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Hough and Schnabel on piano rolls

I want to believe in piano rolls. The idea that we can insert an object into a present-day piano and hear long-dead pianists and composers perform again as if they were in the same room is a tantalisingly attractive prospect. It has a magical aura about it. But, I’m afraid, it’s a conjuring trick, or – forgive me – a confidence trick.

There’s a lovely anecdote of Schnabel being approached by one of the major roll-making executives.

“This new model is state of the art! We have developed a system that allows you to capture fully sixteen different types of nuances and shadings!”

Schnabel, with his famously dry writ, replied, “My dear boy, I’m afraid that will be a problem. You see, my playing has seventeen.”

— Stephen Hough

S. Hough, Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More, London, Faber & Faber, 2019, pp. 39-40.

By Greg

Australian composer and pianist