Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 632:
NIEMECZ'S BARREL ORGANS

by John H. Lienhard

Today, Haydn and the court librarian make mechanical music. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

We know Joseph Haydn for so much music -- quartets, oratorios, symphonies. But he also wrote 32 pieces few of us have ever heard. He wrote them around 1790, for the mechanical organ!

This was the end of the clockwork age. The French, and the Industrial, Revolutions had just broken over Europe. And they were two ways we revolted against clockwork thinking. We'd had enough of clockwork martinets running our lives. We demanded a new freedom from regulation. This was the twilight of clockwork's day as the center of hi-tech thinking.

In 1761 the 29-year-old Haydn had gone to work in the Esterhazy court. He stayed 30 years. In 1780 a very interesting character turned up there. He was a priest named Primitivus Niemecz, the new court librarian.

Niemecz was a scholar and a writer. But he had two other talents. He was a gifted musician. He played keyboards and stringed instruments. He also had remarkable mechanical talent.

Niemecz played cello in Haydn's chapel orchestra. The two became close friends. Beyond his library, literary, and musical work in court, Niemecz did music-machine maintenance as well. He worked with music boxes, clockwork organs, and such.

He drew Haydn into the game. Haydn wrote 32 pieces for the clockwork organ, and Niemecz made three exquisite machines to play them.

A clockwork organ is a real organ driven by a cylinder with pins on it -- just like the one in a music box. Of course the whole thing is far larger and more substantial than a music box. The resulting sound is that of a small organ. The large cylinder, called a barrel, carried 10 or so different pieces.

The collaboration between Haydn and Niemecz reached its peak in 1790 when Haydn's position in the Esterhazy court went bad. They made one organ before he left for England. Niemecz finished two more just afterward.

They are beautiful machines. They give us the only chance we have to hear Haydn's music performed exactly as he heard it. Yet they represent the end of a way of thinking.

Haydn's pupil, Beethoven, took up the cause of the revolution that'd swept Europe. He wrote a nasty little round poking fun at the mechanical-organ builder Malzel, who'd invented the metronome. But that was later in human history.

For now, Niemecz and Haydn -- two late geniuses of the clockwork, rationalist age -- celebrate the last days of their special time in history.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Ord-Hume, A.W.J.G., Joseph Haydn and the Mechanical Organ. Cardiff: University College Cardiff Press, 1982.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H. Lienhard.