I wasn’t sure what to expect from my visit to London’s Musical Museum, home to one of the world’s largest collections of mechanical musical instruments, but the phrase ‘giddy excitement’ seems appropriate. Like being let loose in a sweet shop as a child. This beautiful collection of self-playing instruments – collected from all over the world – is a real pleasure. Made all the better when listeing to these exquisite contraptions play live music. There are also recordings to listen to.
The museum is small but has a fabulous array of exotic self-playing instruments. There are pianola, pianos, violins, Hammond organs, Reed organs, theremins, gramophones, jukeboxes and much more. The names of the instruments are evocative of another age. Pianos on display include the Steck Duo Art, Steinwat Welte-Mignon and Chickering Ampico Model B; not to mention the Welte ‘Vorsetzer’, a remarkable ‘instrument’ which looks like a piece of furniture but plays an ordinary piano when rolled into place over the keyboard.
Within the three display rooms there is everything from tiny clockwork boxes to the museum’s pride and joy, a fully functioning Mighty Wurlitzer sat in a concert hall. I was lucky enough to hear it played live. If that wasn’t exciting enough, the Mighty Wurlitzer is an over-the-top art deco delight, complete with illuminated side panels which change colour from deep red to ice blue. This wonderful ‘instrument’ is connected by two thousand electrical wires to a room housing organ pipes and wind chests.
There are ordinary organs, most regularly encountered in churches; and then there are Mighty Wurlitzers, the pipe organ designed to imitate an entire orchestra. Fitted out with multiple keyboards, peddles and stop keys, it has percussion and special effects. On a Mighty Wurlitzer a person can play a piece of orchestral music – imitating trumpets, symbols, clarinets and violins – or mimic a train leaving a station, a galloping horse or the crashing of ocean waves.
Hearing a Mighty Wurlitzer in action is to be transported back to an age of concert halls and silent films. The Mighty Wurlitzer peaked in popularity in the 1920s and 30s, and was designed to accompany silent films, providing both an orchestral and sound effect soundtrack. The Musical Museum occasionally shows silent films with the Mighty Wurlitzer accompanying the on-screen action, which must be a wonderful experience – especially as it sits on a lift which raises it onto the stage and takes it down again.
Most of the larger instruments are operated by rolls of musical paper. The music is stored as perforations in the paper, these are read by the mechanism inside the machine which plays the correct notes. The first music roll was used commercially in 1883 in the USA. A pianist would play on a special piano that would mark a roll of paper as they played – a recording – this was then mass produced on machines in factories. The museum has two of these machines to show how the rolls were produced.
Many of the instruments were used in private homes – this was the way the wealthy middle class listened to music – others were in commercial settings. Dance halls, cafes and restaurants had them, as a result they have coin slots where people would pay for a tune. Our guide fumbled around getting an old 1p coin out of a mug, then sliding it into the coin slot he brought to life a machine that played two violins and a piano. We could see the entire workings as it played a popular 1900s tune: paper rolls going round and small wheels lowered onto the violin strings. Absolutely wonderful.
It is a privilege to see, and hear, so many working examples of such wonderful mechanical instruments. Unfortunately, the Musical Museum receives little funding and is only open three days each week. It is staffed by volunteers, many of whom are expert craftspeople who undertake repairs and maintenance on the instruments. It’s a small museum – which takes an hour or so to visit – and the £10 entry might seem a bit steep, but listening to the Mighty Wurlitzer in full voice makes £10 seem cheap.