Barrel-Organ (Eng. "grinder-organ," "street-organ," "hand-organ," "Dutch organ"; Fr. orgue de Barbarie, orgue d'Allemagne, orgue mécanique, cabinet d'orgue, serinette; Ger. Drehorgel, Leierkasten; Ital. organetto a manovella, organo tedesco), a small portable organ mechanically played by turning a handle. The barrel-organ owes its name to the cylinder on which the tunes are pricked out with pins and staples of various lengths, set at definite intervals according to the scheme required by the music. The function of these pins and staples is to raise balanced keys connected by simple mechanism with the valves of the pipes, which are thus mechanically opened, admitting the stream of air from the wind-chest. The handle attached to the shaft sets the cylinder in slow rotation by means of a worm working in a fine-toothed gear on the barrel-head; the same motion works the bellows by means of cranks and connecting rods on the shaft. The wind is thereby forced into a reservoir, whence it passes into the wind-chest, on the sides of which are grouped the pipes. The barrel revolves slowly from back to front, each revolution as a rule playing one complete tune.
A notch-pin in the barrelhead, furnished with as many notches as there are tunes, enables the performer to shift the barrel and change the tune. The ordinary street barrel-organ had a compass varying from 24 to 34 notes, forming a diatonic scale with a few accidentals, generally F♯, G♯, C♯. There were usually two stops, one for the open pipes of metal, the other for the closed wooden pipes. Barrel-organs have been made with as many as three or four cylinders set in a circular revolving frame, but these more elaborate instruments were mainly used in churches and chapels, a purpose for which they were in great demand for playing hymns, chants and voluntaries during the 18th and early 19th centuries. A barrel-organ was built for Fulham church by Wright, and a large instrument with four barrels was constructed by Bishop for Northallerton church in 1820.
Fig. 1. - Large stationary barrel-organ worked by hydraulic power, from Solomon de Caus, Les Raisons des forces mouvantes (Frankfort-on-Main, 1615).
The origin of the barrel-organ is now clearly established, and many will doubtless be surprised to find that it must be sought in the Netherlands as early as the middle of the 15th century, and that accurate and detailed diagrams of every part of the mechanism for a large stationary barrel-organ worked by hydraulic power were published in 1615. There are letters patent preserved in the archives of Belgium appointing a certain organ-builder, Jehan van Steenken, dit Aren, "Master of organs which play of themselves"; in the original Flemish Meester van orgelen spelende bij hen selven. This organ was not a portable one like English street organs, but a more imposing instrument, as we learn from other documents giving a detailed account of the moneys paid to Maistre Jehan for conveying the organs from Bruges to Brussels. Steenken was, by virtue of the same letters patent, awarded an annual pension of fifty Rhenish florins in consideration of the services rendered to the duke of Burgundy, and on condition of his submitting to his liege Philip the Good all other instruments he might make in the future.
There is nothing singular in the early date of this invention, for the 15th century was distinguished for the extraordinary impulse which the patronage and appreciation of the dukes of Burgundy gave to automatic contrivances of all kinds, carillons, clocks, speaking animals and other curiosities due to Flemish genius. No contemporary illustration is forthcoming, but in 1615 Solomon de Caus, who avowedly owed his inspiration to Hero and Vitruvius, describes a number of hydraulic machines, amongst which is the barrel-organ, illustrating his description by means of several large drawings and diagrams very carefully carried out. De Caus' organ, entitled "Machine par laquelle l'on fera sonner un jeu d'orgues par le moyen de l'eau," was built up on a wall a foot thick. In the illustrations the barrel is shown to be divided into bars, and each bar into eight beats for the quavers. The whole drum is pierced with holes at the intersecting points, the pins being movable, so that when the performer grew tired of one tune, he could re-arrange the pins to form another. The four bellows are set in motion by means of ropes strained over pulleys and attached to four cranks on the rotating shaft.
Solomon de Caus lays no claim to the invention of this organ, but only to the adaptation of hydraulic power for revolving the drum; on the contrary, in a dissertation on the invention of hydraulic machines and organs, he states that there was evidently some difference between the organs of the ancients and those of his day, since there is no mention in the classics of any musical wheel by means of which tunes could be played in several parts - the ancients, indeed, seem to have used their fingers on the keyboard to sound their organs. The eighteen keys drawn in one diagram bear names, beginning at the left, D, C, B, A, G, F, F♯, E, D, C, B, A, G, F, E, D, C, B; De Caus states that only half the keyboard is given for want of space; the compass, therefore, probably was as shown, with a few accidentals. A barrel-organ, also worked by hydraulic power, is somewhat fantastically drawn by Robert Fludd in a work published two years after that of Solomon de Caus. This diagram is of no value except as a curiosity, for the author betrays a very imperfect knowledge of the mechanical principles involved. The piece of music actually set on de Caus' barrel-organ, six bars of which can be made out, consists of a madrigal, "Chi fara fed' al ciel," by Alessandro Striggio, written in organ tablature by Peter Philips, organist of the Chapel Royal, Brussels, at the end of the 16th century. A French barrel-organ in the collection of the Brussels Conservatoire, bearing the date "5 Mars 1797," has the following compass with flats, beginning at the left: -