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Magical, Mechanical and Musical!

Updated on March 23, 2018
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A bibliophile, travel and technology enthusiast dabbling in IT

Experiencing Siegfried's Mechanical Music Cabinet

One man's hobby of restoring vintage mechanized musical instruments has led to a delightful experience for thousands of tourists visiting Rudesheim. This hub looks at this niche museum and the historical building that hosts it.

Meandering through Germany ..

Last year, I embarked on a European cruise on the river Rhine. One of the ports that we visited was Rudesheim a quaint wine making town which is part of the Unesco World Heritage Site - Rhine Gorge. We had just finished with Strasbourgh and been awed by the Gothic architecture of the Cathedral (this incidentally houses a magnificent astronomical clock), the timber framed buildings of Petit France, the numerous gardens and the various seats of major European institutions. We had also had an engaging stopover at Heidelberg visiting the magnificent castle overlooking the Neckar river.

Rudesheim chose to amaze us in an entirely different way. We visited Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet which turned out to be the most charming highlight of the entire trip.

Photo by Jacquesverlaeken licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Photo by Jacquesverlaeken licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

This is a museum displaying automated musical instruments housed in Brömserhof, a knight's manor of the 15thcentury. The building itself is worth the visit – it was the family seat of the Brömser family rebuilt and extended over centuries into a Renaissance-style and Baroque-style castle including two rooms on the upper floor with wall and ceiling paintings.

Photo by Jacquesverlaeken licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Photo by Jacquesverlaeken licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

There are 32 coats of arms adorning the vaulted ceiling. They show the coats of arms of five ancestor generations of the Brömser family.

Photo by Michael Kramer licensed under  the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.
Photo by Michael Kramer licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

On the walls of the room there are two large-format pictures from the Jonah legend, but the events were relocated to the Rhine (the urban silhouettes of Rüdesheim and Mainz are seen in the background. Additionally, the two rooms show stylized naturalistic plant and animal representations, including fantasy and mythical figures such as fauns and grotesques. Interestingly, the walls and ceilings were painted over with a gray glue paint in the 19th century, ostensibly to protect them as the room was being used as a storage facility and were rediscovered in 1898 when a repainting was attempted, and subsequently restored.

Since 1975, the Brömserhof has been home to Siegfried's Mechanical Music Cabinet, a museum of mechanical musical instruments. The museum operator Siegfried Wendel opened it in October 1969 in Hochheim am Rhein. In 1973, this moved to Rüdesheim in the building of the former wine cooperative. However, increasing numbers of visitors and the gradual growth of the collection led to the need for larger premises, so that the museum had to move again after only two years. This time it found a permanent home in Brömserhof. The exhibition deals with the history of self-playing musical instruments and today presents around 350 exhibits from three centuries, from the music box to the fairground organ and the massive orchestrion.

The science behind the self-playing instruments

The self-playing instruments have songs recorded as perforations in paper tape.

Photo by Immanuel Giel, released into public domain
Photo by Immanuel Giel, released into public domain

The holes are in a series of patterns indicating musical notes. There are also ways of “dynamics” being notated – sometimes towards the edge of the rolls. The notated dynamics will vary based on the target instrument.

There is a tracker bar which is used to read the pattern of holes and there follows a mechanized way of creating the corresponding musical note on the machine. The speed at which the music plays is also controlled by notations.

I personally, instantly traveled back in time to my college days to my History of Computers class where we learned about ancient computers taking input via paper tape – this in essence, was a close cousin, but it was something that is being demonstrated every day at this museum.

The multitude of instruments

Coming to the instruments themselves, we had quite a few demonstrations. The smallest was a snuff box with a musical songbird dating to the 19th century. These were apparently novelties for the rich – the more dainty the box and the bird and the more lifelike the music, the more expensive the box would be.

Bernhard Duffner’s band of 27 automated dolls each holding a different instrument – ostensibly the largest such automaton of its type.

Several gramophones in pristine working condition playing voices from bygone times. There was one which operated with a disk that could be played only once and then had to be thrown away.

Fairground/carnival organs – from the large one shown in the picture below, to the smaller hand-cranked boxes. Few of the display items were built by the Bruder brothers from Germany who were world-class organ builders with well-crafted mechanisms, highly ornate facades and excellently orchestrated music.

Photo by Michael Clarke licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo by Michael Clarke licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Several self-playing pianos (also called player-pianos or pianolas) playing well-known musical pieces.

The Phonoliszt Violina with six self-playing violins where the bow is replaced by a revolving wheel and fingering by little rounder plungers. This is really the most magnificent piece of art in the museum – it is difficult to believe that the harmonious orchestration comes from an automaton! For a bit of history – this particular Hupfeld Violina dates to the early 20th century and was called the “Eighth wonder of the world” for the automation of the violins. The orchestrion (as it is called to signify a combination of instruments) includes the violin set and a piano playing music off a paper roll.


Photo by nikoretro licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo by nikoretro licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

One can only admire Siegfried Wendel, whose hobby in the 1960s was to rescue and restore these amazing instruments. He has then turned it into this nostalgic museum that has every visitor finding something amazing and remarkable.

Your ears will be all eyes

— Front page of the SMMK webpage

© 2018 Saisree Subramanian

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