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’.