Mechanical organ (musical clock)


November 28, 2021

The mechanical organ or mechanical clock (in German Flötenuhr or Spieluhr or Orgeluhr) is a mechanical musical instrument (automaton) of the aerophone family, consisting of a clock combined with a small organ. At a specific time, the clock activates a toothed roller on which the piece to be played automatically is engraved; the roller in turn activates the bellows which introduces air into the small pipes. Important composers wrote works specifically for this musical instrument, such as Haydn, Mozart, Handel, W. F. Bach, C. Ph. E. Bach, Salieri, Cherubini and Beethoven.


Its exact origins are unknown. In the 17th century it was built as a luxury watch by the Augsburg master watchmakers, and around 1760 it appeared in the Jura in the form of a clock. The golden age of its production was the late 18th century. Simple mechanical clocks were manufactured from 1770 to 1850 in large numbers in the Black Forest.The mechanical organs were usually intended for a high-class, rich and culturally elevated clientele, and thus for educated characters with adequate musical competence and artistic. The most elegant examples were produced in Vienna and Berlin.


Among the most well-known historical mechanical organs are the three examples created after 1782 by Fra Primitivo Niemecz, librarian of the Esterházy, watchmaker and friend of Haydn, who commissioned the composition of pieces for his instrument from them. Niemecz was very famous and exported his creations to England; two of them are kept at Esterháza Castle, a third in Vienna. At Elisabethenburg Castle there is a musical comtoise of the Berlin watchmaker Louis George. A similar clock, from the time of Frederick the Great, is kept in the palace of Sanssouci. It is a wall clock that itself comes from George's factory and is placed on the wall in a guest room of the Neue Kammern. It has a wooden case with a brass lining inlaid with mother-of-pearl flowers and other materials, and equipped with a rich gilt brass decoration (rocaille, acanthus, flowering branches). The Furtwangen Clock Museum has a large mechanical clock made in 1840, with three registers and eighty-two barrels, bearing a painting on the subject of Gessler's death at the hands of William Tell. Its mechanism offers a repertoire of twelve melodies, one for each hour, and drives animated figures of dancers and orchestras. The watch is preserved in almost its original condition and was the main attraction of the French private house that owned it until 1999.

Music for mechanical organ

The mechanical organ is an instrument with rather limited capacity in terms of expression: the one for which Mozart should have composed, for example, had only two small organ pipes from the flute register. The composer himself, a rare case in his career, crushed him ferociously: Mozart therefore convinced the client to get him a larger organ, equipped with low registers and therefore capable of producing the basses that he would have used in the fantasies intended for the instrument. Another limitation was in duration, depending on the size of the roll; nor did writing technically sophisticated variations make sense. However, mechanical instruments had a short season of fame, and many composers wrote specifically for the clock: in addition to Haydn and Mozart we remember Händel, WF Bach, C. Ph. E. Bach, Salieri, Cherubini, Beethoven. and again equipped with the roller they represent a sort of ante litteram "recording" useful for understanding, for example, the creation of embellishments, or to provide indications on the time. The Viennese clock of Niemecz, built in 1796, testifies in particular to the anomalous use of direct trills in Haydn, whose repertoire (Hob: XIX) also includes arra

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