Stravinsky 'The Rite of Spring' and 'Petrushka'

Rex Lawson ‘Stravinsky and the pianola’ Caveat Auditor!

On the face of it, it seems strange that a worldly-wise, successful composer like Stravinsky should lock himself away for hours in a small studio and arrange his own music for a whizz-bang of an instrument called the pianola. Everyone knows, don't they, that pianolas (a somewhat less than generic term for player pianos) sound like beat-up old honky-tonks, drowning any musical inspiration with the squeaking of their gears and the wheezing of their pedals!

Well, have we got news for you! Pianolas don't always play with an inexorable tempo and at triple forte; they can and should sound as musically sensitive as any other instrument, and Stravinsky himself enjoyed playing them. Over the past forty years there have been so many false descriptions and loud recordings of the pianola that public perception of the instrument is a travesty of what was originally intended. To be sure, there were cheap pianolas to be had, and no doubt many drunken players of them in downtown brothels and bars, but the majority of instruments were installed in high-class pianos and often cost as much as luxury automobiles. As you listen to Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, I hope that this program note may help to change your mind about a frequently and unjustly maligned musical instrument.



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The Rite of Spring & Petrushka

The Pleyela version of The Rite of Spring was put onto nine rolls, quite a large amount compared to the four rolls, issued at about the same time by the Orchestrelle Company, which were prepared from the four-hand piano reduction. Petrushka was similarly divided into seven rolls; the splitting of these ballets into relatively small sections took place in all probability for two reasons. Firstly it allowed both the manufacturer and the composer to sell the complete works at a higher price, and secondly it avoided complications of speed caused by the rolls accelerating as they wound through.

Unlike tape recorders, in which a tape is driven at a constant speed by means of a capstan mechanism, pianolas set the speed of their rolls simply by pulling them onto a take-up spool. As the paper winds on to the spool, so its effective diameter increases, and thus the rolls run with a minute though perceptible acceleration. One can of course avoid this effect by incrementing the lengths of bars every so often, but Pleyel did not usually follow this practice, preferring in the case of Stravinsky to minimize the problem by keeping the rolls reasonably small. For his Pleyela rolls, however, Stravinsky indicated his preferred speeds by setting down the length of paper (actually the number of perforations) that he wanted for each beat in various sections of the music.

Several musicians have placed great emphasis on the authenticity of these speeds, notably in the Sacrificial Dance at the end of the Rite. For the record, there are two different roll speeds stamped at the beginning of the copy that I used for this recording. In both cases the speed of the music (eighth-note = either 136.5 or 147) is faster than that printed in the full score (eighth-note = 126), and in theory I suppose the obvious course is to play somewhere between the two. But in practice most musicians will also take other factors into account, such as matching the velocity of the music to the acoustic of the space in which it is being played. You cannot necessarily take a speed designed for a piano in Stravinsky's studio and transfer it directly to a full symphony orchestra in a concert hall.

Apart from the question of speed, however, there were a number of musical and practical considerations that attracted Stravinsky to the arrangement of music for the Pleyela. The agreement with Pleyel was part of a much larger arrangement by which the company acted as his agent in collecting mechanical and performing rights, and he rented a studio apartment in their Paris headquarters where he could live away from home and spend time with his friend (later his second wife) Vera Soudeikina. Pleyel paid him a regular monthly allowance and generally helped to set his musical career on a much more established base than he had hitherto been able to achieve.

Since non-recorded music rolls are not made by human hands, there is no need to follow the restrictions of eight fingers and two thumbs, or indeed four thumbs and sixteen fingers for that matter. Music can be composed for the piano as an instrument, with faster speeds and more extensive chords than are usually possible. Complex and delicate clusters of notes can be played that would cause human fingers to trip up.

Stravinsky had the resources of a complete factory at his disposal, so he was able to give rough musical sketches to the head of the music roll department at Pleyel, Jacques Larmanjat, who, together with his assistants, marked up master rolls which were then punched out for the composer's correction and approval. Unfortunately, since all this work took place at what was effectively Stravinsky's Parisian pied-a-terre, there is very little correspondence or other written evidence of the musical process, apart from a particularly confused account in the composer's autobiography. In recent years a rough sketch manuscript of Les Noces (in a version for solo Pleyela) turned up at auction in Germany and was acquired by the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, but on the whole the similar sketches for other arrangements are either not in public hands or simply do not exist.

Since Stravinsky was still a Russian citizen during the 1920s, his title to copyright was not recognized in the USA, and so all the Pleyela rolls carry the absurd proposition that they are a ‘Special Arrangement for Piano Player by Robert Lyon.’ The son of Gustave Lyon, Robert was the managing director of Pleyel and a close friend of Stravinsky at the time, and both men shared a common distaste of the little deception that they were forced into practicing by the lack of international copyright agreements. The rolls also state that they are ‘Played by the Author,’ but as noted above, it is clear beyond any doubt that most, if not all, of Stravinsky's Pleyela arrangements were not recorded in real time at a keyboard. The same can undoubtedly be said of Scott Joplin's rolls, Fats Waller's rolls, George Gershwin's rolls and very many others.

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