On the eve of the international festival of barrel organs
On August 12, an unusual music festival will take place in the center of Prague. It is dedicated to rather rare musical instrument in our days – a barrel organ. Barrel organ players from all over Europe will flock to the Czech capital to take part in a big concert at the square in front of the Czech Museum of Music. Listeners will be treated to a unique atmosphere that will take them back to the old days when itinerant musicians that walked hrough the narrow streets, turning brass rotary handles of their barrel organs. Street performers will enliven the center of Prague on the nearest Sunday is day – four concerts in different genres are announced. The festival will start at 10:00 with the concert at St. Nicholas Church at Old Town Square (Czech: Staroměstské náměstí). Popular classical music pieces, such as “Slavonic Dance” No. 4 by Dvořák, “Little Nocturne” by Mozart or the solemn “Te Deum” by composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) will be performed there . The afternoon program will include impromptu performances by the participants at the square near Charles Bridge (Czech: Karlův most). The guests will plunge into the authentic atmosphere of the fair. The festival day will end at 19:00 with the concert in front of the Czech Museum of Music. After the official program is over, visitors will have the opportunity to see barrel organs up close, get acquainted with their construction and try to play some of the instruments.
Similar festivals are held annually in many European countries. The most mass celebration, which gathers hundreds of performers, is held annually in July in Berlin.
The history of barrel organs dates back several centuries. Historians from different countries still argue about where and when this mechanism and its design were invented. The Chinese attribute the invention to themselves, mentioning the legend that back in the VI century BC, Confucius spent a week studying the strange mechanism and enjoying the sound of melodies produced by the "ribs of the tiger" – metal plates that produce sounds of different tones. The Italians call the famous master Giovanni Barberi the father of the instrument, claiming that even the French name of the instrument, "Orgue do Barbarie", comes from his name. The Dutch, relying on dilapidated drawings from the late 15th century, insist that such musical mechanisms appeared in the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution even earlier. The history of the name comes from the fact that one of the first and most popular tunes played on this instrument was the French song "Charmante Catherine". The name "charmanka" came from it, although sometimes the instrument was also called "katarinka". It is worth noting that, the miniature portable organs were used not only for listening to music, but also as an instrument for teaching domestic decorative birds to sing.
From the mid-18th century, barrel organs became popular among itinerant musicians, as they did not require much knowledge of music, and at the same time aroused the constant enthusiasm and interest of the public. Since the first models played only one tune, which quickly became boring, the instrument was constantly improved. Wood or metal barrels were replaced by perforated paper rolls, models with reed mechanisms appeared, and the sound possibilities changed. Since the end of the 19th century, cardboard or metal disks have become increasingly popular music records for barrel organs, on which various melodies are recorded, from traditional polkas and marches to opera parts and urban romances. There is no doubt that barrel organs played a very important role in the history of musical culture, for it was through the use of these instruments that the mass audience was able to learn and love the musical works that had moved from palaces and churches to the streets of cities.
In every country, a barrel organ has its peculiar name. In Germany – Leierkasten, in England – Barrel organ, in France – orgue de barbarie, in Spain – organillo, in Italy – organistro, in Hungary – kintorna.
Many prominent Russian poets, including Alexander Vertinsky, Afanasy Fet, Pavel Antokolsky, Osip Mandelstam, Innokenty Annensky, Leonid Semyonov, Marina Tsvetaeva, Valery Bryusov and Bulat Okudzhava, dedicated their poems to barrel organs.
A musical instrument – barrel organ, is quite often described in the literature for children, for example, in the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen "The Swineherd", in "Pinocchio" by Carlo Collodi, in "The Golden Key, or the Adventures of Buratino" by Alexey Tolstoy, in the story of Alexander Kuprin "White Poodle", in "Christie's Old Barrel Organ" by Amy Catherine Walton and the story "Without Family" by Hector Malot.
The museum exposition features a great variety of barrel organs (portable organs). There are also several types of music records for barrel organs: paper music rolls and folded cardboard book-music, metal cylinders with pins and a midi devices (for modern barrel organs). The operation of all those devices differs.