‘the strains of a huge musical box’

The stopover at the pilot’s house in Schlei Fjord on September 30 is a convivial affair:

“… the shooting-party was none the less a triumphal success. It was celebrated with beer and music as before, while the pilot, an infant on each podgy knee, discoursed exuberantly on the glories of his country and the Elysian content of his life. ‘There is plenty beer, plenty meat, plenty money, plenty ducks,’ summed up his survey.”

The beer is more than likely to be home-brew, although it would be nice to think we can recreate the scene, when we get out there later in the year, by knocking back a few bottles of Dithmarscher (from Brunsbuttel) or Flensburger (from – er – Flensburg), both of which would have been in commercial circulation when Carruthers & Davies came ashore in 1898.

The kind of Symphonion musical box that the Schlei Fjord pilot might have owned.

The trickier thing to recreate is going to be ‘the strains of a huge musical box’. Musical boxes were big in the late 1800s, but they didn’t last long, wiped out eventually by the gramophone (aka the record player). They are, though, the first signs of what we now call ‘home entertainment systems’, and the leaders in musical box technology at the time were definitely the Germans.

The first big mass market box in Europe was the Symphonion, certainly huge and armed with a set of perforated metal disks that could be spun round to trigger a ‘comb’ of vibrating metal pins. It’s almost certainly one of these that the pilot owns – a symbol of German glory and technological leadership.

This wonder of entertainment technology was invented in Leipzig. So too was its successor the mighty Polyphon, that quite literally added bells (but not whistles). Leipzig music box engineers ruled the home music roost across the Pond, too, setting up the Regina company in America in 1892. It wasn’t long, though, before Emile Berliner (another German) turned up with his gramophone and the musical box pretty much died out forever.

It should be noted that the Polyphon in the above video is playing a tune from ‘Carmen’, an opera much loved by Germans in the 1880s and 1890s. Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, apparently saw it on 27 different occasions. Friedrich Nietzsche opined that he “became a better man when Bizet speaks to me”. It’s interesting, too, to note that, at the very same time Carruthers and Davies are tasting the pleasures of ‘modern’ German beer and music, Berliner is setting up the illustrious recording label Deutsche GrammaphonWe are at the very tipping point of the home entertainment explosion.

The sound of the pilot’s Symphonion musical box is heralding the time when fewer and fewer of us would bother going off on adventures, or endure the rigours of a duck shoot or embark on a sail in the Baltic in late autumn. Instead we’d sit at home, listen to music, drink a beer and confine ourselves to an adventure only in the mind. Just as many of you, dear Club members, are doing right now.

p.s. if you want to hear what happens when a Symphonion ‘goes bad’, you can hear it on the latest podcast.

One thought on “‘the strains of a huge musical box’

  1. These German music boxes used interchangeable punched metal discs to hold the music. The discs must have been much cheaper to mass-produce than the pronged cylinders that were more common on the ones from the Jura around Saint-Croix on both sides of the Franco-Swiss border.
    I’m not sure whether many of the cylinder ones had interchangeable tunes?


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