Mechanical Organs

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

An ‘automaton’ is a mechanical device (no electronics!) that generally does something humans would normally do. The word first appears in Homer in the 5th century B.C.E. (referring to automatically opening doors), and the ancient Greeks were quite adept at designing and building machines, including siphons, a fire engine, a rudimentary pipe organ, the ‘aeolipile’ — a simple steam turbine, and the ‘Antikythera mechanism’ — a mechanical analog computer used to predict eclipses and other astronomical phenomena.

During the Dark Ages in the West when everyone was struggling just to survive, the Arabic world kept interest in automata alive (and so much other learning in general). With the Renaissance interest in them revived — ferinstance, da Vinci. But they remained occasional curiosities until Frederick the Great in the 18th century, who had a real passion for them. (That, and the ever improving technology in machining made them increasingly easier to construct.) With the King’s interest, automata went viral: We have ‘The Flute Player’, invented by the French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson in 1737. He also constructed the ‘Digesting Duck’, a mechanical duck that gave the false illusion of eating and then, well, um… And in 1769, a chess-playing machine called ‘the Turk’, created by Wolfgang von Kempelen, made the rounds of the courts of Europe purporting to be an automaton — a fraud however, as it concealed a human player inside. Other 18th century automaton makers include the prolific Frenchman Pierre Jaquet-Droz, a Swiss mechanic, who created an automaton capable of drawing four pictures and writing three poems, and Belgian-born John Joseph Merlin who created the ‘Silver Swan’ automaton.

And of course inventors automated musical instruments, and composers of the day availed themselves of the opportunity for an easy buck (or gulden as the case may be) — even Beethoven wrote an eminently forgettable piece for mechanical orchestra. The organ, however, already being mechanical, was a natural for adding a player mechanism. Handel, Haydn, W.F. Bach (J.S.’s eldest) all wrote for the mechanical organ. As did Mozart — the composer of this morning’s prelude.