Michael A. Kukral
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

Edwin Welte and the Development of the Reproducing Piano in Europe and America

In the late winter of 1904 experiments were being conducted by Edwin Welte and his brother-in-law Karl Bockisch for recording live piano performances. In the studios of M. Welte & Son, located in the Black Forest town Freiburg im Breisgau, the invention of the reproducing piano suddenly gave birth to musical recordings of the highest fidelity ever known or heard in homes and public venues around the world. By 1906, Edwin Welte had introduced his invention, the “Welte-Mignon,” to American customers along with a prestigious catalogue of nearly 2000 available recordings! The least expensive Welte-Mignon sold for $1500 in America in 1906. During the next 25 years, legendary and great pianists and composers recorded for the Welte-Mignon in Germany, Russia, France, and America. These included Grieg, Debussy, Saint-Saens, Granados, Mahler, Leschetizky, Paderewski, Reger, Scriabine, and Carl Reinecke, who had lived during Beethoven’s time.

By 1912, the success of the Welte-Mignon in Europe and America enabled Edwin Welte to build a factory overlooking the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie to complement his 5th Avenue showrooms and studio in New York. Heads of states, aristocrats, and the wealthy owned the “Mignon” in Europe and now it would be marketed to prosperous middle-class Americans in three forms: the “Vorsetzer,” a cabinet which played on the keys of any piano; the Welte-Mignon Cabinet Piano, a beautiful self-contained playing mechanism and enclosed full piano without a keyboard; and, the most popular, a vertical or grand piano with the Welte reproducing system enclosed (“Einbau”). The Welte-Mignon Artistic Player, as it was then marketed, was available in a fine Steinway, Mason & Hamlin, or Krakauer piano and played the wide format T100 “Red” Welte rolls. The First World War would have serious consequences for Edwin Welte and all aspects of the Welte company here and in Europe.

The life journey of Edwin Welte and the Welte-MIgnon reproducing piano is a remarkable adventure in music, industry, war, family, artistry, and, most of all, perseverance. More than 40 years of research on the development, manufacturing, restoration, and history of Welte-Mignon pianos and recordings are the basis of this brief presentation that will revolve around the life and times of Edwin Welte of Freiburg and Poughkeepsie. This research includes four visits to Freiburg and interviews with members of the Welte family, curator Gerhard Dangel of the Augustiner Museum, and longtime orchestra manager and Welte authority Kenneth Caswell of Austin, Texas.

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Michael A. Kukral, born in Richfield, Ohio, spent much of his youth on his grandparents’ nearby farm. At age six he began piano lessons and was fascinated with pianos themselves. A few years later his piano teacher sold her house to the family of Jeffrey Dahmer, who became a new classmate of Kukral. At Ohio University, Mike earned a B.Sc. in Geography, M.A. in Political Science, and M.Sc. in Environmental Science while playing trombone in the Marching 110 for eight years. He credits music professor and band director Ronald P. Socciarelli, former band director at Ithaca High School (1967-70), as the most influential person in his entire college career. Kukral earned his Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Kentucky. During his doctoral program he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Prague in 1989-90, in the midst of the Velvet Revolution and the end of the Iron Curtain. His research was published 1997 as Prague 1989: Theater of Revolution by Columbia University Press.

Kukral became interested in player pianos after hearing his father’s stories of the new Beckwith player piano bought in 1917 by Mike’s grandfather Frank Kukral in Cleveland. When Mike was only 12 years old he saved his weekly allowance and with his dad Clarence bought a player piano in miserable condition. Tearing this apart and working on it soon led to a lifelong interest in all pneumatic player and reproducing pianos. He was editor of monthly journal the world’s largest collectors’ organization (AMICA) 2003-2009, and continues to educate and entertain groups at his home about these instruments. Since 1999, Kukral has been the geography professor at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a nationally ranked engineering and science (STEM) school in Terre Haute, Indiana. His current research is in subsaharan Africa, often with his students.