Nothing fancy

Nothing fancy

Nothing fancy

I am looking at a motley orchestra playing soul-stirring music, costumed monkeys playing different instruments, a ballet dancer twirling, and an actor powdering herself in front of a mirror! The puppet orchestra has more than 30 figures encased in a beautiful wooden cover made of walnut and mahogany, with the end panels decorated with angels playing on harps. When the orchestra plays, it's a rich sound of clarinets, flutes, trumpets and bass. This mechanical orchestra was built in 1892 in the US by Bernhard Dufner, who immigrated to the US from the Black Forest.

I am in Rudesheim on the Rhine, a charming wine town in Germany with half-timbered houses, cobbled lanes, window boxes bursting with blooms, and attractive toy shops.

Off the main stretch of Drosselgasse is Siegfried's Mechanical Music Cabinet, a delightful museum filled with one of the largest collections of automated musical instruments.

The setting

The museum is housed in the 15th-century Bromserhof, one of Rudesheim's oldest buildings which used to be home to the Knights of Bromser. With a maze of little rooms, corridors and even a medieval chapel, embellished with frescoes of biblical scenes and coats of arms, the museum showcases more than 350 self-playing, functional musical instruments from the 18th- and 19th centuries. Puppets come to life, birds sing, and automatic pianos play music like ghosts.

My guide Lucia, dressed in period costume with a hat, tells me it all began with the owner of the museum, Siegfried Wendel, collecting antique clocks. One day, a scrap dealer brought a beautiful music box called the polyphon(e) to him, with its lid decorated with motifs. He was attracted by its appearance and succumbed to the temptation. His collection grew, as he started to rescue these beauties from scrap dealers and second-hand stores. He also learnt to reassemble and repair the instruments. "Nothing in this museum is electronic. Everything works with mechanical innovations," says Lucia.

The first musical instrument she shows me is the most impressive one - Weber Maestro Orchestra, a contraption of belts, wheels and pulleys that produces sounds of as many as 19 different instruments. "It can be a dance orchestra or even a Jazz band, and can never go out of style," says my guide. It just works with rolls of paper with perforations. The thundering music from the orchestra is even better than digital surround sound.

I see an ancient record player, where a metal disc with perforations plays 'Die Lorelei', the classic German folk song. This instrument, the Symphony No 131, was privately owned and in mint condition. I also see jukeboxes (with simple wind-up mechanisms) entertain its visitors.

The most stunning instrument, the Gebruder Bruder, is housed in an old cellar; it is from the town of Waldkirch in the Black Forest region, famous for building carousel and fairground organs in the end of 19th century. It was found by the owner in 1995 in Budapest, in an old barn. He painstakingly restored and reassembled the merry-go-round organ, which plays stirring music. It combines the sounds of bass flute, trumpets, tuba, drums, cymbals and violin, and plays 'March of the Gladiators'.

I am also entranced by the stunning imagery of rajahs in turbans, pretty queens, oriental domes and motifs. Lucia shows me what actually makes the music - a book of perforated paper that looks like an accordion much like the ancient fax.

Playing papers

The Hupfeld Phonoliszt-Violina is made of six violins mounted vertically that turn and play Verdi's Rigoletto in perfect harmony. "It was built in 1909 and was often called the 'Eighth Wonder of the World'," says Lucia. There are reams of music, from Verdi to Bach, stored in paper rolls. More than 3,500 of these 'bestseller musical machines' were sold between 1909 and 1930. Today, about 60 of them survive in private collections  and museums worldwide.

There are 'first attempts at reproducing the human voice': old-style Edison phonographs, when reproducing the human voice was a 'miracle'. It was a complicated process involving a membrane and a needle. The only way to amplify sounds was by using a large horn. One scratchy gramophone record wheezes out Doris Day singing 'Que Sera Sera'.  

Most of all, I love the quirky pieces in the collection - the 'musical' chair from 1890, on which you sit to play a tune. It was found in a bad condition in a second-hand store by the owner and restored lovingly; a revolving musical box for cigarettes; small snuff-boxes with birds singing. Another silver snuff-box consists of 376 parts with a bellow and a piston as well. The company still makes reproductions of this and sells them at as much as 6,000 euros!

One section has exquisite barrel organs that are hand-cranked to produce music. "These were taken around by wandering musicians or at fairgrounds to entertain people," explains Lucia. I get a chance to hand-crank a barrel organ and produce the music, with Lucia taking a photograph of me as a souvenir!

An interesting section of the museum showcases an atelier where the instruments are built and restored. There is an assortment of tools, from chisels and lathes to drills and set-squares. We see how brass wires are cut, crafted into pins and used to mark music with perforated cards, and paper tapes.

I end my visit at the museum shop ­ ­ ­ ­- there are replicas of instruments and bird cages next to modern musical boxes. I pick up a small merry-go-round that plays music when it is wound, to remind me of this beautiful journey through time, to an era before radios, record players, televisions, and other forms of home entertainment.