The METROSTYLE - Artistic tool for roll interpretation ... or visual sales gimmick?

The Metrostyle on
        a 65-Note Pianola

    Those who have had an Aeolian piano-player in their past, or one of the inner-players such as the Pianola Piano and the Duo-Art Pianola, have probably noticed a pointer connected to the Tempo Lever ... or some Metrostyle rolls with a wavy red line on them, to be followed by the roll interpreter. Above is an American picture from 1903 which shows the left hand running the sustaining and soft pedals (bass/treble) while the right hand operates the tempo, assisted by the Metrostyle Pointer. As the Pianolist - i.e. the artistic operator of a player instrument - performs the roll the red line is supposed to indicate the phrases, tempi and rhythm of the music (all laid out from sheet music scores, primarily).

    The invention of the Metrostyle was the brainchild of Francis L. Young of New York - who later became one of the highest paid employees of the Aeolian Co. and toured the world demonstrating the device through the medium of the 65-Note scale Pianolas attached to piano keyboards. While it appears to be simple, when examining a music roll with the line ... behind the scenes was a complex factory marking operation, first using a series of stylus pens with red ink and later in the States rubber stamped red lines. (The ink method gave blotches on occason, much like a defective ballpoint pen, while the templates for rubber stamped lines have little breaks every so often which is when the next template stamp for the line is to be continued.)

Below is a photograph from 1912, a little over a decade after the Young invention became an essential part of the upscale Aeolian players:

Metrostyle Machine

    While the factory procedures changed it usually involved a manual operator following a Master "marked arrangement" and which, being a hand operation, often introduced little jerks, blips and blobs in the rolls being "Metrostyled" together, approximately 16 rolls in this case. Today, rolls are "Metrostyled" 1 at a time in the ARTCRAFT Studio using a series of 4-foot-templates and a 'Sharpie' (tm) red ink pen. Over 300 of one Liszt title have been marked at this date, an amazing record in our high tech time! (In the days of the Metrostyle, beginning in 1901, it's quite possible that tracing single templates were done in this same fashion, while the complicated machine shown above was a later development as demand for Metrostyle rolls increased.)

    The elaborate and fanciful Aeolian advertising suggested that not only anonymous roll interpreters at their company were scoring the lines but had engaged famous composers and pianists to "Metrostyle their own interpretations" as well. These were called Autograph rolls, often Autograph-Themodist in the later years.

    There is far more to running a pedal player than correcting for the tempo, introducing a fermata (major pause) or executing an extended musical phrase. The tempo lever is PART OF THE ACCENTING SYSTEM, used in combination with the foot pedals. A good Pianolist will accelerate the roll speed until the note to emphasize appears; this is done with the "lead foot". Then, the other pedal is used to take up slack at a lower vacuum while the tempo lever is moved swiftly back to compensate for the meter. The interplay of the tempo control and the pedal strokes are integral on all pedal players - save those with an electric motor roll drive, a spring operated transport and some rare pianos that use the pedals for accenting while an electric motor unit powers the rest of the player action.

    Thus, there was a conflict in the fancy lithographed ads for Pianolas with the Metrostyle ($50 extra for the feature, at first) and what the line is supposed to do. The 65-Note rolls, as shown in the advertising picture at the top of this page, were a natural for the Metrostyle "inked" rolls. They had large perforations and a faster travel over the tracker bar, allowing for the "pedal stroke" impulses to be marked along with the character of the music itself. The later 88-Note rolls, however, compressed this kind of information. It was during the 'Teens that Aeolian of NJ made the decision to eliminate all the finer details in the line - that is, for pedal effects in accenting via the tempo lever guide - and switch to the rubber templates, something they also used for stamping words on rolls. The Metro-Art 88-Note rolls had less wavy effects, due to the method of stamping over inking ... but also were introduced when the little known Electric Pianola was being introduced, the idea being that a "hand played" roll (which was arranged FROM some alleged keyboard playing) could be improved by superimposing the Metrostyle markings, but when left unattended would still present an acceptable texture for the music. These rolls had stamps on the leader called "The Value of The Metro-Art" and similar ones, with a short paragraph about how boring rolls become when played automatically and without human involvement. How true that statement was!  (If one reads between the lines and knows about the clauses in the Aeolian-Steinway contract for 20 years beginning in 1910, this was aimed at the Welte-Mignon - often in a Steinway piano - which had practically no levers for hand control beyond tempo.) The Electric Pianola was short lived for soon Aeolian added "accordion pneumatics" to create the Duo-Art Pianola and some early grands with an electric vacuum pump were converted to the Duo-Art semi-automatic player, which involved pneumatics tugging on the expression valves through extra holes in the margins of special rolls. The Duo-Art allowed for both semi-automatic expression (with the tempo corrected by the listener periodically after 2 minutes, then every 30 seconds thereafter) or by full lever control. That is where the "Two Arts" came into the tradename, making it a versatile player instrument.

    At this point the familiar Temponamic disc (combining the Tempo of the roll with the Accompaniment for the keyboard) and the Metrostyle Pointer were so familiar, that Aeolian ran ads showing the Pointer up ... and ready for manual roll interpretion. However, the 1927 roll catalogue illustrated pianist Harold Bauer listening to a Duo-Art roll with conductor Walter Damrosch who was seated. The piano is playing a Duo-Art expression roll, but the Metrostyle Pointer is raised and visible in the picture ... only for product identification at this stage!

    On the Duo-Art models with automatic rewind - not part of the earlier models - the Pointer became a major "roll ripper" when rewinding the music. If you've seen tears that run several feet through the middle of the roll, it was no doubt due to the Metrostyle feature. One was supposed to fold down the Pointer when the expression rolls were being played or when rewinding on a pedal player. [NOTE: On our modern Metrostyle rolls, there's a motor shutoff perforation for the automatic rewind pianos; this is accompanied by a rubber stamp, telling the user to fold down the Pointer before rewinding. On early Duo-Art players, the rewind hole IS the automatic shutoff, so the warning isn't needed for owners of those instruments.]

The Edvard Grieg Metrostyle rolls: artistic and fraudulent regarding authenticity

    Norwegian composer Grieg "metrostyled" a series of rolls in his home under the auspices of George Reed, in charge of Aeolian's British subsidiary. He passed away shortly thereafter but the player manufacturer capitalized on his name with elaborate ads bearing titles like GRIEG AND YOU and the like. The illustrations - always accompanied by a picture of the composer - showed someone operating a Pianola (or Pianola Piano) ... being directed to the last detail by tempo suggestions created by the composer. [Note: in later American instruction manuals, Aeolian referred to the Metrostyle as a "Guide" and suggested folding it down, upon learning the piece, and then continuing to make your own personal interpretation. This was in contrast to the ads which often used visual and text innuendoes to suggest that this was musical precision and personal instruction of the highest order.]

  The 65-Note and 88-Note Metrostyle rolls always featured this logotype, written by Edward Grieg, and they were printed on rolls published in the U.K. and the United States.

  Here's a representative 1904 "Metrostyled by Grieg" 65-Note roll of LE PAPILLON, The Butterfly:


    You will notice that the Metrostyle line moves a lot, giving the Pianolist extremely precise details on how to operate the tempo lever, keeping in mind that on a pedal player the tempo is not only for roll speed but for the accenting operation as well.

    During the 23 year period that our museum existed - The Musical Wonder House - we had many evening concerts for seated audiences, and if the group were sufficiently interested, a comparison of Grieg rolls often took place. SURPRISE! The Metrostyle lines differed totally on the English and American rolls and from 65-Note to 88-Note as well. They were artistic but completely different interpretations! I had 4 rolls to present: 65-Note American "Grieg", 88-Note British "Grieg", 88-Note American "Grieg" and a Duo-Art expression roll "Metrostyled by Grieg" which was muddy and nothing like the vibrant nature of the first three rolls. Moreover, the 88-Note rolls had the Themodist (a solo system developed about the time of the composer's death) plus an automatic sustaining pedal score as well. These were welcome additions to performing the roll but completely not authentic in nature. (I didn't have the British 65-Note version, but these four rolls said enough ... that Grieg was NOT embodied for posterity in the Aeolian roll publishing business. Grieg's name sold players.)

    Above is a scene from the early 'Teens in an Aeolian music roll duplicating plant. Sixteen rolls, which will be "metrostyled" later with the marking machine (shown above), are being perforated, with the finished copies collected on those large drums - to be rolled to other locations for processing, including the addition of the red Metrostyle lines. 

    The scene above is a far cry from the angels, muses and other elements swirling around a Pianolist in the ads of those days ... receiving his/her instructions from the deceased composer via the marked tempo line. This campaign continued well into the '20s with the Aeolian pedal players and Duo-Art expression models, often electrically powered. Here's a typical ad of the day:

Metrostyle Pianola

    The lady illustrated above is interpreting rolls on the earlier style of 65-Note Pianola Piano instrument, where the control levers are behind the keyboard instead of in the keyslip at the front. It is awkward to control a pedal player in this fashion but with a drawing her "bent over back" can be eliminated with artistic license! Most instruments would have the controls ahead of the keys, which is handier for using the Metrostyle Pointer, and that was the manner in which the original push-up Pianola functioned. If I could talk to that lady who is interpreting a roll, say one "Metrostyled by Grieg", I'd ask her if it were an American or British roll. Grieg changes dramatically in these cases, but the composer's logotype always remained the same.

    IN CONCLUSION, use the Metrostyle as a reference if you wish, or follow it precisely as you will, but put the pedigree away. This is NOT the composer connecting with you from beyond the grave. It is an artistically marked tempo line created in Aeolian factories here and abroad. Enjoy PAPILLON and the other Grieg Metrostyle rolls as you see fit. Do not bother with the Duo-Art ones since they are dreary and reflect none of the phrasing or dynamics on the pedal player rolls in the 65 and 88-Note formats.

    With a little practice you can "read" the  Metrostyle line without the Pointer, especially in the 88-Note format. Having an Aeolian player is not necessary at all. This lets you keep your eyes on the perforated music arrangement and eliminates a distracting pointer which can - as mentioned above - ruin a treasured music roll on rewind. The Metrostyle is best when used as a personal study feature and later with the Pointer folded down (as Aeolian suggested after the instrument sale). Be master of your Player-Piano whatever the make. Beware of those poseurs who say "This is exactly how Grieg (or Busoni or Paderewski) would play the music". Those are the same people who go into ecstasy with hand-played rolls of George Gershwin or Josef Hofmann - when, in reality, the catalogue rolls were the work of talented staff arrangers. W. Creary Woods made some of the best of the day in the names of artists for the Duo-Art Pianola.

    The player should be an extension of yourself, a reflection of your own musical tastes, given the limits of a particular arrangement being played on the instrument. The Metrostyle can be a tool but when all is said and done YOU are the roll interpreter, the musician who brings a perforated arrangement to life. Ghosts of Grieg - or anyone else - aren't required.

-- L. Douglas Henderson
ARTCRAFT Music Rolls
Wiscasset, Maine 04578
November 20, 2011