November 22, 2020 Organ Notes

Genuine Music, a Pickled Goose, and Mark Twain’s Organ

Mark Twain’s Orchestrelle

“When you want genuine music — music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s [purgative laxative] pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose, — when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!”

So said Mark Twain in public. But, in private, Twain did not smash the piano—he owned one, and he was able to play any music he wanted. He sometimes opened lectures by singing and playing the piano. Moreover, his son-in-law was Ossip Gabrilowitsch, a virtuoso concert pianist. Twain and Gabrilowits were best friends.

Twain often mocked the people he called “the cultured class [who] go to the theater and opera [and] have no use for me and the melodeon.”  Twain’s life (1835-1910) spanned the period that saw the rise and decline of the reed organ in all its diverse forms. A keyboard instrument, the reed organ operates via bellows that blow wind past free-floating metal reeds. The vibrating reeds can produce a wide variety of sounds.

The melodeon, with which Twain identified, was a small instrument generally having only one set of reeds and a single pedal pump. Twain called its sound “asthmatic,” and it was not the sound he chose for his own house. Instead, in 1904, Twain bought the most magnificent, and technologically advanced, version of the reed organ. It was the Aeolian Orchestrelle. Eight feet tall, six feet wide and three feet deep, and possessed of twelve full ranks of reeds, it was an imposing instrument. It had a pipe like quality of tone.

Owners had two options for playing the Orchestrelle. They could play the instrument manually using its keyboard as well as its double foot pedals that operated the bellows. Or they could use automated paper rolls to sound notes while using their feet to pump the pedals, their knees to operate levers that controlled the crescendo and swell, and their hands to work levers that determined tempo.

The amount of music available for the Orchestrelle was impressive. Music of all descriptions by a wide range of composers was arranged and transcribed for the Orchestrelle. This included 200 operas. It included nearly all of Wagner’s Ring and selections from other Wagner operas. All of the Beethoven symphonies were available. The symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, and Mendelssohn were on paper rolls. So were hundreds, even thousands, of oratorios, quartets, overtures and other musical pieces.

Twain purchased sixty rolls of music, including Schubert and Chopin. But he did not operate the machine himself. His assistant, Isabel Lyon, performed this task. Her work schedule included between two and three hours at the Orchestrelle each night. She must have been a physically strong woman; she must also have been an empathetic person.

The Orchestrelle had been purchased by Twain soon after his wife’s death in 1904. Through Isabel Lyon’s exertions, music unrolled from the organ by the hour. Listening to it was how Twain coped with his loneliness.

At Christ Church, our new organ has no need of the Orchestrelle automated music library. We are already enjoying Charles’ superb musicianship on our new organ. But we, like Twain, may find that the music addresses the deep reservoirs of our emotions.