Mechanical Splendours

The Barrel Organ Played

THE BARREL ORGAN PLAYED

He took the book down from its shelf,
The page was one-o-three,
The barrel organ in the street,
Its air was ‘What’s to be?’
The poet turned a page or two,
His eye fell on the scene,
Such mourning brought the land to grieve,
The cortège brought their Queen.
.
The poet turned another leaf,
He wept at what he saw;
The page was 1914,
And the story told of war.
Europe’s youth like wheat they fell,
Scythed and reaped for what,
That blood be turned to rich man’s gold,
And I’ll forget-them-not.
.
The poet thought to close the book,
He trembled then he sighed,
Perhaps he knew that times had changed,
That truth had also died.
Sad the bard resumed to read,
Where now his world would go;
He turned the page but knew at heart,
He’d see more tears flow.
.
The poet turned to time and place,
The barrel organ played,
Again the air, ‘What is to be?’
And once more mothers prayed;
The sheep are shorn, the wolves set free,
How soon the bullet flies,
Boys will sleep in homes of clay,
They’re buried under lies.
.
Michael Walsh Poetry

The history of Barrel organs’ creation extends back over several hundred years. Historians from different countries are still arguing about where and how this mechanism and its design was invented. China masters assign the invention to themselves mentioning the legend which says that as early as in the 6th B.C. Confucius had been studying a weird mechanism for a week and enjoyed the tune sound generated from the “tiger’s ribs” – metal plates producing the sounds of various tonalities. Italians call famous master Giovanni Barbieri the father of the instrument, claiming that even the French name of this instrument (“Orgue do Barbarie”) was originated from his name. Dutchmen basing on the shabby drawings of the end of the 15th century insist that these musical instruments manifested themselves in the land of the industrial revolution even earlier. In Russia, portable organs are more commonly known as “street organs” (“sharmanka”).

The story of this name is associated with the fact that one of the first and most popular tunes played with this instrument was the French song “Charmante Catherine”. This gave the name “sharmanka” though sometimes the instrument was also called “katarinka”. It is interesting that miniature barrel organs were used not only to listen to music but also as an instrument for training decorative birds to sing. This gave two more names that the history had kept for us: “drozdovka” (from French “merlies”) and “chizhovka” (from French “serinette”).

There are many names for the barrel organ, such as hand organcylinder organbox organ (though that can also mean a positive organ), street organgrinder organ, and Low Countries organ. In French names include orgue à manivelle (“crank organ”) and orgue de Barbarie (“Barbary organ”); German names include Drehorgel (“crank organ”), Leierkasten (“brace box”), and Walzenorgel (“cylinder organ”); Hungarian names include verkli (from Austrian-German Werkl), sípláda (“whistle chest”) and kintorna (from Bayern-Austrian “Kinterne”); Italian names include organetto a manovella (“crank organ”) and organo tedesco (“German organ”); the Polish name is katarynka. However, several of these names include types of mechanical organs for which the music is encoded as book music or by holes on a punched paper tape instead of by pins on a barrel. While many of these terms refer to the physical operation of the crank, some refer to an exotic origin. The French name orgue de Barbarie, suggesting barbarians, has been explained as a corruption of, variously, the terms bara (“bread”) and gwen (“wine”) in the Breton language, the surname of an early barrel-organ manufacturer from Modena, Giovanni Barberi, or that of the English inventor John Burberry.

Starting from the mid-18th century barrel organs became popular among the street musicians, as they did not require great knowledge of music but at the same time truly delighted the audience. The instrument was being constantly improved since at the beginning, it played one tune only and people got bored quickly. Perforated tapes replaced wooden and metal cylinders, models with reeded mechanisms were invented, and thus sound capacities were improved.

Dutch Vintage Street Barrel Organ

Since the end of the 19th century, cardboard and metal disks with various recorded tunes (from traditional polka and route march to opera parts and urban romances) were becoming more and more popular. Mechanical barrel organs, definitely, played a very important role in the history of music culture, since due to those instruments a large scale of the audience could learn and love the music pieces that stepped from the palaces and churches into the streets of the cities.

barrel organ (also called roller organ or crank organ) is a mechanical musical instrument consisting of bellows and one or more ranks of pipes housed in a case, usually of wood, and often highly decorated. The basic principle is the same as a traditional pipe organ, but rather than being played by an organist, the barrel organ is activated either by a person turning a crank, or by clockwork driven by weights or springs. The pieces of music are encoded onto wooden barrels (or cylinders), which are analogous to the keyboard of the traditional pipe organ. A person (or in some cases, a trained animal) which plays a barrel organ is known as an organ grinder.

Barrel: The pieces of music (or tunes) are encoded onto the barrel using metal pins and staples. Pins are used for short notes, and staples of varying lengths for longer notes. Each barrel usually carried several different tunes. Pinning such barrels was something of an art form, and the quality of the music produced by a barrel organ is largely a function of the quality of its pinning.

The organ barrels must be sturdy to maintain precise alignment over time, since they play the same programming role as music rolls and have to endure significant mechanical strain. Damage to the barrel, such as warpage, would have a direct (and usually detrimental) effect on the music produced.

The size of the barrel will depend on the number of notes in the organ and the length of the tune to be played. The more notes, the longer the barrel. The longer the tune, the greater the diameter.

Since the music is hard-coded onto the barrel, the only way for a barrel organ to play a different set of tunes is to replace the barrel with another one. While not a difficult operation, barrels are unwieldy and expensive, so many organ grinders have only one barrel for their instrument. Source 1, Source 2.

101 key organ “De Arend” (“The Eagle”)
De Arend II with 12 automatic registers and 101 keys.  Built in the Netherlands in the early 1990s. Plays from both cardboard music books and computer Midi files (about 50 tunes on each system). It is currently mounted on a close-coupled trailer suitable for towing behind a four-wheel drive vehicle or van.  Further details can be obtained on application. This organ is currently located in the Littleboy’s Vintage Restorations’ showroom.

See more beautiful photos here

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