainment at home. You'd buy a wireless set, a gramophone with an amplifier and good quality records and you'd have all sorts of music. So the market changed radically in the late Twenties. But reproducing pianos hung on for a little while. This piano wasn't made in America until 1940, so we've got it in the Museum because it incorporates the last developments in reproducing piano technology."