Michael Welte's famous Orchestrion, exhibited in London in 1862
The water-powered automata of Athanasius Kircher were the forerunners of both outdoor and indoor music, from Dutch street organs to Aeolian Orchestrelles, from fairground gallopers to the Hupfeld Phonoliszt-Violina. Along the way there were a number of stopping places, such as the nineteenth-century forerunner of the jukebox, the orchestrion. Orchestrions were designed to imitate an orchestra by means of organ pipes and percussion instruments, though in some cases they were built around large upright pianos instead; early examples used pinned wooden barrels to provide the music which they played, while later versions had the advantage of perforated paper music rolls. Michael Welte of Vöhrenbach in the Black Forest created his first major orchestrion in 1857 for the Grand Duke of Baden, and in 1862 it was exhibited at the London International Exhibition on Industry and Art, when it was engraved for the Illustrated London News. There has always been a certain fascination in the way such instruments function, and like many present-day musical instrument museums, the artist chose to display Welte's Orchestrion without its carefully-designed exterior cabinet.
The most famous early orchestrion was undoubtedly Johann Nepomuk Maelzel's Panharmonicon, for which Beethoven composed his celebration of the defeat of Napoleon, Wellingtons Sieg. The documentation for such early instruments is inevitably sporadic, and in truth there seem to have been a number of Panharmonicons. One was sold in Paris in 1807, one was taken on a tour of the New World, but sank somewhere between Havana and Philadelphia on 21 July 1838, along with its creator, and one survived at the Industrial Museum in Stuttgart until it succumbed to the ravages of the Second World War.
A rare photograph of part of Maelzel's Panharmonicon at the Industrial Museum in Stuttgart
To judge from the two surviving photographs, preserved in Alexander Buchner's seminal monograph, Vom Glockenspiel zum Pianola, the style of the Panharmonicon was similar to many later orchestrions, with pinned barrels storing the note information, and a variety of pipes and percussion instruments. Prince Esterhazy may have been wealthy enough to employ Josef Haydn and his merry men, but orchestrions provided the lesser strata of fashionable society with a neat and uncomplaining substitute for hungry musicians.
Part of the Panharmonicon with some of its pinned barrels
Maelzel and his younger brother, Leonhard, were not the only inventors of such instruments, however. Many other manufacturers, and in particular the family firm of Blessing, at Unterkirnach in the Black Forest, contributed to the development of the orchestrion during the first half of the nineteenth century. Michael Welte served seven years' apprenticeship with the Blessings before he set up his own business in 1832, close by in Vöhrenbach.
Though it became most famous for its reproducing piano, the Mignon, the firm of Michael Welte und Soehne was the major manufacturer of barrel- and roll-operated orchestrions, producing many different models and styles over a period of some seventy years. This Cottage Orchestrion was one of the smallest models, despite the fact that it stood at least as high as two men!
Welte Cottage Orchestrion - Style no. 1 - Freiburg, Germany, 1902.
In the late nineteenth century, the United States, with its burgeoning elite of millionaire businessmen, was fertile ground for the sale of new instruments, and Emil Welte, Michael's eldest son, began operations across the Atlantic as early as 1866. This photograph, of the firm's exhibit at St Louis in 1904, shows three different orchestrions. The enormous size of the central colossus can be gauged from the two chairs placed demurely in front of it.
The Welte Exhibit at the 1904 St Louis Exposition, showing three styles of Orchestrion.
The Welte Philharmonic Pipe Organ built in 1914 for Sir David Salomons at Broomhill, near Tunbridge Wells in England, was unusual in that it could play two types of music roll. On the one hand, it could reproduce the playing of famous organists by means of the green Welte Philharmonic rolls, and on the other, it could read Welte's red orchestrion rolls, since its proud owner already had a large collection of these for his previous style 10 orchestrion. The organ still survives, and is currently in the process of restoration.
Welte Philharmonic Pipe Organ, built for Sir David Salomons - Tunbridge Wells, 1914.
Roll out the Barrel
Pinned barrels had been used for centuries as a means of storing musical data, be it for marking the hours in elaborate flute clocks, for accompanying hymns in church barrel organs, or for imitating the Berlin Philharmonic in some of the larger orchestrions. However, barrels were not always easy to change, and so the choice of repertoire was restricted. Welte's introduction of perforated rolls in 1887 was the key to an almost limitless variety of music, which could easily be duplicated, and the firm held an important patent in this area. It is sometimes written that Welte invented the music roll, or even that the player piano was invented in 1887, but in truth, the Welte patent simply concerned the use of a music roll to control the playing of organ and orchestrion pipes.
Part of Welte's 1887 Patent, showing Organ Pipes controlled by a Paper Music Roll.
End of the Era
Orchestrions faded into history with the outbreak of the First World War. Society changed, both in the distribution of wealth, and through the introduction of new technology. The gramophone became the latest toy, and the radio, with its regular symphony concerts, was not far away. These days our transport systems allow most of us to hear live orchestras whenever we choose. Orchestrions can still be heard in museums, however, and, especially in the Netherlands and Belgium, the street organ survives as a tourist attraction, proving that Athanasius Kircher's ghost still walks the earth.
Street Organ manufactured by Gavioli - Paris, France, late 19th century.
Website Links and Other Sources of Information
Mechanical Music Press - Historical pages featuring Hupfeld, Philipps. Seeburg and Welte orchestrions.
Tim Trager's World of Mechanical Music - Photographs of mechanical musical instruments, including many orchestrions, mostly piano-based.
Kring van Draaiorgelvrienden - Dutch Street Organ Society website in English, Dutch and German - the best web resource on street organs.
Durward R. Center - Welte Orchestrien - Jahre der Fülle, in Aus Freiburg in die Welt - 100 Jahre Welte-Mignon, Exhibition Catalogue, Augustinermuseum, Freiburg, Germany, 2005.
Kurt Blessing - Die Familie Blessing und das Orchestrion, Degener & Co, Rothenburg o.d. Tauber, Germany, 1983.
Alexander Buchner - Vom Glockenspiel zum Pianola, Artia, Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1959.
Also translated as - Mechanical Musical Instruments, Batchworth Press, London, England, n.d.