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The Story of Concertola Number 204.

To view a gallery of pictures of the Concertola click >> HERE

Now that I have just come from a lovely concert of music played on my Aeolian Residence Organ, which included a two step, by Frey, Tchaikovsky's “Waltz des Fleures” and two movements of “The New World” symphony, it is time to tell the story of just what I have been doing since the beginning of January this year.

But not everyone reading this will know what a “Concertola” is, so let me start at the beginning. Since the earliest times of its existence The Aeolian Company had been devising and manufacturing ever more complicated pneumatic devices to play music encoded as holes on a paper roll. By the turn of the last century, their “Pianola” had become a household word, and despite the huge cost of these machines, and the ones made by many competitors, there were few people who had not at least seen one of them. This situation also obtains now.

On the other hand, rather like top secret military hardware however, were the amazing devices that The Aeolian Company made for the super-rich. Not so many people today know about the vast pipe organs that would play stunningly arranged symphonic music on two independent tracks (the so called “solo music rolls”) which were a feature of hundreds of the homes of the wealthy of America and a few other countries. Fewer even have had the opportunity of working on them – with their complex pipe chests riddled with valves and electromagnets and positively infested with pouches of every size imaginable. Throughout the 'twenties, a lot of money was made on these vast home entertainment machines, and never slow to develop and market a new and even more ingenious device that wealthy patrons could purchase in order to “up date” their systems, The Aeolian Company” had invented the “Duo Art” a few years earlier.

Whilst Duo Art piano rolls are relatively well known amongst collectors today, less well known are the Duo Art Organ rolls. I have written about these rolls elsewhere, but let us just say here that they were a completely successful attempt to automate the 116-note solo rolls mentioned earlier, by providing 60 extra perforations which would draw and throw off the stop switches and operate the swell shades in exactly the same way as an organist (or arranger) had done when the performance was originated. An additional unit or “player” was required to allow these rolls to be used with an existing organ, and we are told in contemporary Aeolian literature that “the installation of the Duo Art is attended with no difficulty or inconvenience”. Maybe not, but they were not cheap, and that was the idea. Now in order to hear music, all that was needed was to place the roll in the spool box of the player, and to set it running at the right speed. After the performance the roll had to be re-wound, and you were ready to go again. What could be simpler?

By the mid 'twenties, someone at Aeolian's came up with an idea that must have seemed like the last word in electro-pneumatic gadgetry, since it seemed to leave nothing more even to be suggested. A player that could be loaded with ten rolls and would play all evening, at the touch of a button. This was the Concertola.

The Concertola could be described in many ways – and probably has been. It was viciously expensive, costing around $4000 in 1927, and made at a time when the company was towards the end of its life, it must be doubted that more than a few hundred were ever sold. It took the form of a Ferris wheel, or drum on which the rolls were placed, using special “loading rods”. Ingenious pneumatic devices then caused the desired roll to load onto the take up spool via the 176 note seven section tracker bar, start the play motor and do all the other things that are needed in order to properly play it, terminating with a speedy re-roll and replacing the roll with its rod back onto the drum. Moreover, by pressing the button on the control panel or “tablet” marked “programme”, the Concertola would give a continuous performance of the ten rolls for as many times as was thought desirable – in theory at least, continuously. Because they were very complicated mechanisms to maintain, and probably knew just when to act up and throw a tantrum, Concertolas seem not to have been a great success, and this is a pity. Nowadays they are a great rarity, and I for one never expected to see one, let alone have one myself. That was to change when Paul Collenette and I flew over to America in December 2001 to purchase my pipe organ – the story of which has been fully covered in another essay.

I suppose the Concertola had been the bait for the organ sale, since many people in America would have regarded a large and largely unrestored Aeolian Pipe Organ dead meat. Not so for me, however, but I must admit that the Concertola was more than just an additional piece of baggage to get home. I had no immediate plans for its restoration since the work needed on the organ was going to take years. It sat, therefore, in its satin mahogany case in the hallway at 27 Blackall Road for a long time. Even when the organ was playing well, I was secretly rather scared of the Concertola. Of course I showed it to everyone and periodically I would cast an eye over the rotten tosh and jungle of brown and orange spaghetti that was the remains of the many feet of rubber tube; and the Concertola seemed to be sat there mocking me. “go on then, if you dare!” it seemed to say.

Now I know collectors who have dozens of interesting items that they have amassed where nothing works, and they claim that one day they will get everything going. Because I, however, don't plan to live for one thousand years, I decided to get on with this task in 2010. Accordingly, on January 7th of this year the Concertola was swiftly marched into the front room of my house, and before it really knew what had happened to it (and before I had a chance to change my mind) the cover was off and the full horror of what lay before me became apparent.

True, it was very dirty and the tubes were as brittle as pipe-clay. True also, that the many, many pneumatic motors were now covered in a material that looked like black potato crisps but something else was apparent. There were lots of little labels which bore numbers and intriguing legends such as “drum safety valve” and “play trip pneumatic” these I knew were going to be the making of the restoration since no books or manuals were never likely to be available. Now, as I stood before it bereft of its mahogany case, the Concertola appeared almost humbled, and the little labels seemed to be saying to me “we'll help you all we can” and so off I started.

I knew I had to be as careful as I have ever been during disassembly, since I was dealing here with the most complex device I had ever seen. I traced all the tubes as meticulously as their embrittled state would allow. A few broke in the process, but nearly all were noted and logged and the little labels (of which there were dozens) started to make some sort of sense. My digital camera was the most wonderful aid, and I made many sketches and lists of tube numbers and their destinations. In truth I was still very intimidated by the whole project, and knew that a few false moves and I would end up with a huge set of simultaneous equations and not many of the variables known – put plainly, hopelessly and irrevocably lost.

With all of the tubes off, I indulged in a bit of “therapeutic cleaning”. I always find a good clean helps the mind, and it allowed me to see the mechanism in a more detailed and positive light. For the first time I was aware of a deep feeling of contentment as I started to really enjoy what I was doing. One by one, the various components were taken off, their location logged on a “map” of the top works that I had drawn, and then a preliminary dusting was given prior to rebuilding. I started in the front left hand side with the transmission shift motors, and worked around in a clockwise direction until I got to the tempo setting fan motor. The disassembly of the top works complete, I started the first phase of the restoration.

In truth, most of the components held very few terrors for me as they were similar to ones I had tackled before. The transmission shift was the same as on a Pianola. The rotary motors (two – one for roll drive, one for driving the drum with all of the rolls on it) were similar to player piano ones. The main valve chest had 14 valves: a mixture of internal and external valves rather like what one finds on a Duo Art grand Pianola so at least this was not completely new territory. What were new to me were the various lock and cancel devices, where an external valve (like the little wooden mushrooms in the valve box on a pianola which control tracking) was held down by a brass strip on a pneumatic motor which the valve itself had just caused to collapse. Also intriguing was the tempo setting valves located in a small box just in front of the roll drive motor. (It must be remembered that the Concertola had to set the roll drive motor to the correct speed automatically, and these little valves were fired by several large holes found at the beginning of some rolls. Rolls without these have to have them added, and a small punch, inherited from the late Richard Z. Vance came in very handy for this.) The system used was ingenious, and involved having 5 of the tracker bar holes multiplexed. As the roll passes over the tracker bar initially, these five holes are connected to the tempo setting valves. Four of these holes when uncovered fire valves which cause evacuation of the tempo setting pneumatic which is in four sections – rather like a Pianola Duo Art accordion pneumatic. The sections are sized so as to move the tempo slide by 5, 10, 20 and 40 units, and when no valve is open, the motor revolves a a default speed of 30. In this way speeds of between 30 to 105 can be called for. The fifth hole causes these tracker bar holes to be disconnected from the tempo valves and connected to notes, and so no further alteration of the tempo can take place. And it all works like a dream. Of course it had to work, but until I actually saw it in action I just could not believe it. In the course of about two weeks the many components were re-toshed and re-tubed. None of the valves were rebuilt, however but all were checked for condition and correct function as far as this could be determined at this stage. Because the roll playing side of the Concertola was similar to the several other players I have worked on, I decided to leave this part until I had got the roll manipulation functions working properly.

It was with great trepidation that I started to tube up the reconditioned components, because any failings in my understanding and workmanship would now become apparent – and there were some! Here I wish to acknowledge the help and guidance from Bob Taylor, another (THE other?) working Concertola owner. Several invaluable hints were received from him and for a few days in February I was guilty of a little global warming in the form of humming telephone wires back and forward to Columbia Missouri. Eventually, and almost miraculously I feel, everything was doing what it should and with an alacrity that was at times alarming. The re roll was a case in point. Unless the roll is wound back fast enough, the loading rod which has to fly up through two trigger switches, and clip itself back onto the drum does not have enough momentum, so the roll is caused to rewind back at a break-neck speed. When one sees this happen for the first few times, the usual feeling is of dismay, and resignation that the roll – very likely a favourite – is surely going to be shredded. After all, we can read that Henry Clay Frick's Concertola regularly shredded rolls, causing his wife to write to the Aeolian Company that “Mr. Frick never wanted to hear it played again” But no! Thanks to beautiful quality of engineering and ingenious design my Concertola performs this potentially fatal operation with a dexterity which defies belief, so now I trust it with all rolls – old and new, and so far it has never let me down.

Tubing up the roll playing part was the usual difficult and exacting task, but presented no new problems. Making the loom to connect it all up to the coupler chest, via an intermediate tag board took simply ages and reminded me that my eyes were not what they used to be, but at last, on the 12th of February, just thirty six days later it actually played!! (at about 1.00 in the morning after a marathon looming session and far too late to really try it out) By any standards this was a very quick restoration project but in truth I did little else during that time. Such are the advantages of the single life! Over the next few weeks, as I expected, a few problems arose. The tracking mechanism had never actually worked, but certain rolls would play well despite this. Several days were spent getting this sorted out. Likewise the tempo box had a fault, and this also was a result of a lack of attention to detail on my part. It was easily corrected. And to date? I must confess to many unanswered letters and e mails, but I sleep better, have fewer nightmares involving pouches, bleeds and endless coils of tracker bar tube, and feel that I have climbed to a new high point in the quest of restoring great music making machines of the past.

© Paul Morris 2010