rud 1Rudesheim is a little town on the banks of the Rhine in Germany, an hour west of Frankfurt. The population is officially 10,000 but the town is always crowded and busy; three million tourists visit annually and a big part of the attraction is Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Museum. Anyone interested in the reproduction of music, anyone who loves the interaction of cogs and wheels and levers and shafts, will regard this place as Valhalla on a carefully turned and polished stick.

Siegfried Wendel started the museum in 1969 after years of combing dumps for anything musical, from music boxes to massive orchestrions built for fairgrounds, and invested a lot more time getting it all working again. There is nothing electronic in here, it’s all steam or clockwork, some of it is hand-cranked. So it’s intensely mechanical with things that whir and reciprocate and pump lots of air, there are panels that open and close and figures that move in time to the music, and even seem to play it.

rud 2We’re ushered into the first gloriously vaulted, 15th century room by Rebecca, who speaks with such passion and love that I suspect she’s family. She throws the lever on a massive contraption of wood and pipes, belts, pulleys and drive wheels operating on what looks like a piano roll, and immediately puts her hands over her ears. We’re blasted with fairground music that takes me back to the circuses that set up in vacant paddocks in our town when I was a kid.

rud long The next machine, the Phonoliszt Violina, is flat-out astonishing. It looks like a pianola with a second story on top, and when Rebecca throws the lever it sounds like one too. Except there are strings coming in. At first I figure this is a modern device secreted somewhere to give the music a bit more ambience, but then she opens the curved doors of the second story. There are half a dozen violins in here mounted vertically, the bowing done by a revolving wheel, the fingering by little rounded plungers. Think hard about how all this coordinates so perfectly and your head hurts.

Siegfried’s big number is the massive, grandly ornate Puppet Orcestrcan that would occupy an entire wall of the average living room. It houses more than 30 figures, some holding song books, some with instruments, one is a stately woman making herself up in a mirror, and all of them move in time to music coming out of the cabinet. There’s piano, organ, strings, flutes, trombones, cymbals, maybe even a harp in there somewhere. It’s Loud.

rud 3I ask Rebecca how much something like this cost in 1888. As much as a large house she says. Clearly orchestrions did not come under the heading of home entertainment; they sold to sideshows, theatres and restaurants.

Polyphons (they play heavily perforated steel discs much like turntables play records) were more price-friendly and here they range from the size of grandfather clocks, only wider, to small enough to hide between the covers of a book, as one does. Edison phonographs operating both metal and wax cylinders have no amplification; the way to increase the volume is to affix a larger horn. One of the horns in here is more than a metre across. There are accordions everywhere.

rud 4The music boxes are exquisite, many with tiny, superbly detailed birds that flip up and sing their song until the spring runs down. Modern replicas, with much the same craftsmanship and detail, are for sale in the shop ranging from 1660 to 3400 euros, or about $2600 to $5300. There’s one singing bird that pops out of the barrel of a gun as the trigger is squeezed.

The best bit for me is Siegfried’s dusty workshop where everything has been repaired, restored and rejuvenated. It’s a wonderful collection of set squares, planes, chisels, mallets, lathes, hand drills and measures. I look hard and find just one power point.

Siegfried is a rock star in Rudesheim and I spot him in the street outside. He’s 80, enthusiastic and happy and tells me he wants to live until 2019 when his museum will be 50 years old. I hope he makes it.rud segPublished November 2015

 

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