Belfast Telegraph

Restoration of a rare self-playing piano reawakens the music of 'romantic era'

By Ricky Thompson

The restoration of a rare machine will allow a unique opportunity to hear great composers and pianists from the ‘romantic era’ play their own works ‘live’

County Down man Colin Lloyd has devoted 13 years of his life to repair a self-playing piano, known as a pianola. The musical device has been adapted to play special rolls from musical masters like Rachmaninoff, Liszt and Gershwin .

The rolls capture every nuance of the composers’ and pianists’ technique and reproduce it so audiences can experience what it was like to hear the greats in concert. 

Most pianolas are extremely expensive and can only be viewed in museums and private collections but after painstakingly bringing his machine back to life, Colin achieved his dream of adapting it to play on any standard piano.

About 25 years ago the 61-year-old pneumatics engineer attended an auction by accident where a pianola was up for sale: “The price came right down to £40”, Colin said.

 “The auctioneer said ‘somebody give me £40 for this’ and I said ‘I will’ - to my surprise - and my wife’s surprise and that’s what started it off. I took it home that Saturday, took the covers off and I never looked back. I was up to working on it 18 hours a day sometimes.

“To automate a pianola is very difficult but it’s something people strived to do ever since the piano was first invented. This particular type of one wheels up to any piano and is called a push-up. It came out around 1898 and this one is one of the very first ever produced in 1899.

“They were very expensive but they caught on, especially among the rich and they sold plenty of them but people didn’t want to go out and buy a pianola and then a piano too so they decided to build the works into the piano which is the pianola most people would know today.”

These more recognisable pianolas were sold in their millions worldwide but many at the time wanted to get them playing exactly as a concert pianist would, to give a truly realistic experience.

Colin continued: “In 1914 the Aeolian Company of America patented this particular type of what’s called a duo-art, reproducing piano. For the first time ever they were able to have a concert pianist like Rachmaninoff or George Gershwin come into the studios.

“They would sit down and play a piano and immediately it would punch a roll out. They had been able to do that for a number of years but the difference was this roll was able to record the dynamics - how hard he was playing each note and each chord and how he was doing crescendos and operating the two pedals, the soft and the loud.”

These details were recorded onto the roll using binary notation which we associate with computers today and, for the first time ever, you were able to buy a roll and take Rachmaninoff home with you.

Colin put his heart and soul into making his pianola work and his efforts will be unveiled at Down Arts Centre in Downpatrick later in May.

“I was told ‘It’s an impossible task, you can’t do it and don’t waste your time’ but I did it and it took 13 years. The concert means, for the first time ever, I can take this out to any piano and it will play these special rolls. You’ll actually be able to hear Rachmaninoff and Gershwin, among others, play their own works in front of you on a grand piano.

“It’s a real first for the world but especially for Northern Ireland and it shows that, if you love something, you can do it.

For more information, or if you would like to buy tickets to the event, you can contact Down Arts Centre.

Belfast Telegraph Digital


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