The museum collection
The collection of music rolls and automatic pianos, related instruments and documentation material began, like most museums, as an initiative of two connoisseurs and collectors, Theo de Boer and Kasper Janse.
For the future and management of their collections, which they built up together from 1970 onwards, they founded the Dutch Piano Museum Foundation in 1981. In 1994, the current museum building on Westerstraat could be opened.
In almost fifty years, an extensive and very diverse collection has been assembled, covering all aspects of the automatic piano. The collection is still growing every year through purchases and donations.
The sound carriers
The period of the pianola spans over three decades: from 1900 to 1935. Around 1900, music could be captured for reproduction for the first time in history. It was the time of the rise of the phongraph and gramophone players, which in the years before the invention of the microphone allowed a short recording of moderate sound quality on a wax roll or shellac.
Much greater quality was possible on playback systems developed in the same era that worked with perforated paper rolls. Front-loading‘robots’ could be used to play an ordinary piano, or a mechanism was built into a piano.
Music rolls. The sound carriers were made of thin long-fibre paper that could withstand long-term use. They were rolled up on a spool and packed in a cardboard box. The holes used to drive the hammers of the piano (or the fingers of the playing robot) were scanned pneumatically (with air pressure), allowing for differences in touch strength. On rollers for fully automatic systems, additional tracks were added for dynamics. For human-played systems, performance marks were applied to the roll for dynamics and tempo.
Automatic pianos soon became popular, and the production of piano rolls took off all over the world. The Amsterdam museum has a huge collection of these paper sound carriers. With more than 30,000 rolls, it is one of the largest collections in the world.
In the first years, all rolls were made via a served master roll, but as early as 1905 it became possible to make recordings of pianists’ and composers’ playing. The museum has rolls of both types, spread across all the genres that were common a century ago.
There were dozens of roll types, which varied between manufacturers or were newly developed as technology became more sophisticated. From 1908, there was standardisation for 88-tone pianos. Fully electric systems have additional tracks on the roll, and there are even more elaborate rolls for combination instruments with percussion and other additions.
The Pianola Museum’s mission is to eventually have at least one instrument for all types of sound carriers that can play the rolls in the best possible way.
Other recording materials. The uniqueness of sound recording on paper rolls was its large playing space, compact storage, affordable prodcution method and dynamic playing. But mechanical musical instruments had existed for hundreds of years. The museum has various other sound carriers such as metal cylinders, metal records, the cardboard‘books’ best known from barrel organs, wax rolls and early gramophone records.
Automatic musical instruments were built for centuries, from small music boxes to the huge carillons [better carillons?] in church towers. However ingenious these mechanical instruments were, they could not reproduce dynamics and were unsuitable for the subtlety of piano music.
This only changed in the late 19th century, when several instrument builders more or less simultaneously explored the possibility of control by air pressure, which allowed the force of the touch to be influenced and made possible the dynamics from which‘piano-fortes’ got their name.
Foot-operated. The first instruments were played by a‘piano player’, who provided air pressure via foot pedals. The air pressure both made the roll turn (with an air motor) and provided the vacuum in the system for driving the keys of the piano. Each key had an opening through which air could flow in as soon as a hole appeared in the roll. Near the key (or the finger of front-mounted devices) was a bellows, which closed as soon as a valve received air pressure, causing the hammer or finger to move.
Automatic instruments. In the early 20th century, the light grid was installed in our country and slowly the electricity grid spread throughout the country. The first electrically powered instruments still worked with battery-powered DC motors (c. 1905). At the same time, it became possible to record pianists’ playing, which led to the construction of very exclusive and expensive instruments, powered by electric motors and with automatic reproduction, built into pianos of all major piano manufacturers including Steinway & Sons.
Distribution. The construction of these instruments emerged in Western Europe (Germany, England and France) and the United States. Soon instruments and music rolls were sold all over the world. A total of probably as many as four million pianolas and related instruments were built.