Saturday, July 21, 2012

Johann Nepomuk Maelzel's mechanical orchestras

Composer's Datebook...

Maelzel's Mechanical Wonders

On today's date in 1838, the crew of the American brig Otis, docked in the harbor of La Guiara, Venezuela, was about to set sail for Philadelphia, when they discovered that one of their passengers had died in his cabin. He was the German inventor and one-time business associate of Beethoven, Johann Nepomuk Maelzel.

Maelzel was born in Regensburg in 1772, the son of an organ builder. Perhaps a childhood spent among the inner workings of pipe organs predisposed young Johann to become an inventor of mechanical instruments, similar to this old Viennese flute clock. At the age of 20, Maelzel came to Vienna, and if you had 3000 florins of disposable income, you could buy one of Maelzel's mechanical wonders and hear it play short tunes by Haydn and Mozart on demand.

But Maezel didn't stop there: he invented entire mechanical orchestras, and other wonders, all to be displayed in a museum he opened in Vienna in 1812. Beethoven composed a piece for Maelzel's mechanical orchestra entitled "Wellington's Victory." The two collaborators fell out over who owned what, and in any case, Beethoven re-orchestrated his piece for conventional, human performers. Maelzel took his contraptions on tour, and spent a good deal of his later life exhibiting them in the United States and even the West Indies.

Today, Maelzel's musical inventions are regarded as obsolete curios -- with one exception: he's credited with finessing and popularizing the use of the metronome.

Johann Nepomuk Maelzel [Wikipedia]

metronome [Wikipedia]

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