Archive for May, 2010

Serendipitous Player Piano

A Player Piano, or more accurately an Orchestrion, tucked away in a corner in Shartlesville, PA

A Player Piano, or more accurately an Orchestrion, tucked away in a corner in Shartlesville, PA

Sometimes you find enthralling historic music in the most unexpected places. Take for example this player piano made by the Western Electric Piano Company.

We were traveling back to the New York City area from a performance at Utz Terrace in Hanover, PA when we decided to make an unscheduled stop. At the time, we were traveling down Interstate 78 and saw a sign for Roadside America promoting a miniature village and railroad in Shartlesville, PA. We were actually ahead of schedule and a little bored with the drive so we said, “Let’s check it out.”

Having grown up near Niagara Falls, I’ve seen a great many disappointing tourist traps so I wasn’t expecting much. I figured it would be mildly entertaining at best. The miniature village itself was surprisingly cool and we actually spent a good deal of time there. However, after wandering around the gift shop we were astonished to find what we deemed to be the most amazing looking machine ever made. It was a working player piano complete with a percussion section hidden away in a corner near the restrooms.

A little white sign read, “50 cents 1 Play Quarters Only.” I dug through my pockets and found two quarters then proceeded to drop them in an old coin slot. Immediately following the drop of the first quarter the machine began to whirr and shortly there after, the music started. It was like stepping back into time as the mechanized sounds started to loft out of the vintage wood and glass.

This machine was way more than just your standard mechanized piano. Its rhythm section was complete with a bass drum, snare drum, cymbal, triangle, tambourine, 12 bells and a xylophone. These cool features earn the player piano a more accurate title of  Orchestrion. The piano strings seemed to have two sounds. Those being the standard pianoforte sound and what I’ll call a saloon piano sound for lack of a better term.

Western Electric

Western Electric

Upon a closer inspection of the piano we noticed a maker’s mark saying Western Electric Piano Co., Chicago Ill. Some quick research uncovered the Western Electric Piano Co. as being secretly owned by the J.P. Seeburg Piano Co. The Western Electric Piano Co. name was really a marketing ploy to inspire competition between retailers. Surprisingly Seeburg actually went so far as to patent some of the mechanisms in these models to keep retailers and the public from realizing that they were really being produced by the same company.

The Western Electric pianos were only produced from 1924 until 1928 and were generally considered to be of good quality. The most popular models produced by the company were a cabinet style, which did not feature a functioning keyboard. The orchestrion models like the one we saw were not as widely purchased, and most likely cost prohibitive.

Most of Western Electric’s models used the standard “A” sized piano rolls, which featured ten songs. We only listened to two of the tunes on the mechanical masterpiece, and both were unfamiliar to us. The Orchestrion at Miniature Village had been retrofitted to accept quarters. In the instrument’s heyday it would have only cost 1 nickel per play. Player pianos actually are often times called nickelodeons due to the association of their cost. The popularity of nickelodeons started to falter in the 1920s as a result of the emergence of broadcast radio. Suddenly people weren’t required to pay for their entertainment and as a result the player piano’s weren’t really needed anymore.

It’s interesting to consider the parallels between the advent of the radio and the current evolution of the internet. Today the music industry is once again struggling to remain viable as MP3 files are being freely traded online. Technology may come and go while tastes and styles change, but the importance of trained, adaptable and soulful live musicians has remained a constant since the first caveman kept a beat by banging two  stones together.

Turkeylony From William Ballet’s Lute Book

Facsimile of Light o’ Love from William Ballet’s Lute Book. This song was mentioned in William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Modern musicians will appreciate the number of lines per staff and the lack of time signature. Sheet music or pricksong for Lute was comparable to modern guitar tablature where each line represented a string of the instrument.

Facsimile of Light o’ Love from William Ballet’s Lute Book. This song was mentioned in William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Modern musicians will appreciate the number of lines per staff and the lack of time signature. Sheet music or pricksong for Lute was comparable to modern guitar tablature where each line represented a string of the instrument.

Turkeylony, sometimes spelled Turkeyloney was a popular dance from the renaissance era of King James I and Queen Elizabeth I.  There is no certainty where the name originated. It has been surmised that the word Turkeylony is derived from the Italian Tordiglione.  A Tordiglione was a type of Italian Galliard which is a dance that utilizes five steps to a measure .
In England, the Turkeylony was originally a country dance. However, as with many popular country dances it made its way into aristocratic circles as a court dance where it most likely earned its name.
There are at least two known songs from the English Renaissance entitled Turkeylony.  One of the versions is also known as The God of Love. However, the rendition of Turkeylony presented here was originally transcribed from William Ballet’s Lute Book. Ballet’s original manuscript resides in Trinity College in Dublin. William Chappell transcribed the tune in 1859 in his work Popular Music of the Olden Time. Vol. 1.

The following recording of Turkeylony uses an arrangement of Violin, Viola and Piano. In William Ballet’s time this would have been considered a mixed, or broken consort because there were more than one instrument families performing the song.

It is believed that although William Ballet started the book, there was more than one author.  This is because there are different hand writing styles and colored inks used throughout the manuscript. Ballet’s Lute book was most likely a student work used for the instruction of music theory and site reading.
William Chappell paired Ballet’s Turkeylony with the ballad If Ever I Marry, I’ll Marry a Maid.  This was clearly a rather crass song favored by young men. It is a ballad probably more suited to a bachelor’s party than a modern wedding ceremony. Still, reveler’s of today will certainly appreciate it’s comic approach toward picking one’s spouse. The following lyrics are from the broadside If Ever I Marry, I’ll Marry a Maid.

1

If ever I marry, I’ll marry a maid
To marry a widdow, I’m sore afraid
For maids they are simple and never will grudge
But widows full oft, as they say know to mutch.

2
A maid is so sweet, and so gentle of kind,
That a maid is the wife I will choose to my mind;
A widow if frowned and never will yield;
Of if such there be, you will meet them but seeld.

3
A maid ne’er complaineth, do what so you will;
But what you mean well, a widow takes ill:
A widow will make you a drudge and a slave,
And cost ne’er so much, she will ever go brave.

4
A maid is so modest, she seemeth a rose,
When first it beginneth the bud to unclose;
But a widow full blown, full often deceives,
And the next wind that bloweth shakes down all her leaves.

5
That widows be lovely I never gain say,
But too well all their beauty they know to display;
But a maid hath so great hidden beauty in store,
She can spare to a widow, yet never be poor.

6
Then, if ever I marry, give me a fresh maid,
If to marry with any I be not afraid;
But to marry with any it asketh much care,
And some bachelors hold they are best as they are.

For those interested in the performance of early music, I’ve included a PDF of this version of Turkeylony sheet music complete with the If Ever I Marry broadside. Simply Click Here to download it.