Look, no hands

Violana, Musical Museum, Brentford (detail)

Violana, Musical Museum, Brentford (detail)

A couple of hundred yards down the road from the London Museum of Water & Steam (formerly Kew Bridge Steam Museum) stands the modernist home of the Musical Museum, Brentford: http://www.musicalmuseum.co.uk.

This rich collection of mechanical musical instruments deserves at least a couple of hours.

I was taken round by Ron, who’s been involved in collecting these intricate and temperamental machines for six decades. He’s a mine of information, and tells you more if you ask relevant questions.

The collection, which was started in 1963 by Frank Holland MBE (1910-89) as the British Piano Museum, extends from tiny clockwork musical boxes, through barrel organs and player pianos to vast orchestrions – pipe-organs that were designed to reproduce the effects of a full orchestra.

I learned a lot. A pianola, for example, was not an entire musical instrument but rather the interface between the player roll and the keyboard of a piano or organ.

Eventually the recording of performances became sufficiently sophisticated to reproduce the playing of great musicians. Ron allowed us to listen to Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumble Bee’ on a grand piano.

A particularly fascinating rarity on show is the violana (or violano), a mechanical violin-player which self-rosinates: http://www.jonroseweb.com/f_projects_violano.html.

The Brentford collection also covers sound recordings from the earliest phonographs onwards. I learned that the only way to quieten the sort of machine that Nipper the dog listened to was, literally, to put a sock in it.

The climax of this collection of mechanical music-making is a mighty Wurlitzer, formerly installed in the Regal Cinema, Kingston-on-Thames. Now it is installed in an upstairs theatre, where it can be hooked to a paper-roll player.

One of the participants in the visit I joined was an accomplished Wurlitzer player, who gave us a quick tour of the instrument.

The Wurlitzer is hired out for £30.00 an hour – an ideal Christmas present for an organist: http://www.musicalmuseum.co.uk/page/30-wurlitzer.

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