Ballet Mécanique

Francis Picabia. Cover of his magazine 391, New York, 1917.

Francis Picabia. Cover of his magazine 391, New York, 1917.


Saturday evening at 5, February 9th. Royal Festival Hall. The Aurora Orchestra ‘Dance of the Machines (Paris 1926)’. Part of ‘The Rest is Noise’ season.

This concert is unusual for a number of reasons:

The programme is short and very mixed (though thematically linked):

Jai deux amours – composed for Josephine baker by Vincent Scotto

After I Say I’m Sorry – composed for Josephine Baker by Abe Lyman and Walter Donaldson

Jazz Sonata – George Antheil

‘Danse Sacrale’ from The Rite of Spring – composed and arranged for pianola by Igor Stravinsky

Ballet Mécanique – George Antheil

The audience are similarly mixed…quite a few children with their families alongside the people you might expect to see at the RFH. Furthermore the performance space has been reversed so that the audience are sitting on the stage while the musicians have their back to the auditorium. So the audience are looking out beyond the stage to the empty, unlit hall.

Front page of Antheil's original score.

Front page of Antheil’s original score.

The final piece in the hour-long programme is Ballet Mécanique – for 2 pianos, 1 pianola, multiple xylophones and percussion plus propellers, klaxons and bells. Though film has been used to link the various pieces in the set so far, this piece of music, though written for Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s film of the same name, is shown without visuals. And this is because the composer, George Antheil, ignored the film when he was composing the piece…he made it twice as long as Léger and Murphy’s film and it is questionable if he ever saw footage while he was working on the music. So Ballet Mécanique the film was premiered without its soundtrack. The premier of the music ended in a ‘riot’ – possibly the riot that Alex Ross suggests was actually staged for Marcel L’Herbier’s film LInhumaine.



Since that point the piece has had a history of difficulties and mismatches. It soon emerged that it was nearly impossible to synchronise the 16 pianolas which had been intended for the piece. When the New York premier took place in Carnegie Hall in 1927 there was trouble once more and the music was ridiculed in the press.


Hearing it played by the Aurora Orchestra on Saturday it is just possible to imagine the hostile contemporary reaction though hard to see why it might provoke a riot. The music has a percussive insistency flavoured by jazz and is punctuated by the wailing of klaxons and the drive of percussion. It is all quite exhilarating and offers at least the illusion of a microcosm of the avant-garde music of Paris at that particular point in time. Surprisingly, the concert marked the first public appearance of the pianola on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall.

‘In music there is nothing else, except TIME and SOUND, and the physical and psychic CONCEPT of these vibrating the human organism.

Anything else is literary, and does not belong to pure music.

For instance my Ballet Mécanique has absolutely no forte or piano moments. It is MERELY PLAYED LOUD ENOUGH TO BE HEARD.’

George Antheil, My Ballet Mécanique, 1925.

Doing some internet research later the confused history of Ballet Méchanique is revealed. Antheil himself made several arrangements of the music, one in 1926 to address the problems of the unsynchronised pianolas and another in 1953 for a more conventional orchestra. It was not heard with the film until a new synchronised arrangement was made by Paul Lehrman in 2001. During the Dada exhibition in Washington DC in 2006 the music was played by 16 pianos set up as a mechanical orchestra by the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots. Programming and midi interfaces have made new versions possible too. So the piece seems even further from any sense of authenticity than most composed music with the possibility of a definitive rendition disappearing into a fog of technical difficulties and proposals…maybe its performances will go on evolving beyond anything the composer would have recognised, constantly breaking, morphing and re-emerging.

The Aurora Orchestra

The Aurora Orchestra



The Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon

Gabrielle Ducomble – voice

Rex Lawson – pianola

Iain Farrington – piano

PS. I strongly recommend reading Rex Lawson’s response to this piece which corrects a few factual errors and adds insightful detail….see ‘comments’.



3 thoughts on “Ballet Mécanique

  1. You need to be careful with regard to musical histories written by people who have their own modern arrangements to promote, which you inevitably find on the Internet nowadays. Antheil originally conceived of the Ballet Mécanique for four normal pianos and percussion, way before Fernand Léger came on the scene. He apparently told Stravinsky of his plans when they met in Germany in 1922, and Stravinsky, who was having problems with finding cymbalom players for Les Noces, appropriated the scoring, so that Les Noces became the archetypal work of that genre. Antheil at that point couldn’t possibly complete his Ballet with the same scoring, or everyone would have accused him of plagiarism, so he came up with the idea of four times four player pianos. There would have been no problem synchronising the multiple player pianos per se, because Pleyel had a patent for doing exactly that. What they didn’t have was anyone experienced enough in this sort of music, who could keep the master pianola in time with the conductor, and of course they didn’t have click tracks for the conductor to follow. I should think the initial rehearsals must have been a nightmare.

    But you need to remember that mechanism in the 1920s was not computer-generated. It meant motors, gearing, grease, sweat, noise and the sort of human enslavement that you get in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Since by its very nature it was intended for furiously concentrating human beings, what defines it above all is sweat, in my opinion. If it is to succeed in performance on its own merits, without modern graphics and dramatic lighting effects, which were not part of its origin, then it needs a group, however large or small, of musicians who are concentrating to the limits of their powers, and at least some of whom are working furiously, from a physical point of view. That’s one reason why the pianola is so effective, rather than computer pianos, because with so many notes one expends a huge amount of energy.

    Most people don’t understand what a pianola player does, or even why it should demand concentration and years of study. That’s another story, but I can state from my own experience that the more I sweat in the Ballet Mécanique, the louder the applause at the end. Physical work is not so difficult, as long you train for it, but it’s the keeping of the roll utterly in time with the conductor that takes the real effort, especially when almost every bar is a different length from the previous one. But the accuracy of synchronisation doesn’t get applauded, whereas sweat does. Performing music with robots or computers robs it of humanity. That’s fine if the music was written with such inhuman media in mind, but Antheil was writing in the 1920s in Paris, arguably the hottest bed of humanity in the world at that time, and you need the humans!

    By the way, all the talk of riots fills me with suspicion, If you look up the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue on Wikipedia, you’ll find references to some of the glitterati who were present. Well, they weren’t, or at least many of them weren’t. What has happened over the years is that a list of patrons of Paul Whiteman’s “Experiment in Modern Music” was taken by someone writing a book on Gershwin, and transformed into a list of the actual audience attending, which it wasn’t. Rachmaninoff is said to have been there, whereas he was actually giving a concert in the mid-West. In the same way, the riots surrounding the Rite of Spring and the Ballet Mécanique probably didn’t happen quite as reported. Some of the Paris newspapers of the period are now on line, and you look in vain for any concert reports of the premiere of Ballet Mécanique. Maybe the right papers are still missing, but all I have been able to find is a very small two-line advertisement for a concert of modern music, and no reports or reviews whatsoever. There are reports in books written much later, of course, but if you rely on the newspapers, it hardly seems to have been the toast of Paris.

    I’m playing it again with the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich on 20 and 21 March, and I think both concerts are due to be broadcast, probably on the web as well. It’s different every time you play it, because the budgets allow for more or fewer pianos and percussion, and everyone has their own neat ideas of how to cope with the aircraft propellors! At the Festival Hall we had two other pianos, and in Zurich we shall have four. I think I am also doing it in Oslo at the opening of the Festival of New Music in early June, though the details are still being sorted. It might be nice to note on the web that last Saturday’s performance was the first time a pianola had ever been played in public on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall.

    Rex Lawson

  2. Thank you so much for your gentle emendations. I came to Antheil’s piece fairly fresh when I saw/heard it at The Royal Festival Hall so was starting from scratch in writing about it in my blog. It is wonderful to get such a full and thoughtful response. Nothing of the Stravinsky connection came up when I went searching around the web…though there are many conflicting and contradictory narratives drawn out there. That was partly my point – something very general about the way that things are passed down through time. I too was very sceptical about the ‘riot’ story…especially when I watched ‘L’Inhumaine’ only to find a short sequence that might be described as a mild rumpus rather than a riot.

    Since I wrote the piece I have been listening to the version on which you play with Maurice Peress conducting on Nimbus Records. Most enjoyable and quite different from the work as played at the RFH. I hope it will be possible to track down the Zurich performance when it is broadcast.

    I will add a reference to the pianola’s premier at the RFH too….this is surprising as I thought that Nancarrow might have already got there.

  3. Pingback: ‘Unexpected music….hateful…’ | likeahammerinthesink

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