Thursday, 26 July 2007

The sound of music boxes

If you've ever heard an antique music box play, you'll know how delightful the clear, delicate tinkling sounds can be.

Fact is, music boxes were an immensely popular form of home entertainment in the 19th century, not surprisingly, perhaps, because short of playing it yourself, they supplied the only means of having music at hand.

As a result, the music box occupied a place of honour in the Victorian parlour, where it enchanted everyone with its tinkling rendition of airs, arias, hymns, overtures, folk songs, and patrotic marches as well as the latest "pop" waltzes and polkas that inspired the audience to roll back the carpet and dance.

The forerunner of the music box was probably a type of pocket watch that chimed the hour.

As many as 10 tiny bells were fitted one inside the other in the case and on the hour, a number of rotating brass hammers tinkled out a tune and then whatever o'clock it was.

Next came the invention in 1796 by Antoine Favre of a musical watch movement that had neither bells nor hammers.

His brainwave employed a series of steel teeth, each one of varying length and individually tuned, which were fastened fan-like to a baseplate.

Beneath this was a disc studded with as many as 40 tiny strategically placed pins which plucked the steel teeth as it revolved. The result was a music box movement barely two inches wide.

Soon, the demand for music on the move began to exceed that for watches alone.

Being so small, Favre's movement could fit any of the elaborate gold and enamelled snuff and jewellery boxes that were already popular throughout Europe and with a simple improvement, an even more miniature version was possible.

Instead of arranging the steel teeth in a fan shape, they were set like a tiny hair comb, while the pins that plucked them were placed around the surface of the brass barrel containing the clockwork spring that drove the movement.

Now Swiss watchmakers were able to put minute musical movements into the handles of a walking sticks, fans and even finger rings.

Of course, the quality of music produced by these novelties was not great. For a start, only so many musical notes could be accommodated in so small a space.

However, in 1810, Swiss watchmaker David Lecoultre hit on the idea of a revolving brass cylinder which was capable of carrying as many as 50,000 pins.

The cylinder music box was born - and with it a repertoire of comparatively staggering variety.

Throughout the 19th century the Swiss were at the forefront in production of music boxes and few Victorian parlours were without one.

At first, manufacture was a cottage industry with whole families being involved.

Innovation and quality of products continued to improve, however, and assembly of components began to be centred on various workshops.

From a relatively poor playing performance with music boxes being restricted to old favourite tunes, progress was such that within a few years, it was possible to listen to excerpts from the latest mainstream classical compositions.

Highly elaborate mechanisms performed for extended periods on a single winding and were capable of playing several hundred notes complete with "percussion".

This was achieved by tiny drums and castanets which, when struck by small hammers - again controlled by the revolving cylinder - produced a rhythmic accompaniment.

Combinations of small bells and carefully tuned combs of notes created sounds like those of mandolins, piccolos, zithers, flutes and glockenspiels.

The development of the music box into a serious form of home entertainment came at a time of a great surge of interest in opera and classical music.

Consequently, large "Overture" music boxes with interchangeable cylinders became all the rage, their repertoire of as many as 30 tunes per cylinder only just keeping pace with the scores of new works being composed at the time.

The Swiss company Nicole Freres (Nicole brothers) was a major manufacturer in the mid 19th century, one of their innovations being the "Forte-Piano" which was capable of producing both loud and soft music at the flick of a switch.

Even "stereo sound; was possible by the invention, in 1875, of the "Sublime Harmony" box, patented by Charles Paillard.

This had two combs, tuned identically to play together, as the instrument's name suggests, to produce a haunting echo effect.

As the mechanisms became more elaborate and efficient, and their repertoire greater and greater, so did the boxes that contained them.

The best were hand-carved and decorated with marquetry, and intricate inlaid patterns in metal, mother-of-pearl and contrasting rare woods.

Those with a number of interchangeable cylinders came with matching cabinets or tables to house them and protect them from damage.

Buying new cylinders pinned to play the latest tunes was all very well, but for many, the cost proved prohibitive.

An inventive and resourceful German called Paul Lochmann of Leipzig hit on the way forward: a machine in which a cheaply made pierced disc replaced the more expensive cylinder.

The introduction of the so-called Symphonion music box in 1886 was an overnight sensation which turned the industry on its head.

Horizontal versions were soon ousting cylinder boxes in the home, while large free standing Symphonions with coin-operated vertical movements were bought for public places.

Restaurants, fairgrounds and ice-cream parlours soon had a Symphonion standing in the corner to delight the clientele, while Swiss railway stations installed them in waiting rooms as a diversion for passengers.

Key to the success of the new machine - apart from the incomparable quality of the music they produced - was the ease with which new discs could be manufactured.

Once a master was made, a simple die-stamping machine could duplicate it in any quantity required.

By 1895, more than 2,000 different music titles were available on discs produced by one company alone.

Two years later, in 1897, came a major refinement: the automatic disc-changer that gave a foretaste of the 20th century jukebox.

Listeners could now pre-select their favourite tunes from a dozen discs stored in the base of the machine and then sit back and hear their selections played.

Thereafter, it was only a matter of time before entrepreneurs began to lease out coin-operated Symphonions fitted with automatic disc change mechanisms.

Discs would be replaced periodically with more up-to-date selections by teams of men employed to service the machines and collect the money.

Picture shows a so-called bells-in-sight cylinder music box, showing clearly the comb and pinned cylinder. As the cylinder rotates, it activates small hammers which strike the bells and small drum at left at the appropriate moments. The tunes played on these Swiss boxes are a delightful reward for the collector prepared to spend £400-600 for a basic model



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home