An Interview with the
celebrated pianist in June
Mr. Laffitte, who recorded several Duo-Art rolls in the 1920s,
began by recalling his
earliest memories of the player piano ...
How were you introduced to the player piano?
A: I was
never a very strong child and it was
thought that sea air was good for me;
so I was often sent to stay with my Nanny, Mrs. Harris, and her half-brother Mr.
Fry, at Tankerton (near Whitstable).
She had a Steck upright pianola which she and he
used to play.
At the beginning of the First World War she
decided that she wanted a new
pianola and she asked me to accompany
her to London to choose one. We went to Aeolian Hall
in New Ford Street. In the showroom we were
confronted by a most lovely Steinway
brand. I started playing it, and said at once:
"Nurse, you must have this
piano." She said: "Yes, mischief, but
I will never be able to give
all that money for it"
- it was £300
"and what will Mr. Fry say?" In the end she
did, regardless of
what Mr. Fry would say!
Was either of them a pianist?
A: No. They knew nothing about music, but they loved it. They gave
musical evenings at which she and
Fry played at intervals
- between cups of coffee
solos on the pianola. From my bedroom
I could always tell
which one of them was playing.
Q: What sort of music did
A: They had
many beautiful rolls of music which would nowadays
seem rather old-fashioned.. For instance,
there were the Fantasies on La
of Feilini. More important for me
were the Waldstein
Sonatas of Beethoven. When I came
to learn the Waldstein
knew already just how it went,
though I had never
heard it played by a pianist.
Q: How did your career
A: My first teacher was
my Mother and I still remember well
the things she taught me. For years she used
to sit in judgment over my
performances and what she said was invariably right.
I became a student at the Guildhall School of Music
and. Drama. My Father never wanted me to
become a musician, but when Sir
Landon Ronald heard me play he convinced him that this was what I must
Q: By then you were only
14. What happened about your ordinary
A: I had private lessons from a
master at the City of London School,
brother and I were being educated, and
where my Father was principal French
teacher, and head of the Modern Languages
At the Guildhall I won all the piano prizes
(save one) and
the Gold Medal. In 1920 my teacher,
Marmaduke Barton, decided that I was
'ready' and I made my debut at the Queen's
I played Schumann's Concerto under Sir
Landon Ronald, and three Debussy
Preludes. (Debussy had died only recently. He was considered very 'modern'
then.) I ended the programme with the
Second Concerto of Rachmaninov.
After that I played in
Brussels with great success. Eugene Ysaye,
the old King of violinists, heard me
and was impressed. Later I played the
McDowell Second Concerto in
the Brussels Opera House.
Pierre Monteua and his wife were in the audience. He sent
for me afterwards and engaged me to play in
Amsterdam. I was 'under
his wing' for about three years.
Q: When did you join the
A : In 1925.
was with them
for 41 years, until 1966. I played under
many famous conductors, including Aylmer Buesst, Albert Coates, Clarence
Raybould, Kneale Kelly, Sir Adrian Boult, Joseph Lewis, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sir
Dan Godfrey and Sir Eugene Goosens. For my
last concerto engagement, the Debussy
Centenary of 1962, I played the
under Arthur Hurst, who was a pupil
Q: Did you meet Ravel?
A: Yes. He was staying in London with
a friend, Madame Alvar, who was
a Swedish opera singer. He was a very
short man, very immaculately dressed,
and rather cold. I was really too frightened to suggest
playing to him, but he suddenly turned to me
and said: "Nous allons jouer les
valses de Chabrier a deux pianos." I
didn't know them: I was sight-reading them. But it seemed to be all
right, so I plucked up courage and said:
"Maitre, would you hear me play your
and he replied: "Mais certainement." Afterwards,
I asked him if he had anything to say. He
said: "No. I say everything in the
score. Mais c'est tres bien." I was happy; from
him this was really something.
He was in the process of
writing his G major Piano Concerto
and I asked him what it would be like. He
said: "Ca sera Bach,
Q: Was he serious?
A: He was very
Q: He wasn't a very good
pianist, was he?
A: He was an extraordinary pianist. I've never heard such a peculiar touch. It
was exactly as if the hammers, instead of hitting the wires, were hitting glass.
And they were similar pianos - both Steinways.
Q: How were you introduced
to the Aeolian Company?
A: That happened through the BBC. Kenneth Wright, who was then Director of
Music, suggested to Percy Scholes that I might make some Duo-Art records.
Scholes immediately jumped on it. They drew up a three-year contract. At my
first recording session, one afternoon in 1927, I made a Beethoven Sonata, the
"Prelude, Aria and Finale" of Franck, and I think "Ragamuffin". There were three
sessions in all.
Q: Who choose the music you
A: The Aeolian Company. They told me what they wanted.
Q: What sort of piano did
you play for the recordings?
A: It was a Weber grand of 'drawing room' size. There was a thing like a large
hosepipe which came from underneath the piano and connected with the recording
machine in the adjoining room.
Q: From the point of view
of performance, this was a perfectly normal, good piano?
A: Oh, yes. It was a beautiful piano.
Q: Was the room in which
you played at Aeolian Hall equipped like a studio?
A: Yes. It was not very
big. The piano was in the middle of the room, and Reginald Reynolds was sitting
to one side at a kind of a console.
Q: Had he the music in
front of him?
A: I can't remember that. I don't think he had. He knew the works, anyway; he
was a very fine musician. I remember how intent he was.
Q: What was he doing?
A: I don't know. There were controls, but they didn't tell you anything about
Q: Was there a microphone
in the room?
Q: How long after each
recording session were you able to hear the proof copies of your rolls?
A: That I can't remember; it was a little time afterwards. I went up to hear
several of them, but I didn't hear the Franck or the Debussy "Images".
Q: So these were marketed
without your signature?
A: Oh, no. I can remember signing the master rolls. Incidentally,
asked me to
spell Frank with a "c:" Franc. They thought
be more fashionable, I suppose. As a matter
of fact my name isn't Frank at all;
it's Francis. It was Sir Landon Ronald who
changed it: when I won the Gold Metal at
Guildhall, I found it stamped Frank Laffitte.
That's what I've been ever since.
you heard the proof copies
of the rolls, were you invited to
make corrections or alterations?
A: No. You couldn't make alterations, apart, from correcting a wrong
note. There was no cheating.
You could always repeat a
performance but I never had any trouble like that. I was always very particular
and self-critical to a degree. If you're not self-critical, other people will
jolly-well criticize you.
Q: Do you think that the
rolls you made for the Aeolian Company furthered your career?
A: I was considered one of the rising young pianists, and it was a very big
thing to make records for the Duo-Art piano. It gave one stature.
Q: What was your favorite
A: "Equinox" by John Ireland. This was often used by the Aeolian Company in
their public concerts. It is a piece I like very much. Ireland heard me play it
and was really very pleased.
Q: Did you hear the other
makes of the reproducing piano?
A: Yes, I did. I always considered he Duo-Art the most faithful.
Q: Mr. Laffitte, thank
you very much for these fascinating reminiscence.