Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Music From the Past That Captures Your Heart

QUESTION: I’m now the proud owner of a beautiful 19th-century music box that has been handed down for generations ever since my great-grandfather owned it. It’s a real beauty and still plays. I can tell it needs service, but I have no idea where to take it. The type of box I have has a metal cylinder inside with little pins stuck into it. As it turns, the mechanism plucks the pins to produce the music. I also have several different cylinders for it. On the inside of the lid is a label that says “Made by Nicole Freres of Geneva, Switzerland.” What can you tell me about my music box? Also, can you tell me where I should take it to be serviced?

ANSWER: You have a unique cylinder music box made by the prestigious Geneva company of Nicole Freres in 1862. This particular music box reproduces the sound of a piano forte using a two-comb movement, combined with a two-per-turn format on its larger cylinder that enables it to play a dozen operatic tunes with elegant sound. The musical mechanism sits in a beautiful rosewood case with intricate inlays.

When people think of mechanical music, most think of music boxes. The early ones like the one you have appeared at the beginning of the 19th century and lasted until about the time of World War I. However, people tend to lump all types of mechanical music devices into the general music box category. What you have is far beyond the type used in jewelry boxes and other novelties. It’s the forerunner of the phonograph and of all the other music players on the market today.

Mechanical music is a live performance of music, played by a machine, without any human intervention, except for winding it up, plugging it in, or turning it off. The invention of mechanical music devices allowed people to enjoy music before electricity, when the only option was to attend a live performance or to create their own music.

Mechanical music goes back to the 14th century, with the invention of the carillon, which automatically played music on tuned bells actuated by hammers on levers by way of a pinned drum. Primarily used in churches to play hymns, the drum could be programmed to play different song selections by moving the pins from one location to another.

The mechanical pipe organ appeared in the 15th century. This instrument, through valves actuated by pins on the drum, allowed selected pipes to play organ music mechanically. During the 16th century, the mechanical pipe organ gained widespread popularity in Europe, and soon expanded beyond churches and public buildings. It became a must-have novelty for aristocratic society. Eventually, cabinetmakers built   desks and cabinets to encase carillons or pipe organs. These mechanical devices became so trendy for the well-to-do that heeled that famous musicians of the day, including Beethoven, Handel and Mozart, actually wrote pieces specifically for them.

It wasn’t until the late 18th century that mechanical music experienced any change. In 1796, Antoine Favre, a Geneva clockmaker, patented a device to make carillons play without bells or hammers. His invention paved the way for cylinder boxes, which had a comb of hard steel with a series of teeth or tiny  tuning forks, which graduated from long and thick to short and thin. Pins placed on a rotating cylinder, which when moved laterally, plucked these teeth and produced different tunes.

Clockmakers began constructing cylinder boxes in the late 18th century and continued making them well into the late 19th century. Over time, the mechanical music industry saw many advances in technology. Eventually, they developed over 20 different musical effects by changing the size, placement, tuning, and arrangement of the pins on the cylinder. Most cylinder boxes reproduce music of either a mandolin or a piano forte. The first produces a softer more folksy sound while the second produces a louder bolder sound simulating an early piano. Most mandolin cylinder music boxes played only 4 to 6 tunes while the piano forte version played 12.

And although the cylinder music box revolutionized the mechanical music industry, it had its limitations.  While interchangeable cylinders allowed for the playing of different tunes, it was a cumbersome process to change them. In the late 1880s, all that changed with the introduction in Germany of the disc musical box. This revolutionized the industry because instead of the slow and delicate process of inserting pins in cylinders, the discs could be stamped out by machine. Also, it was easy for people to change the discs on the machines, making it possible for them to hear the latest tunes.

While the 19th century also saw the development of many other forms of mechanical music, none could hold their own against the evolution of the phonographic record player and by the 1920s, interest in music boxes had subsided.

What makes mechanical music devices unique is their blend of art, history, music, and mechanics. Although they can’t be compared to other collectibles, condition, rarity and market demand still affect the price. They also take a good deal of maintenance to keep them running well and, thus, enabling them to hold their value. Only a professional music box restoration expert can make sure that a box is kept in good condition. However, finding one may be a challenge but worth it since a cylinder box in excellent condition can sell for four figures.

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