1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Barrel-organ

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BARREL-ORGAN (Eng. “grinder-organ,” “street-organ,” “hand-organ,” “Dutch organ”; Fr. orgue de Barbarie, orgue d’Allemagne, orgue mécanique, cabinet d’orgue, serinette; Ger. Drehorgel, Leierkasten; Ital. organetto a manovella, organo tedesco), a small portable organ mechanically played by turning a handle. The barrel-organ owes its name to the cylinder on which the tunes are pricked out with pins and staples of various lengths, set at definite intervals according to the scheme required by the music. The function of these pins and staples is to raise balanced keys connected by simple mechanism with the valves of the pipes, which are thus mechanically opened, admitting the stream of air from the wind-chest. The handle attached to the shaft sets the cylinder in slow rotation by means of a worm working in a fine-toothed gear on the barrel-head; the same motion works the bellows by means of cranks and connecting rods on the shaft. The wind is thereby forced into a reservoir, whence it passes into the wind-chest, on the sides of which are grouped the pipes. The barrel revolves slowly from back to front, each revolution as a rule playing one complete tune. A notch-pin in the barrelhead, furnished with as many notches as there are tunes, enables the performer to shift the barrel and change the tune. The ordinary street barrel-organ had a compass varying from 24 to 34 notes, forming a diatonic scale with a few accidentals, generally F♯, G♯, C♯. There were usually two stops, one for the open pipes of metal, the other for the closed wooden pipes. Barrel-organs have been made with as many as three or four cylinders set in a circular revolving frame, but these more elaborate instruments were mainly used in churches[1] and chapels, a purpose for which they were in great demand for playing hymns, chants and voluntaries during the 18th and early 19th centuries. A barrel-organ was built for Fulham church by Wright, and a large instrument with four barrels was constructed by Bishop for Northallerton church in 1820.

Fig. 1.—Large stationary barrel-organ worked by hydraulic power, from Solomon de Caus, Les Raisons des forces mouvantes (Frankfort-on-Main, 1615).

The origin of the barrel-organ is now clearly established, and many will doubtless be surprised to find that it must be sought in the Netherlands as early as the middle of the 15th century, and that accurate and detailed diagrams of every part of the mechanism for a large stationary barrel-organ worked by hydraulic power were published in 1615. There are letters patent preserved in the archives of Belgium appointing a certain organ-builder, Jehan van Steenken, dit Aren, “Master of organs which play of themselves”; in the original Flemish Meester van orgelen spelende bij hen selven.[2] This organ was not a portable one like English street organs, but a more imposing instrument, as we learn from other documents giving a detailed account of the moneys paid to Maistre Jehan for conveying the organs from Bruges to Brussels.[3] Steenken was, by virtue of the same letters patent, awarded an annual pension of fifty Rhenish florins in consideration of the services rendered to the duke of Burgundy, and on condition of his submitting to his liege Philip the Good all other instruments he might make in the future. There is nothing singular in the early date of this invention, for the 15th century was distinguished for the extraordinary impulse which the patronage and appreciation of the dukes of Burgundy gave to automatic contrivances of all kinds, carillons, clocks, speaking animals and other curiosities due to Flemish genius.[4] No contemporary illustration is forthcoming, but in 1615 Solomon de Caus, who avowedly owed his inspiration to Hero and Vitruvius, describes a number of hydraulic machines, amongst which is the barrel-organ,[5] illustrating his description by means of several large drawings and diagrams very carefully carried out. De Caus' organ, entitled “Machine par laquelle l’on fera sonner un jeu d’orgues par le moyen de l’eau,” was built up on a wall a foot thick. In the illustrations the barrel is shown to be divided into bars, and each bar into eight beats for the quavers. The whole drum is pierced with holes at the intersecting points, the pins being movable, so that when the performer grew tired of one tune, he could re-arrange the pins to form another. The four bellows are set in motion by means of ropes strained over pulleys and attached to four cranks on the rotating shaft. Solomon de Caus lays no claim to the invention of this organ, but only to the adaptation of hydraulic power for revolving the drum; on the contrary, in a dissertation on the invention of hydraulic machines and organs, he states that there was evidently some difference between the organs of the ancients and those of his day, since there is no mention in the classics of any musical wheel by means of which tunes could be played in several parts—the ancients, indeed, seem to have used their fingers on the keyboard to sound their organs. The eighteen keys drawn in one diagram bear names, beginning at the left, D, C, B, A, G, F, F♯, E, D, C, B, A, G, F, E, D, C, B; De Caus states that only half the keyboard is given for want of space; the compass, therefore, probably was as shown, with a few accidentals. A barrel-organ, also worked by hydraulic power, is somewhat fantastically drawn by Robert Fludd in a work[6] published two years after that of Solomon de Caus. This diagram is of no value except as a curiosity, for the author betrays a very imperfect knowledge of the mechanical principles involved. The piece of music actually set on de Caus' barrel-organ, six bars of which can be made out,[7] consists of a madrigal, “Chi fara fed’ al ciel,” by Alessandro Striggio, written in organ tablature by Peter Philips, organist of the Chapel Royal, Brussels, at the end of the 16th century.[8] A French barrel-organ[9] in the collection of the Brussels Conservatoire, bearing the date “5 Mars 1797,” has the following compass with flats, beginning at the left:—

Other evidences of the origin of the barrel-organ are not wanting. The inventory of the organs and other keyboard instruments belonging to the duke of Modena, drawn up in 1598, contains two entries of an organo Tedesco.[10] In England these organs were also known as “Dutch organs,” and the name clung to the instrument even in its diminutive form of hand-organ of the itinerant musician. In Jedediah Morse’s description of the manners and customs of the Netherlands,[11] we find the following allusion:—“The diversions of the Dutch differ not much from those of the English, who seem to have borrowed from them the neatness of their drinking booths, skittle and other grounds . . . which form the amusements of the middle ranks, not to mention their hand-organs and other musical inventions.” An illustration of the hand-organ of that period is given in Knight’s London[12] being one of a collection of street views published by Dayes in 1789. In a description of Bartholomew Fair, as held at the beginning of the 18th century, is a further reference to the Dutch origin of the barrel-organ:—“A band at the west-end of the town, well known for playing on winter evenings before Spring Garden Coffee House, opposite Wigley’s great exhibition room, consisted of a double drum, a Dutch organ, the tambourine, violin, pipes and the Turkish jingle used in the army. This band was generally hired at one of the booths of the fair.”[13] Mr Thomas Brown relates that one Mr Stephens, a Poultry author, proposed to parliament for any one that should presume to keep an organ in a Publick House to be fined £20 and made incapable of being an ale-draper for the future.[14] In 1737 Horace Walpole writes[15]:—“I am now in pursuit of getting the finest piece of music that ever was heard; it is a thing that will play eight tunes. Handel and all the great musicians say that it is beyond anything they can do, and this may be performed by the most ignorant person, and when you are weary of those eight tunes, you may have them changed for any other that you like.” The organ was put in a lottery and fetched £1000.

There was a very small barrel-organ in use during the 18th and 19th centuries, known as the bird-organ (Fr. serinette, turlutaine, merline). One of these now in the collection of the Brussels Conservatoire is described by V. C. Mahillon.[16] The instrument is in the form of a book, on the back of which is the title “Le chant des oiseaux, Tome vi.” There are ten pewter stopped pipes giving the scale of G with the addition of F♭ and A two octaves higher. The whole instrument measures approximately 8 ✕ 51/2 ✕ 21/4 in. and plays eight tunes. Mozart wrote an Andante[17] for a small barrel-organ.

For an illustration of the construction of the barrel-organ during the 18th century, consult P. M. D. J. Engramelle, La Tonotechnie ou l’art de noter les cylindres et tout ce qui est susceptible de notage dans les instruments de concerts méchaniques (Paris, 1775), with engravings (not in the British Museum); and for a clear diagram of the modern instrument the article on “Automatic Appliances connected with Music,” by Dr. E. J. Hopkins, in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. i. (1904), p. 134.  (K. S.) 

  1. This practice had evidently not been adopted in Germany, as the following instance will show. The use of barrel-organs (Drehorgeln) in country churches was seriously recommended by an anonymous writer in two German papers at the beginning of the 19th century (Beobachter an der Spree, Berlin, 22nd October 1821, and in Märkische Boten, Nos. 138 and 139, 1821). The organist Wilke of Leipzig published in reply an article in the Allgem. musik. Zeitung (1822, pp. 777 et seq.) in which “he very properly repudiated such a laughable recommendation.”
  2. Archives générales du royaume de Belgique, Chambre des Comptes, No. 2, 449 ro. cf. 52 ro.; and Edmund van der Straeten, La Musique aux Pays-Bas, vol. vii. pp. 230-232.
  3. Van der Straeten, op. cit. p. 299.
  4. Van der Straeten, op. cit. p. 231.
  5. Solomon de Caus, Les Raisons des forces mouvantes (Frankfort, 1615), problems 25, 28, 29, 30.
  6. Historia utriusque cosmi (Oppenheim, 1617), t. i., experimentum viii. p. 483.
  7. Op. cit. problem 29 shows the arrangement of the bellows for the wind-supply. In problem 30 is drawn a large section of the barrel, showing six bars of music represented by the pin tablature, which can be actually deciphered by the help of the keyboard included in the drawing. These diagrams are admirably clear and of real technical value. A copy of this work is in the library of the British Museum.
  8. See also E. van der Straeten, who has translated Philips' setting into modern notation, op. cit. t. vi. pp. 506 and 510.
  9. See V. C. Mahillon, Catalogue descriptif (Brussels, 1896), No. 1137, p. 371.
  10. Tedesco was applied by Italians to both German and Dutch. Count Valdrighi, Musurgiana I. Serandola, Pianoforte, Salterio (Modena, 1879), pp. 27 and 28; and E. van der Straeten, op. cit. vol. vi. p. 122.
  11. Jedediah Morse American Geography, part ii. p. 334 (Boston, Mass., 1796).
  12. Knight’s London, vol. i. p. 144.
  13. Hone’s Every Day Book, i. p. 1248.
  14. Collection of all the Dialogues written by Mr Thomas Brown (London, 1704), p. 297.
  15. Hone’s Every Day Book, ii. pp. 1452-1453.
  16. See Catalogue descriptif (Ghent, 1880), Nos. 461 and 462.
  17. Breitkopf and Härtel’s Critically revised edition of Mozart’s Works, series x. no. 10.