Origins of Mechanical Music

I’ve been trawling through my archives, unearthing scraps of paper with indecipherable scribblings on them, but found one that got me thinking. This is a bit of a rambling post, (no surprise there?) so please bear with me.

This comes from Humphrey Jennings’ Pandaemonium 1660-1886 The Coming of the Machine as seen by Contemporary Observers. It is a fabulous compendium and resource and was the inspiration for Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the London Olympics. He claimed:

All organs had been removed from churches by an ordinance dated 1644, and it was a long time after the Restoration before they could all be replaced.

I am intrigued by this, as I have often written of the destruction of the arts caused by the Reformation. In England, the Tudors loved music – Elizabeth and Henry VIII are claimed to have been composers, so while the churches were whitewashed, statues of saints vandalised and stained glass smashed, music and singing were still allowed, if not encouraged, as a means of lifting spirits and of binding communities together, and for spreading news and preserving history in ballads.

I have tried to check this ordnance but can find no trace of it, but Jennings seems a reliable source, and it fits with the miserable Puritans.

By the early 18th century, there seem to have been a lot of barrel organs in churches, as accounts can be found of their repair. This suggests there was a shortage of organists, which is likely as their profession had been banned for some time, so no incentive for young people to train in it.

Town waits, playing an often motley collection of fiddles, brass, woodwind and drums  continued, were paid for by town councils to perform at celebrations, and they were often at the centre of singing at inns and pubs. I also recall how one group were banned as a member fell asleep during a church service and woke up to launch into a song too bawdy for such a place, so clerics were not keen to use local musicians who were often a little the worse for wear after Saturday nights.

Composers such as Handel and Mozart were on record as experimenting with mechanical music, and sometimes built their own instruments. It has been claimed that this was from a desire to play faster and more technical pieces than humans – especially those with hangovers – could manage. But researchers at the Speelklok Museum in Utrecht, Netherlands, have reconstructed some of these instruments and found they did not play fast, so were more mimicking human players. Some pieces were composed specifically for ornate automata to play, but these were one-offs, hardly significant pieces for such composers.

I think the reason for the interest in such machinery was due to the shortage or perhaps reliability of trained organists. I have met several seeming devout Christians from Africa who claim they only go to church for the music. The Jesuits were said to have charmed the natives of South America by playing music as they paddled along the rivers, so in the wake of the Reformation, music was probably an important means of getting unwilling bums on seats in churches. Church attendance had been so poor that Elizabeth I made attendance compulsory, with fines of 1s for absenteeism without good reason.

So I suspect the interest in mechanical music began in response to the shortage of church musicians. With a hand cranked organ, the vicar or anyone else could produce music for sermons, even if the repertoire may have been limited.

When such organs became accepted, mechanical music began to spread. From hand cranked or clockwork driven organs came an explosion of complex mechanical music machines in Victorian times, from tiny music boxes to huge dance hall organs.

Pianolas became popular pieces of household furniture, threatening the market for printed music with accusations of the world being dumbed down. Which led to our modern age of electronic music recording and transmission.

So, it seems to me the Puritans, by banning music, led eventually to it becoming more widespread and accessible. To ban music is to ban something that seems to be as old as we are. Some of the oldest human artefacts have been simple musical instruments, and anyone who tries to ban it is flying in the face of human nature, and is ultimately going to fail. This is also one of the reasons why the teaching of art and music in schools is so important. It gives balance to the curriculum, but the arts, especially music, are a vital tool for people to cope with our increasingly disturbed, unstable modern age. 

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