A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Barrel Organ

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BARREL ORGAN. A musical instrument, of all others the most easy of manipulation, as it requires nothing beyond the regular rotary motion of a handle to keep it playing. In some examples even this power is applied mechanically, either by means of clock-work, or by weights. These instruments are of the most various capacities, from the simple street organ—the 'barrel organ' of ordinary parlance—to large and complicated machines representing the full orchestra. But the principle of action is the same in all. A wooden cylinder, or barrel, placed horizontally, and armed on its outside circumference with brass staples or pins, slowly revolves, in the direction from back to front; and in doing so the pins raise certain trigger-shaped keys, which correspond with simple mechanism communicating with valves that on being opened allow wind to enter the required pipes. In this way either melody or harmony is produced. The wind is produced by bellows which are worked by the same motion which turns the barrel. The most simple kind of instrument of this nature is the small 'bird organ,' used, as its name implies, for teaching bulfinches to pipe—which plays the simplest music in melody only.

It is not positively known when barrel organs were first made, but they are supposed to date from about the beginning of the last century. An organ-builder of the name of Wright, the great-grandfather of the present firm of Robson, made a barrel organ for Fulhatn Church, which alone would carry the date a long way back in the last century. Mr. Flight of Exeter Change, the grandfather of the present builder of that name, was also a celebrated maker of barrel organs in his day. The finest and most elaborate specimen of a 'Finger and Barrel' organ that was ever made, was the Apollonicon, constructed by Flight and Robson at a cost of nearly £10,000, and first exhibited by them about the year 1815. This has been already described under its own head. The firms of Flight and Robson, and of Bryceson, father of the present builder of that name, made perhaps the greatest number of barrel organs, which kind of instrument was in much demand some fifty years ago, for churches and chapels, though now seldom met with there. These were set with psalm and hymn tunes, chants, and occasionally with voluntaries.

A church barrel organ had rarely a chromatic compass of notes, but usually only a greater or less approximation thereto. Thus it would generally have either 8, 14, 17, 21, 27, 28, or 31 keys. In the case of one having 14 keys, two diatonic scales, of short range, would be presented, namely G and D, into which all the tunes 'marked' upon the barrel would be transposed, and a few pipes at somewhat large intervals apart would be supplied by way of bass, such as D and G. In organs with more keys, the G♯ would be inserted, allowing the scale of A to be used. In organs having a further increased number of keys the D♯ would be introduced, permitting the scale of E to be employed; and so on. Strange to say, scales with flats were never planned unless specially ordered; nor was there much provision for tunes in the minor mode in organs with comparatively but few 'keys.'

Some organs are made having the complete compass and with all the chromatic semitones, and are 'marked' to play overtures, movements of symphonies, selections from operas, sets of waltzes, and other music of that class in the most beautiful manner. The place occupied in the making of these instruments by the late John Robson has been taken by Messrs. Imhof and Mukle of London, who supply a large number of mechanical organs to private houses in the country at prices ranging from £100 to £1500. One of the completest of these instruments contains 8 ordinary stops, ranging through a complete chromatic scale of 5½ octaves,
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and six solo stops; with a swell of three stops in addition to drums, triangle, cymbals, and castanets—in fact a representation of the entire orchestra. Three machines work the whole of this elaborate apparatus. The barrels can be changed very rapidly, and as each barrel takes 11½ minutes to complete its revolutions there are few movements of the great symphonies and few overtures which cannot be performed, and in fact the best machines contain barrels for such movements as well as for the operatic selections more usually found on them. The mechanical contrivances in these instruments are highly ingenious, the music, as already remarked, is often of the best, and the effect in a suitable space and under proper circumstances is very pleasing. Instruments of this character are occasionally furnished with a manual, and are then known as 'Barrel and Finger Organs.'

The ordinary street organ was first made by a builder named Hicks at the beginning of this century. At present the smallest kind has 24 keys, sounding the following notes:—

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \clef bass \relative g, { \cadenzaOn g4 c d g b \clef treble c d e f fis g a b c d e f fis g a b c d e } }


In the second size an A is added on the fifth line of the bass stave, and a C♯ in the treble; in the third size an F, F♯, G, and A in alt.; and in the fourth, the largest of all, the scale is continued up to E, and C♯ is added in alt. The effect even of simple modulations with such imperfect means will be easily understood. In fact the 'setting' the barrels of a street organ—like the hearing them—must be a constant struggle with difficulties. There are 2 stops, an open (rarely of metal) and a closed (wood). The barrel is set to play 9 or 10 tunes. These instruments weigh from 40 to 56 lbs., and cost from £18 upwards. The pipes and all other parts are made at the factory of the firm already mentioned, in the Black Forest, but the barrels are 'set'—i.e. the pins are inserted—and the whole put together in London. Street organs are chiefly used in England, but are also largely exported to South America, the West Indies, and other places. The annexed illustration shows a cross section of an ordinary barrel organ, a is the barrel, 'set' round its circumference with 'pins,' at the various intervals, and of the various lengths, necessary for the music, and turned by the worm b on the shaft c; d d are the bellows worked by the cranks e e on the shaft and the connecting rods f f, and delivering the wind into an air chamber g, which runs to the further end of the case, and is kept at a uniform pressure by the spiral springs h h. The air vessel again delivers the wind into the wind-chest m, which communicates with the pipes n n. Each pipe has its valve o, which is kept closed by a spring until the corresponding pin on the barrel raises the trigger p, and forcing down the connecting wire r, opens the valve and admits wind to the pipe. s s is the case. Space being very valuable in these instruments the pipes are packed together very closely, and are often bent in shape to fit the demands of the case. In the diagram one is shown lying beneath the floor of the bellows.

The barrel is made of staves, about 2½ inches wide, of the best pine wood without knots or sap, and seasoned for many years before being used. At each end of the barrel, and sometimes also in the middle, is a circular piece of hard mahogany called a barrel-head, to which the staves are glued and pegged. The barrel is then handed to the turner, who makes it perfectly cylindrical, and it is then covered with cartridge paper and sometimes painted. At one end of the barrel the 'head' is furnished with a circle of teeth for the worm connected with the handle to work in when slowly rotating the barrel. Projecting from this 'head' is the notch-pin. The number of notches in the pin corresponds to the number of tunes played by the barrel. A knife lowered into the notch prevents the barrel from shifting its position. The simplest arrangement is for the barrel to play a tune completely through in the course of a single revolution.

The keys are usually 7-8ths of an inch apart, and the intervening space upon the barrel may be filled either with pins for producing fresh tunes to the number of nine or ten, or with a continuation of the original piece lasting for the same number of revolutions of the barrel. In the latter case the 'notches' are arranged in a spiral so as to allow the barrel to shift horizontally to left or right at the end of each revolution without the intervention of the hand.

It is not within the scope of this article to speak of the players of the street organs, but it may be mentioned that there are some four 'masters' in London, employing from 30 to 50 men each, to whom the organs are let out on hire. The number of organs sold for use in London alone by the house already named is about 30 a year, but the export trade to the West Indies, Brazil, etc., is also considerable.

Barrel organs have been made with three and four barrels in a circular revolving iron frame. The first of the kind, containing four barrels, was made by Mr. Bishop, sen., the father of the present organ-builder of that name, for Northallerton church, Yorkshire, about the year 1820. Many years later Messrs. Gray and Davison made grinder organs with three barrels in one frame.

[ E. J. H. ]

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