top of page

Exploring Music: Irresistible "Mechanical Opera"

The MHS Review 388 Vol. 11 No.10, 1987

click on the cover to return to the table of contents

David M. Greene


not yet released.png

Mechanical opera! I thought this might be one of several performances I've en­countered at the Met in recent years, but it turns out to be opera bits and pieces rendered by various kinds of music boxes and a 48-note penny-in-the-slot piano. These instruments come from the private collections of two Englishmen, Roy Mickleburgh and Tony Sherriff. Some years ago CBS issued a similar record from the Rita Ford collection. And it was Rita Ford who rehabilitated my prized cylinder music box. Or at least someone on her staff did.

I use the first person possessive, although it really belongs to Cousin Annie or her heirs, if any. Cousin Annie was one of several orphaned relatives whom my maternal grandmother took under her wing, her own brood of eight being insuf­ficient. Cousin Annie (whom I never set eyes on) came from South Carolina and so did the music box--from the jewelry emporium of R.B. Henneman of Greenwood. By the time I came along, Cousin Annie had gone her ways and the music box, in disrepair, had been relegated to the attic, along with my grandfather's Knight Templar regalia, and a box of miscellaneous human bones, the property of one of several medical uncles. I spent many a childhood hour playing incriminately with all three items.

The music box is designated, in a fine Victorian hand, as a Harp Harmonic Piccolo, no 794. It measures 27x10x8. The top is beautifully inlaid with a design of musical instruments and foliage. The mechanism, spring-driven, might be described as a brush and comb. The comb, which lies flat lengthwise in the front of the chest, is gradated, narrowing from left to right, and its teeth are what produce the musical sounds. The ''brush'' is a spine­studded brass cylinder of equal length (16' '). When it turns the spines pluck the teeth of the comb, producing really love­ly music. At the end of the selection the cylinder shifts a fraction of an inch, bring­ing a new set of spines in line for the next number.

There are 10 tunes in all, neatly catalog­ed in the same meticulous hand. The titles are still clear, though the composers' names, done in different ink, have faded almost to illegibility. Some titles are cryp­tic: "Mignon," for instance, turns out to be the aria "Connais-tu le pays?" from Thomas' opera, which, with my mother's piano performance of the ''Anvil Chorus,'' constituted my whole acquaintance with opera before adolescence. The rest are waltzes, folksongs, operetta selections, and such. Strauss' "Wiener Blut" is familiar, but what is his "Autographe?" What is "Volunteers," which appears to be by O. Metra? Who was the Schulhoff who con­tributed a "Grande Valse Brillante"? Was "Only a Pansy Blossom" really popular? And what, pray, is "Olivette Wedding"?

In its years in the attic, something had mashed down a section of teeth in the master gear, and the cylinder could be got past that point only by manually spinning the governor. When my mother unloaded the farm in the mid-1950s, she sold all our possessions at auction without a by-your-­leave, but my father spirited old no. 794 away and hid it in his barn. By the time he died the spring was gone, but Ms. Ford's mechanic managed to make the whole thing good as new and it now plays beautifully.

What boggles my mind is that there are people who spend a career sticking pins in­to cylinders to make music. Such people must not only be deft and precise; they must also be sound musicians. And then there are others ( or maybe the same ones) who make a living arranging music for music boxes. Fascinating! The present record is not devoted merely to familiar chestnuts, but covers a wide and sometimes surprising repertoire. The sound is lifelike and the music irresistible.

bottom of page