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The MHS Review 411, VOL. 12, NO.15• 1988

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Paul Kresh


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Long before the invention of the phonograph-as far back as the 15th century--there were attempts to preserve music by mechanical means. From the simplest of music boxes to the elaborate panharmonicon of the early 19th century, which was meant to simulate the sound of an entire orchestra, every sort of device was tried--automatic organs, percussion instruments, banjos, harps, accordions, even automatic violins and cellos, and, ultimately, the player piano.

Many a composer wrote music especially for these magical mechanical instruments; but the fact is that although many collec­tors harbor remarkable examples from the late 19th century, very few have survived from the baroque and classical periods, and of these not a great many are in condition to be played. Numbers of them in German and Austrian museums were destroyed dur­ing World War II. The last mechanical in­strument for which Beethoven composed was destroyed in Stuttgart, while during the occupation of Vienna by the Russians there disappeared one of the organs for which Haydn had written music.

In their heyday, the automatic in­struments of Europe became so sophisticated that the greatest composers were drawn to invent pieces for them. And some of that music can be heard in this unusual album, despite the fact that none of the mechanical instruments any of it was composed for are still in existence! Gone is the elaborate clockwork, the metal pins hammered into wooden cylinders to press levers set to strike bells, pluck strings, let air into organ pipes. Gone are the punch­ed cards that later programmed much mechanically played music. And even the instruments that remain are for the most part no longer in playing condition.

How was it possible, then, to put together this program of pieces specifical­ly composed for mechanical instruments that no longer exist? For on the recording one can actually hear such sounds as were made by cylinder organs, clockwork flutes and harps, mechanical clarinets, musical clocks, and even the famous panhar­monicon. The answer is computers, musical computers that can re-create those lost sounds much as a word processor sends electrical signals that represent let­ters of the alphabet.

The whole thing was put together by two performer-programmers: Christopher Light, an economist and writer as well as computer programmer; and David Kraehenbuehl, a retired music professor who studied music under Hindemith. The pieces were re-created by a "Macintosh SE computer programmed to operate a Se­quential Prophet 2002 sampler and a Yamaha TX81Z FM tone generator." Other than that, the technicalities are well beyond my understanding. In any case, the concern has been more with a musical re­creation than with absolute duplication of the sounds of the original instruments.

As for the music itself, although it was meant to be played by automatic mechanical instruments, there is nothing automatic or mechanical about it. C.P.E. Bach's set of pieces--an Allegro for cylinder organ, a Minuet for clockwork flute and harp, an Adagio for mechanical clarinet, and a Presto for clockwork harp--are graceful, tuneful works on a par with his baroque best.

Beethoven's three pieces for clockwork instruments bear the stamp of his vigorous style, and his original version of "Well­ington's Victory at Vittoria" for panhar­monicon, which later became the second part of his piece for full orchestra celebrating Wellington's victory over Napoleon, abounds in dash and color. Handel's set of four tunes for musical clock, Cherubini's Sonata for cylinder organ, and Haydn's four pieces for the "ur­ban organ" also display their composers' unmistakably individual signatures.

In all, an intriguing program as well as a remarkable job of technical and musical reconstruction.

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