Mechanical Organs

Andante for Mechanical Organ (K616)  W. Mozart (1756-1791)

New Years Day in essence celebrates nothing more than the passage of time, climaxing with millions of people watching a really big clock sound midnight (in New York City’s Time Square for example). So I thought ‘clocks’ and a curious connection they have with music might make an appropriate topic for today.

Clocks are one of humanity’s earliest inventions, beginning with sundials, hourglasses and water clocks dating from at least 16 centuries before Christ (which worked on a constricted stream of water flowing from one vessel to another — refill and repeat). A major advance occurred in Europe around 1300 with the invention of the escapement, which allowed construction of the first mechanical clocks. Galileo (1564–1642) used simple pendulums to measure intervals of time for his physics experiments, and eminent Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695) took that idea to the next level by working out the physics of pendulums themselves and inventing the pendulum clock in 1656 (e.g. the tall ‘grandfather clock’).

It turns out that clocks can be critically helpful for navigation at sea. Although it is relatively easy to determine how far north/south you are by how high the North Star appears in the night sky (if you’re in the northern hemisphere), determining where you are east/west can be done with a very accurate clock — which must keep highly accurate time on sometimes violently pitching ships at sea (so pendulum clocks won’t work). After all, knowing whether that rocky coast is 100 miles away or only 10 makes a big difference!

And so it came to pass that England’s national goal of “Britannia rules the waves” kept running aground with her ships constantly sinking due to wildly inaccurate east/west positioning — resulting in enormous loss of life, ships and cargo. Consequently in 1714 Parliament established a prize of £20,000 (about $3 million today) for a suitable clock, and John Harrison (1693–1776) devoted his life to solving the problem. In a sea trial in 1736 his first version was 60 miles more accurate (!) than the previous clock-less method. (His design was to undergo four more major improvements.)

Harrison was of course not the only one working on improving clocks: with dramatically improving machining and mechanical engineering (and the beginnings of precision mass production), mechanical devices including clocks were really coming into their own. And so it was that in the latter half of the 18th century that mechanical musical instruments, clocks, and combinations thereof were becoming all the rage. Eminent composers of the day cashed in on the craze by writing music for them.

Including Mozart, who wrote three such pieces, including the one featured in this morning’s prelude. Scholars still debate who commissioned the piece: one prominent theory is that it was commissioned by Müller — formerly Count Deym von Střítež, who had fled from Vienna after a duel in which he killed his opponent and had recently returned under an alias. Count Dyem built a neo-classical mausoleum containing a glass coffin with a wax effigy of himself inside, and the mausoleum housed a large mechanical clock/organ for which he commissioned Mozart to write music.

Mozart apparently wasn’t very enthusiastic about the project, writing to his wife in September 1790: “I had made up my mind to write the adagio for the clockmaker right away and slip a few ducats in my dear wife’s hands; I did start — but unfortunately, because I hate the job, I wasn’t able to finish it. I write some every day — but have to postpone as I get bored — and surely, if there wasn’t such an important reason to force myself, I would certainly leave off.”

Apparently the need for grocery money prevailed. Meanwhile, for whatever reason, it seems that Count Deym later had the instrument dismantled, and its cylinders containing Mozart’s music have been lost in the mists of time. Fortunately Mozart’s manuscript survived.