Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reminiscences of an Active Life #20 -- September 24, 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 twentieth part. He continues to talk about his interest in music.

The steam-powered calliope was the high-tech musical instrument of its day.

I assume the great exposition in Philadelphia was the 1876 Centennial Exposition.

The Roosevelt Brothers, Hillborne and Frank, were famous builders of large organs.

The image comes from the Library of Congress' wonderful American Memory site ( LC-USZ62-76492, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago Historical Society. It appeared in Harper's Weekly, 12-May-1866.

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

Part Eighteen

Part Nineteen

Reminiscences of an Active Life.


From Manufacturer and Builder, Volume 26, Issue 9, September 1894

(Continued from page 183.)

9th. Career as a Musician.--

The calliope is the loudest musical instrument in existence, because it consists of a series of steam whistles worked by high-pressure steam, and therefore is called after that goddess who, among the nine muses of the ancient Greek mythology, was distinguished for her silvery voice.

P. T. Barnum, who was always forward in exhibiting such objects as would attract public attention, was the first to add such an instrument to his passing show. It was made on the principle of a barrel organ, and worked by the turning of a crank, while a steam boiler and furnace was substituted for the bellows, and furnished the steam to whistles of different graduated lengths. This instrument required two men to operate it, one to attend to the boiler furnace, and another to turn the crank so as to grind out the tune.

An important improvement in this construction was to substitute for the barrel a regular organ key-board, so that an organist could play any tune he desired. The practical result, however, fell very short of expectations -- the tunes played by hand on the key-board did not sound at all as well as those which were ground out by turning the crank. The reason of this was soon very clear to me. Those who make it a business to prepare the cylinder, with the projections at the proper places, are careful to give every projection the correct length, so that the tones are not sustained after the next tone is sounded, which usually causes a discord. Now, it is a prevailing defect among ordinary piano players (who have not received proper instruction from a practically accomplished teacher) to be careless in the matter of lifting up each finger at the exact moment that the following key is to be struck by the next finger, so that often two adjoining keys are down at the same time, which makes a discord when done with any organ key-board, while the discord is more pronounced in proportion to the greater loudness of the instrument. As on the piano the tones are not sustained in the full force of the first blow, this bad habit is not so unpleasant on that instrument, but becomes so when a badly trained pianist tries his hand on an organ, which sustains every tone with its full force as long as the keys are kept down, and the bad effects are worse in the direct ratio of the loudness of the instrument, which, in the case under discussion, is the loudest of all, and must therefore also be the most intolerable.

There are several organists in New York and Brooklyn whom I could name, who do not treat their organ in the right way, by not lifting every finger exactly at the correct time; this makes the organ sound badly, and great injustice is thus done to both the organ and its maker.

Organ makers should be more careful when they engage persons to show off an organ they have on exhibition. The worst case of this kind that I saw and heard was in Philadelphia at the great exhibition which some years ago was organized under the auspices of the Franklin Institute. There was on exhibition a magnificent organ made by Roosevelt, of New York, who had engaged a player who kept it going to the great disgust of the surrounding exhibitors of other objects. Why such a performer happened to be engaged, I did not understand, but I had the satisfaction of receiving the thanks of the surrounding exhibitors who complained of the annoyance caused them by the regular player, who prevented any one else from playing at all, as he claimed to be the only one who had that privilege, and was engaged for the work.

The most striking and crucial test for such a player is to let him play passages with the flute stop; for instance, the famous flute concert composed for the organ by Rink. If the player has not the right touch, and plays slovenly, so as not to lift the finger from the key at the exact moment the next key is struck, the flute effect is utterly destroyed, as, of course, on a flute two tones cannot be produced at the same time.

When, now, a player with such slovenly habits. plays the calliope, the effect is excruciating. I heard an old, sensitive gentleman give his opinion of the calliope when he heard it for the first time under the hands of such a performer as is referred to. He said: “That instrument must be an invention of the devil; I believe it is intended to torment the damned in hell -- that is all that it is good for. I never want to hear it again.”

(To be Continued.)

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