During the Golden Age of piano playing, it was not only great pianists creating live music, but the advent of reproduction in the form of the pianola, or player piano. Rolls of paper became transformed into reproductions of sound when perforated with precise holes that duplicated the music played by the actual pianists. In 2014, Stanford University was given a collection of these rolls and player pianos.

Stanford’s new player piano collection opens up a world of musical and cultural highlights from the early 20th century. The Denis Condon Collection of Reproducing Pianos and Rolls brings to life historic performances from major composers like George Gershwin, Igor Stravinsky and Camille Saint-Saëns.

So what does this mean?

McBride said that these acquisitions mark the beginning of an initiative at Stanford, the Player Piano Project. This undertaking will include roll preservation through scanning and digitization, restoration of instruments for playback, cataloging and research into all aspects of player pianos, rolls and performance.

The production for these types of pianos peaked between 1904 and the 1930s, he noted.

“This was the place in history where the reproducing piano began to be able to record the performances of these pianists amazingly accurately,” McBride said.

Prior to this time, the player piano was not able to capture dynamics, or differences in the accents of the notes, he added. The reproducing player piano captured most aspects of piano playing.

“What makes this so valuable to researchers now is to be able to hear how pianists of that time played, many of whom were students of the great pianists of the 19th century. Not only does it tell us about piano performance, but about music performance traditions of that time in general,” McBride said.

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