Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Vorsetzer - Music's Gutenberg Press?

In, I believe, 1902, Dr. Edwin Welte constructed one of the most important machines in the history of the arts.
The player piano was, of course, a most popular form of entertainment in countless homes. It was, as well, a contrivance for recording pianists, giving us the piano roll, known as a medium for recording early jazz and rag-time compositions.
It was also called upon for classical musicians to perform, and many of these rolls exist today.
However, there were problems in recording the classics; such as, the player piano recorder could not record dynamics. Also, because of the mechanical nature of the working parts, the piano keys were heavy and somewhat of a deterrent. In short, what the listener heard were the notes, period.
Welte, in a burst of unadorned genius, developed a player through the miracle of electricity that recorded not only the note, but also the exact dynamic and phrase attached to each note played; in other words, this machine captured everything that the pianist did in the performance recorded.
He accomplished this by using carbon tips, each of which was attached to a key on the piano. This carbon tip would dip into a tray of mercury, completing a circuit. The result was a kind of digital process the better part of a century before "digital", as each bit of information would be captured on a special roll made for the Vorsetzer.
Allow me to translate "Vorsetzer":
This machine was not a piano as we know it; rather, it was rolled up to a piano and would "play" the piano with felt-covered wooden "arms", the movements of which would be governed by the electronic information given them on the roll. Because it would be rolled up to a piano, it was lovingly named "Vorsetzer" (in German, meaning, literally, "sitter-in-front").
The invention caused a sensation, and great pianists from all over Europe clamored to record on this contrivance. In fact, there was such a demand that Welte actually rented a castle for the recordings of such artists as Paderewski, Grieg, Debussy, Lhevinne, St. Saens, Scriabin, Busoni and Hoffman, plus many more.
What is so important for those of us in musicology is not only the actuality of these performers having been brought back to life after so many years, but, more importantly, just how these fabled artists actually played.
Many of these recordings were made on a reconstructed Vorsetzer in 1947, rolled up to Artur Rubinstein's West Coast Steinway, and can be gotten, I believe, if you try hard enough.
No novelist can better this story!

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