Model B Steinway Duo-Art
…………… and a Royal Connection?
I have the pleasure of being the current custodian of a fine Steinway Model B, Pedal and Electric Duo-Art Reproducing Piano. The ‘B’ was made in 1927 as (so I’m told) a special order for the ex. King of Portugal, Manuel II, who was in exile in West London. Though he never took delivery and the piano ended up at Eton School for Boys, Berkshire. The ‘B’ was eventually purchased by The Auto Piano Company in Slough and they used it for demonstrations and as a recording piano for their piano roll enterprise.
As a regular visitor to the shop in the early 1980’s, I had the opportunity to play rolls on the piano and also witness the recording sessions. These performances were recorded on an Apple 2 computer and (after editing) these files were used to control the perforating machine and produce new rolls. Tragically in 1989, the owner of Auto Player was killed in a motorway accident and the business was close and piano sent to auction.
I was not in a position to bid at the auction and it was purchased by another keen collector and enthusiast. He set about a full and comprehensive pneumatic restoration and had the instrument restrung and frame refinished – Many years later (in 2005), I had the opportunity to buy it and I’ve not had a moments regret since – It is played every day and still puts a smile on my face from ear to ear. Over the years, I have continued the restoration process, including pneumatics, piano action and a full strip and French polish of the case and with the help and encouragement from other enthusiasts and members of sister societies, the piano is performing well.
Only a small number (we think 12) of Steinway pianos of this size (about 7’6”) were built and there are very few surviving today. To my knowledge, there are three in the UK (including this one), a couple in the USA and one in Russia (If others are known of, I’d be pleased to hear).
I was introduced to a clever guy (and now sadly late) Bob Hunt and his Virtual Roll System by an Australian enthusiast a few years ago. The Virtual Roll is an easily installed MIDI e-valve system. It enables roll operated mechanical musical instruments to be played by digital files as well as paper rolls. All roll data, including expression, is conveyed to the e-valve system via MIDI where it controls the instrument’s pneumatic valves exactly and precisely as the original roll would have. Purists may cringe at the thought but rest assured – it can be removed in minutes. The valves are connected to the tracker bar tubing with a simple ‘T’ piece. The computer sends instructions to open and close – just like the perforations in a roll. The piano’s pneumatics operates in exactly the same way. I now have several thousand scanned music rolls on one CD, opening up a new world of music and solving a serious roll storage problem.
The note mapping of each decoder chip on the processor board allows any valve to be programmed to respond to any MIDI note/ channel instruction. In an E-Roll, the entire tracker bar signal information is stored as MIDI note on-off data including the expression data. The musical notes and expression codes are in the same order in MIDI as they are on the tracker bar. The actual valve that responds to each ‘note’ is programmable by following the note mapping procedure, and is pre-set for the particular installation when the Virtual Roll is prepared initially.
My musical tastes are rather eclectic and this piano has given me the opportunity to listen to historic performances, as recorded by some of the greatest pianists of the age, and reproduced by the Duo-Art system and also, being both pedal and electric, it allows me to play 88 note rolls and give my own interpretation on the music (or thoroughly murder it!).
One of the joys of our hobby is the ability to share and the ‘B’ is usually the Star Turn at our musical soirées and society meetings and I am currently experimenting with video and sound recording techniques to promote mechanical music of all types.
Or, if you look on youtube.com and search for “Steinway Duo Art test recording” you can find others.