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MMD > Archives > December 2003 > 2003.12.24 > 01Prev  Next

What's an Orchestrion?
By Andrew Barrett

My Definition of "Orchestrion"

Hello all,  I have been reading with interest this thread about the
definition of the word "orchestrion".  I was surprised that few people
mentioned the exhaustive definition mentioned in Bowers' Encyclopedia.
I do not have my copy handy right now so I cannot give it to you.
However, I can give you my own definition which I hope is similar.

  Orchestrion n. a self-contained automatic musical instrument based
  around a piano or a pipe or reed organ, containing drums/percussion
  and intended for indoor use.  Most orchestrions were intended to
  imitate some type of orchestra, hence the name.

Let's address all of these points individually.

First of all is the basic word orchestrion.  I have seen some people
spell (and pronounce) it orchestrian, or maybe orchestion (without the
r).  I think both of these variations are wrong, but I would appreciate
input from anyone else who has noticed other spelling variations.

 [ The word is consistently spelled "orchestrion" in "Encyclopedia of
 [ Automatic Musical Instruments", by Q. David Bowers.  On page 345
 [ is given the earliest known use of the word, in "The Story of the
 [ Organ" by C.F. Abdy Williams:
 [ "In 1789 the Abbe Vogler, at that time chapel-master to the king
 [ of Sweden, exhibited at Amsterdam an organ on a new principle, the
 [ invention of which had occupied him for many years.  It had the
 [ power of crescendo and diminuendo, by means of swell shutters, and
 [ although its size was so small that it could easily be carried from
 [ place to place, it had four keyboards of more than five octaves, and
 [ a pedal clavier of 39 notes.  He gave it the name of 'orchestrion',
 [ and after exhibiting it at Amsterdam, brought it to London in 1790,
 [ where he was engaged to build an organ for the Pantheon on his new
 [ system..."
 [ -- Robbie

Secondly, the phrase "self-contained".  By this I mean that no parts of
the instrument are exposed (except the keyboard and controls, if present),
and it is usually contained in one case.  The exceptions to the one-case
rule are large keyboardless Hupfeld, Weber, etc. orchestrions.  These
often have one or more small cases on each end of the main case.  These
house roll storage, percussion, and sometimes large bass pipes, and are
usually referred to as "side-wings".

Dance organs are often contained in several cases, too, but since every
single dance organ I have seen has some exposed parts, from a single
accordion all the way up to 3 accordions, 2 saxophones, a drum set, and
several ranks of pipes, it cannot qualify.

Thirdly, the phrase "based around a piano or a pipe or reed organ".  Is
to disqualify music-box type instruments, using a disc or cylinder and
containing drums, such as the so-called "orchestra boxes" , and things
like certain Polyphon, Symphonion, and Lochmann disc boxes, which
contain musical combs and also percussion?

The reason for this is because the only hand-played musical instrument
whose tone resembles a music box is the celeste, (a keyboard instrument
which uses felt piano-type hammers to strike metal bars with resonators,
similar to the theatre organ chrysoglott.) While a celeste is often
used as a solo instrument with a symphony orchestra, it is by no means
an instrument for an orchestra to be based around.  Thus, it is more
accurate to call an orchestrion a player piano or a barrel organ than
a music box.

Fourth, the reason I include "containing drums/percussion" is because
drums are what complete the orchestra.  They give the extra snap and
bounce to the already full arrangements played by the piano/organ,
xylophone (if present), etc.  A good player piano or coin piano may
make you want to tap your foot, but the drums in an orchestrion are
what make people get up and dance, at least in some American

In European instruments, especially those by Phillips and Hupfeld, the
roll arranger is more inclined to try to make the instrument sound as
realistic as possible, rather than just pour out "hot" music.  In this
case, a subtle tympani roll or a sudden cymbal crash serves to heighten
the drama of serious music, and in hot jazz and dance music, soft and
loud percussion expression add to the realism.

As to the violin-playing machines, I would consider the Hupfeld Violina
orchestra (which contained drums in addition to pipes and the piano and
violins) more of an orchestrion than the basic Phonoliszt-Violina.  The
same goes for a Mills Violano-Virtuoso with a drum box rather than just
by itself.

Fifth and lastly, the orchestrion is an indoor instrument, and except
for one series I am aware of (the Welte Brass Band orchestrions), it
was never originally intended for use outdoors.  Both the piano-less
orchestrions and the dance organs built by Mortier, Decap, Bursens,
etc., were meant to be used indoors, but one is an organ and the other
is an orchestrion.

Operators built both the model K Coinola (with piano, mandolin, and
two ranks of pipes) and the model C-2 (with piano, mandolin, flute
pipes and drums) into the same identical case, but one is a coin piano
and the other is an orchestrion.  Barrel pianos and organs are only
orchestrions if they have percussion and are meant to be used indoors,
otherwise they are street pianos (or organs).  The list goes on and on.

As to photoplayers, which seem to fit all of the criteria here, I refer
you to the excellent article by Mr. Art Reblitz in 031222 MMDigest
(Dec. 22, 2003) proving they are different.  For an easier to understand,
more detailed definition, I refer you to Mr. Robbie Rhodes' article in
031223 MMDigest (Dec. 23, 2003).

I hope my contribution puts to rest any conflicting arguments.  I do
not intend the above to be gospel, since it is just my two cents'

Andrew Barrett

 [ Andrew performs at ragtime music meets in Southern California and
 [ plays several instruments in the high school band, including
 [ percussion.  I hope someday he will take up arranging music for
 [ mechanical musical instruments.  -- Robbie

(Message sent Wed 24 Dec 2003, 19:32:43 GMT, from time zone GMT-0800.)

Key Words in Subject:  an, Orchestrion, What's

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