From the Library: Mechanical Music

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by Elrik Merlin on Thursday, 26 March, 2009

The days before the gramophone and the radio were still filled with music. Not only did people perform for each other at home in the parlour, or go out for an evening’s entertainment to the dance-hall or music-hall; the ears of our Victorian antecedents were also assailed by musical performances from ‘recorded’ sources, though not in the manner we experience today.

In the pub, the equivalent of juke boxes, mechanical instruments like the Symphonion, would take a coin in the slot and play often quite complex arrangements from one or more discs carrying a pattern of pins or holes allowing mechanical or pneumatic contrivances to play the notes. Some people had instruments like this – essentially large and complex musical boxes – at home.

Out in the street, alongside the cacophony of horse-drawn traffic and early motor vehicles mingled the sounds of more mechanical instruments, from the barrel piano and street organ, which operated on a similar principle to that already described (the “barrel” was the rotating element carrying pins that played the notes) to the great steam-powered organs (or Calliopes) found at funfairs, which generally used reams of linked cards with slots in them that passed through a “card reader” allowing compressed air (not steam: the steam engine just drove the mechanics) to pass through and play the music – not only via pipes but also driving percussion instruments that clanged, thumped, rattled and chimed.

You will hear music from all these kinds of instruments today, playing traditional tunes of the period in a programme that evokes the sounds of the Victorian age.

In addition we will be featuring the music of one of’s artists, Professor Armchair, aka Glen Bledsoe, who plays (among other things) tunes of the early 20th century on modern electronic instruments in a style very much reminiscent of these mechanical devices, and with an excellent sense of humour, on his album Too Much Mustard.

I’ve also left the music of Brassworks, included in yesterday’s Steampunk programme, in today’s playlist and added some Strauss waltzes, for an additional Victorian atmosphere.

From the Library is produced in conjunction with the Caledon Library; today’s programme was produced by Elrik Merlin. You can listen to it on our Main Stream as follows:

If you want to have the Radio Riel Main Stream playing on your parcel, please set the media music URL to:

If you want to listen off-world, simply click here.


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