LIKE SEVERAL of the larger automatic instruments, the Orchestrion has a strong physical presence with its dark varnished wood and height of around thirteen feet. I expect it to play something sternly inspiring like Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, but the open panel in the front shows it's set up for The Pirates of Penzance. Owen had said these machines were meant for entertainment rather than the solitary brooding of a Captain Nemo.
"It's really a pipe organ with a few percussions," Owen says. "It's got a triangle, a tambourine, some drums, and several ranks or sets of pipes. But all voiced to sound like an orchestra, the orchestra in the corner of your living room."
A brass plate inside names the makers as Imhof & Mukle of 110 New Oxford Street. "They made some very fine instruments. When I was a boy there was a firm in New Oxford Street which sold the best hi-fis in London called Imhof's. Exactly the same firm at the same address and this was in their showroom as an example of their past era in mechanical music."
"They were not good at keeping up with the times and they went bankrupt in the early 1970s when we acquired this. They had a catalogue of maybe eight to ten different models of these orchestrions and they did some for cafes as well as making barrel pianos. We've had several descendants of Old Man Imhof come into the museum who said how he always thought electronics was a passing fad and how mechanical music would come back."
I point out the wooden cassette loaded inside for The Pirates of Penzance. Owen nods: "The music rolls on this are made from a fairly tough cardboard. They each play for about ten or fifteen minutes. We've got fifty or so cassettes and virtually all the tunes are popular stage musicals. There are a couple of selections of American waltzes and folk tunes, and Gilbert and Sullivan, all the top shows of the day. That's what the owners wanted to hear, some fun music in the corner of their living room, and not really what we'd call classical music."
"We have a lovely advert from 1905 of Adelina Patti's home in Wales, Craig y Nos. She had one of these in her billiard room and the story always was that, after dinner, she'd use the orchestrion to accompany her so she could singer the popular tunes of the day to her guests. Whether they wanted it or not, I suspect."