Peter Donhauser
Note Holes and Wooden Fingers

The reproduction of the playing of a piano using a control mechanism dates back, depending on the technical standard applied, at least to the 19th century. The methods used were initially based on recording media that were practically created on the drawing board. In other words, the score was transferred manually onto a roll or a strip of cardboard or paper. The idea of recording the performance of a pianist (together with the dynamics of the music) arose in the 19th century, but proved unfeasible. For some time, therefore, all that was available was at best “arranged” rolls where the control functions were punched in manually. The operator was able to add his own “interpretation” by operating controls on the machine. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that a number of manufacturers started to develop methods for recording the dynamics of a piece, which would allow “artist rolls” (i.e. performances by pianists) to be recorded.

Welte-Mignon push-up player: section drawing for the patent, 1904M. Welte & Söhne in Freiburg started to record such rolls in 1904, using famous pianists (and also occasionally composers), and for this purpose developed a device that was gradually improved over the following 15 years. The mechanism used has remained unknown to the present day. The Welte company policy was to prevent information from spreading beyond the company, and the employees were required to maintain confidentiality. For this reason, a patent for the recording of the dynamics was never filed, since this would have made the method public. Various suggestions refer to quicksilver contacts, cushioned inked wheels etc. 1 In any event, the force with which the bass and descant notes were played, the shifting of the keyboard, the lifting of the dampers, mezzo forte, crescendo, forzando, motor power, roll return etc. are recorded in the ten tracks located on each edge of the roll. Between them are 80 rows of holes for the piano keys. 2 The rolls recorded in this mysterious manner were played either using a reproduction piano (a grand or upright piano fitted with the playing mechanism patented by Welte3) or using a “player piano” (a playing device that used levers to hit the piano keys) if a piano was already available. 4

Recording began in 1904, and soon the most famous pianists of the period were working for the company. Overall, by 1932 the company had produced around 5,500 recordings, including many selections from operas and operettas, light music, hits of the period, marches and dance music, as well as many “classical” piano literature works such as pieces by Beethoven or Chopin. The Welte roll repertoire includes for instance recordings by Reinecke, Paderewski, Busoni, Schnabel, Fischer, Horowitz and Gieseking, with the last classical recording being made in 1928 by Rudolf Serkin. Major composers played their own compositions, including Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Scriabin, Reger, Grieg, Mahler, Richard Strauss and Gershwin. In 1926, Hindemith and Toch composed works for the Welte Mignon on the occasion of the Donaueschingen Festival, works that were so complex that they were impossible to play “by hand”.

Today, these rolls constitute important documents for the history of the interpretation of piano music. If the reproduction piano is perfectly adjusted, they are superior to the playback from a vinyl or CD disc, since the sound is generated by a “genuine” piano. Although it is possible to adjust the performance speed, it should be set at 145 cm/30 sec. if it is to correspond with the original. The playback systems are not easy to adjust. Special test rolls are needed to achieve a precise adjustment of the balance between piano and forte, the speed of crescendos, the speed of repetition, etc. It may even be necessary to replace the springs on the accentuation bellows, particularly for the player piano if it is to be adapted for use with a number of different pianos.


1 See Freiburg/Br. (Ed.), Aus Freiburg in die Welt. 100 Jahre Welte-Mignon, Freiburg/Br. 2006, p. 74ff, and Das mechanische Musikinstrument, 18th Volume, Issue 61, October 1994, p. 24.

2 This was the “Welte red” system with rolls made of red 328 mm wide paper.

3 Patent DE 162708 dated 21. 5. 1904.

4 An issue of the journal Das mechanische Musikinstrument (No. 89, Vol. 30, April 2004) is devoted to the description of the “Welte Mignon” system.