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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Blogger romantictothecore Moore said...

I think Columbia released a recording in the mid-60s. I was teaching middle school music and found this whole story riveting, remarkable and romantic. So did my students. According to the jacket of the album, a GI found the instrument and rolls in a barn near Freiburg during the post-war occupation and got them back to NY for restoration. I went to Freiburg in l967, hoping to interview his widow, but she was on holiday.
Sandy Moore, Green Valley AZ

May 25, 2015 at 3:15 PM  
Blogger T. W. Huning said...

I have a reel to reel tape, "The Welte Legacy of Piano Treasures, Rudolph Ganz Performs in 1913." RTN 671. "Magic Performances Come Back To Life thru(sic) a fabulous recording invention that re-creates 19th century genius in modern stereo! Edwin Welte gave piano music a soul with his Vorsetzer recording unit, a remarkable forerunner of today's far simpler tape recorder. The recording unit (Vorsetzer) connected to the Steinway in the music hall contained a specially aged thin paper. Thru(sic) an offset type printing process, as the pianist played, his exact feelings, tones and notes were transferred to the thin paper. This thin paper roll then went thru(sic) a chemical "fix" to preserve what had been printed. The paper roll was then inserted into a master reproducing Vorsetzer which was then rolled to the Steinway keyboard! The results were astonishing. Extending along the front of the Vorsetzer were padded "fingers", one for each of the pianos(sic) 88 notes; two felt-slippered feet were above the pedals. When the Vorsetzer was turned on, it recreated the ink markings into the pianists' identical performance!! During World War II the Welte Rolls were stored in a hidden cave in the Black Forest. In 1940 these priceless rolls were bought from the aging Edwin Welte. Now in 1968 with one of the few remaining Vorsetzers at the keyboard of a nine foot Steinway Grand, the most perfect studio conditions, with Ampex Professional Recording equipment plus the priceless Master Rolls to draw from, The Welte Legacy of Piano Treasures has been re-created for all posterity on Ampex Stereo Tape." - Notes from the storage box

August 29, 2015 at 8:58 PM  

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