ReMusic at the Museum of Music Boxes in Bern

Orchestra Pit



How was in the past without the hi-fi? I will tell you. I have the occasion for a good colour piece, which I like a lot… LOL

Who could do it, used to play for himself or for the others. Who could afford some musicians, used to hire them, but they have to work, like any other servant, since the aura of sacredness and peculiarity that we bestow to our musicians is something recent, at least in the west countries. Is that all? Then, do we get to our days? Not at all…For centuries the music has been reproduced also mechanically, although not electrically.


Here we are. During my visit at DaVinciAudio Labs, we stayed at the Sternen hotel in Muri, near Bern. The hotel has an unexpected collection of mechanical musical instruments. A small private museum, created in the fall of 2006, which currently counts about thirty “pieces” – see the photo gallery on the left – realized between 1850 and 1950. The exhibition offers a captivating repertory of mechanical and automatic musical instruments that are not only well functioning but also listenable during the guided visits.


Between the nineteenth and the twentieth century, the playback of musical pieces, not the execution, occurred through these instruments. Activated by complex mechanical devices, they had a boom. A knowledge nowadays already lost and forgotten by the masses.

In those days and now, or maybe more than now, the music used to read the moments of amusement. You could find these musical machines in the carousels, in the fairs and in the parties. They gave rhythm to the dances in the ballrooms. Their music was heard in restaurants and taverns, as well as in streets and squares, where the street musicians brought their viola on the carts pulled by a donkey.


In the academic language, and mostly for us audiophiles, an organ is just the traditional pipe instrument that has been playing since centuries in our churches and in the concert halls. As organ, organino and organetto, the popular language used to indicate whatever instrument capable of reproducing the music automatically: a music box, an autopiano, a carillon or a baroque and beaming fairground organ, often enriched by automatons that play cymbals and drums.


There were different models: mechanical organs, fairground organs, Barberia organs, cylinder-based piano, orchestrions, music boxes, autopianos, that are the self-laying pianos with rolls, carillons and the automata, that are the mechanical birds and dolls. But only three were the big families of mechanical musical instruments: carillon, organettos, player pianos and cylinder-based pianos.


Generally, they were big or even huge instruments. For sound and mechanical ingenuity, they were appealing, almost magic. What it is hard to understand, if you have never seen them operational, is that they completely replaced the executor. Inside they had authentic musical instruments like organs, percussions, pianos, but with the feature of playing without the direct intervention of the man. They read and reproduced a “written” music, we would say “recorded” music, on a mechanical support that could be the classical stamped cylinder or a perforated metallic disc. The Italian player piano is known as pianola cilindro but this name changed from region to region: Barberia organ, vertical, organ, viola, pianino, etc. Finally, at the beginning of the last century, many of these manhandled instruments filled the intervals in the cinemas.


As I said before, the traditional mechanical instruments were short-lived. Already in 1925, at their top, when the manufacturers reached as many workers as possible, the fast standing out of other music machines, that were more practical and less expensive and, most of all, smaller, imposed the conversion of almost all the factories and the closing of many others.


What followed were phonographs and gramophones. But this is another story.

And then the hi-fi. But this is our story.




P.S. If you are interested in this topic, I would recommend the Associazione Italiana Musica Meccanica (Ammi), based in Cesena, Italy.

The mechanical music worldwide: hundreds of museums, events, associations, manufacturers, restorers, and so on.

The mechanical music in Italy: the Ammi.

Founded in Cesena in 1998 it deals with the recovery and diffusion of the mechanical music. It has a few hundreds of associated, included foreign people, and gathers and connects all the knowledge in Italy dedicated to this subject. Every activity of study, research, restoration, events and other actions, passes through the association that is also a contact point for several Institutions for the most important restorations. Among the many initiatives and activities, it organizes the International Festival of Longiano, it has reproduced the Da Vinci Mechanical Drum presented in Milan at its Museum of Science and Technology, it coordinates a Research facility. It has one of the worldwide most important specialized library and maintains relationships with all the most important similar associations around the world.


I personally thank the Ammi, from whose website (Italian only) I have reported wide parts of text, for its commitment in spreading a so precious knowledge: the mechanical music, a huge cultural movement that for more than five hundreds years went through Europe, bringing music to rich and poor people.

by Giuseppe
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