Wind Instruments

Barrel Organs

The history of Barrel organs' creation extends back over several hundred years. Historians from different countries are still arguing about where and how this mechanism and its design was invented. China masters assign the invention to themselves mentioning the legend which says that as early as in the 6th B.C. Confucius had been studying a weird mechanism for a week and enjoyed the tune sound generated from the “tiger’s ribs” – metal plates producing the sounds of various tonalities. Italians call famous master Giovanni  Barbieri the father of the instrument, claiming that even the French name of this instrument ("Orgue do Barbarie") was originated from his name. Dutchmen basing on the shabby drawings of the end of the 15th century insist that these musical instruments manifested themselves in the land of the industrial revolution even earlier. In Russia portable organs are more commonly known as “street organs” (“sharmanka”).


The story of this name is associated with the fact that one of the first and most popular tunes played with this instrument was the French song “Charmante Catherine”. This gave the name “sharmanka” though sometimes the instrument was also called “katarinka”. It is interesting that miniature barrel organs were used not only to listen to music but also as an instrument for training decorative birds to sing. This gave two more names that the history has kept for us: “drozdovka” (from French "merlies") and “chizhovka” (from French "serinette").

Starting from the mid-18th century barrel organs became popular among street musicians as they did not require great knowledge of music but at the same time truly delighted the audience. The instrument was being constantly improved as at first it was only capable of playing one tune and people would quickly get bored. Perforated tapes replaced wooden and metal cylinders, models with reeded mechanisms were invented, and the sound capacities were changing. Since the end of the 19th century, cardboard and metal disks with various recorded tunes (from traditional polka and march to opera parts and urban romances) were becoming more and more popular. Mechanical barrel organs, definitely, played a very important role in the history of music culture, since due to the use of these instruments a large-scale of audience could learn and love the music pieces that stepped from the palaces and churches into the streets of the cities.


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