Monday, July 13, 2009

Reminiscences of an Active Life #18 -- July 13, 2009

Doctor Peter Henri Van Der Weyde was born in Nymegen, Holland in 1813. He went on to live a remarkable life of achievement in the sciences and the arts. He died in America in 1895.

While serving as editor of Manufacturer and Builder Magazine, he wrote many articles, including the ones which gave this blog its name. In 1893 and 1894, he published a 23-part (!) memoir in the same periodical. Here is the eighteenth part. He continues to talk about his interest in music.

Elias P. Needham was an American inventor who created programmable musical devices which led to the player piano. The image shows a Needham Musical Cabinet.

I like Doctor Van Der Weyde's experiments like putting the paper in backwards. I would like to hear the "Hungarian Rhapsody" that way.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

Part Seven

Part Eight

Part Nine

Part Ten

Part Eleven

Part Twelve

Part Thirteen

Part Fourteen

Part Fifteen

Part Sixteen

Part Seventeen

Reminiscences of an Active Life.


From Manufacturer and Builder, Volume 26, Issue 7, July 1894

(Continued from page 133.)

9th. Career as an Musician.-- As explained before, in case there is a set of chimes in a church tower which automatically performs hourly, being driven by the mechanism of the clock, the tune they perform must be changed twice a year, and it is the duty of the organist to make this change.

The knowledge and the practice I had obtained in this kind of work was unexpectedly of great advantage to me after my arrival in the United States, especially in a financial way. The cause of this was that an invention had been made by the late E. P. Needham, which he applied as a substitute for a key-board to some of the melodeons he manufactured. In this way they could be played in an automatic manner by turning a crank, either by hand or with the feet, acting upon the pedals, which at the same time worked the bellows. When, at his invitation by letter, I came to see and hear his new device, I found that it was especially meritorious on account of its simplicity, and that it promised very great progress in the future. These expectations were, in the course of time, fully realized, as the invention has developed into the improved orchestrion, which can now be worked by strips of perforated paper in place of heavy, bulky barrels, which made the orchestrion, in fact, a colossal barrel organ.

Mr. Needham’s invention consisted of an elongated, narrow box, with holes in the top. Every hole was provided interiorly with a reed, which could be put in vibration by a current of air entering the hole. The extension of tones was two octaves of the diatomic scale; or fifteen tones, which, by my advice, he soon increased to twenty-five tones on two octaves of the chromatic scale, which increased enormously the capacity for rendering all kinds of music. A sheet of paper perforated with holes, was made to pass over the holes in the top of the box, which the paper closed up, as the bellows worked, by suction; when the sheet of paper was made to slide forward, and one or more of the holes in the paper came over the holes in the box, the air entered and sounded the corresponding reed, and in this way made it possible to cause a simple perforated sheet of paper to produce melody and harmony, when the holes in the paper were made in the right places.

The first music I heard performed on this instrument was "Old Hundred." This was somewhat defective in its harmonies, whereupon Mr. Needham gave me a sheet of paper, with the request to mark with a lead pencil the places where the holes ought to be made, in order to obtain a more perfect harmony. This was done, and, on hearing it, he requested me to attempt a popular song, such as "The Last Rose of Summer." After hearing this, he concluded to reproduce in this way the principal hymns of Moody and Sankey, who were then very popular, and attracted large audiences in the building now known as Madison Square Garden.

One hundred of these Moody and Sankey tunes were finished in one month, when a successful attempt was made to mark out overtures, operatic selections, sets of quadrilles, etc., some of the papers being more than fifty feet long, and making a very respectable bundle.

The highest artistic effort was to mark out an extract of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, in which not only the slow movement, but also the majestic finale, turned out to be especially successful – of course, considering the simple means by which it was produced.

Several new experiments were made, such as composing a waltz in imagination and marking it on the paper, and after the holes had been cut, hearing it for the first time, Mr. Needham liked it so much that he called it "The Needham Musical Cabinet Waltz."

Mr. Needham then furnished me with such an instrument with which to make musical experiments at my house, which I did to the great amusement of my musical friends as well as of myself. For instance, when running the paper backward a piece of music could be tested how it would sound when played in that way; then the effect was simply ridiculous. The paper also could be placed upside down, when the bass notes were heard in the treble, and the inverted melody was in the bass. This was more ridiculous still, especially when the tunes were simple, well-known melodies.

Experience proved that when the music was simple, it made an enormous difference, and sounded very complex and difficult to understand. There were a few pieces in which it made little difference which way the paper was moved, backward or forward, or upside down, it was all the same -- it sounded always very complicated, learned and classical, as some of my friends called it. One of such pieces in which it made no difference if the paper was run in the opposite direction as originally intended, was a Hungarian rhapsody by Lizt. This piece, whether it was played upside down or backward, made the same very complicated effect upon ordinary ears. Such experiments are only possible with the system of perforated paper, and would, of course, be utterly impossible with a barrel organ.

One remarkable composition gave very great satisfaction; it was a fugue by one of the old classical composers (Scarlatti, I believe). In order to do justice to the spirit which prevailed in it, it had to be played in a very rapid tempo, and this was almost impossible for a player except with extraordinary long, patient practice. When the paper was once prepared, it was, of course, just as easy to play it fast as to play it slowly, and the experiment gave me great satisfaction, as with a very rapid motion the effect was surprisingly fine and spirited, which was just what I had reason to expect.

Mr. Needham then soon printed a catalogue, and sold many of these rollers at prices differing in proportion to their length.

(To be Continued.)

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