Orchestrion Music Rolls
Michael Welte had been in the business of building large and elaborate pinned-cylinder operated orchestrions since 1849 and he was the first to pioneer the use of “pneumatic orchestrions” that utilized paper music rolls as a more convenient and economical way to render recorded music. Welte’s various music roll patents go back to 1883, albeit the first patent describes an all windpressure arrangement that that looked very impractical. It was a cumbersome looking two-part setup that literally blew “wind” through the tiny holes in the music roll so as to power the control valves in the pneumatic stack. But these early ideas quickly evolved and by 1887 Welte had developed and was marketing paper music roll operated orchestrions that employed a partial vacuum to operate the tracker mechanisms and windpressure for sounding the pipes. And, as one might anticipate, because of the ease of changing small easy-to-handle paper music rolls (with no more heavy, bulky, and easily damaged cylinders to store and lug around), combined with the relatively low cost of paper rolls, plus the added advantage of having available a large musical library made paper music rolls the perfect business catalyst. The change to paper rolls was so important that this single improvement revolutionized the cost, popularity, and accessibility of mechanical music machines, making them something that was affordable to a broader market rather than the rare and limited luxury item for only the wealthiest of artistic patrons.
Moreover, because paper music rolls could be reliably produced in large quantities they were also considered to be somewhat expendable, i.e., thrown away when damaged or when the popularity of certain music had waned. Having an often short lifespan was the perfect stimulator for the sale of new music rolls that were cut with the latest concert rendition or with a selection of popular tunes. As such, as more and more manufacturers came on line and adopted the paper music roll paradigm, and the popularity of mechanical music soared, manufacturers and distributors alike urged customers to throw out the old music rolls and replace them with the latest popular selections, turning music roll cutting operations into a commercial business in and of itself, in place of the costly and space-consuming pinned cylinders.
From today’s perspective, however, one disadvantage of the popularity of mass produced music rolls is that much of the early musical library cut into paper rolls has been forever lost, simply because someone got tired of listening to a particular music roll, rather than setting it aside for posterity. This is especially the case for Welte, as well as other early pioneers transitioning to the use of paper music rolls. This was in part due to the aging and ever growing fragility of the paper, which can deteriorate over many years to the point whereby it is impractical to attempt playing many of the surviving rolls without tearing and/or ruining the roll. This is especially the case for the early red paper Welte orchestrion rolls, which, at the time of their cutting in the 1880s and 1890s, it is likely that no one imagined that they might still be in use some one-hundred years or more into the future. Fortunately, there have been several recutting projects for several types of Welte rolls, making it practical to hear the music once again without risk of destroying the rolls. All original Welte orchestrion rolls should be considered scarce, and in some cases exceptionally rare.
Other types of Welte music rolls, such as those cut for the highly popular Welte Mignon cabinet style reproducing piano, or the Welte licensee reproducing pianos manufactured in the U.S., music rolls are much more plentiful, although today they too suffer from the auguries of age, many of the rolls now being 100 years of age or more. Fortunately, the musically artistic reproducing pianos tended to be sold for private rather than commercial use. And so, rather than throw old music rolls out, for the instruments enjoyed in private residences, the old music rolls were usually kept, perhaps set aside, but not indiscriminately tossed out after a few weeks or months of use, as was often the case for commercial applications. Today, about one-hundred years later, undaunted, collectors have managed to repair old rolls so as to keep them playing, while carefully preventing further damage and even rewinding them by hand in order to preserve their longevity.
Introduction text by Terry Hathaway; music roll technical information by Art Reblitz and Durward Center.
Image in Introductory section is from a Welte catalogue.