I was recently based in Utrecht, taking part in a tour of the rich artistic heritage of the Netherlands. This delightful old city is located southeast of Amsterdam, almost in the centre of the country, near the River Rhine. By the last day of a week of excellent guiding through one magnificent art museum after another, in most of the major centres, I found myself quite museumed-out. I therefore declined to join the group for a tour of the last “cathedral of culture” on our itinerary, and chose instead to wander and explore the streets of the old part of Utrecht.
In all the towns that I have visited in Belgium and the Netherlands, my meanderings have been accompanied by the merry chimes of quaint bell and clock towers. The tinkling melodies of the Domtoren (Cathedral Tower) in Utrecht, which ring out every quarter hour throughout the day and night, are one such manifestation of their craze for carillons. This Gothic landmark – and symbol of the city – is not only the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, it is all that remains of the 14th century Cathedral of St. Martin, which was never completed due to lack of funds.

The Domtoren

The Domtoren

The picturesque old town is bisected by the Oude Gracht (Old Canal), a narrow stretch of water lined with restaurants and cafés, and in spring with flowering trees.

Now and then students from the University can be seen streaking upstream, racing one another in their slim canoes under the old stone bridges. Paddle-boats moored along the quay are also available for tourists.
Looking up, always a good idea when touring a new town, one can see the unique Dutch stepped gables and turrets. As always in Old Europe, the antique dwells happily alongside the new.

Quaint pubs, some dating from the early 18th century, and street-side cafés, enjoy local and tourist patronage all day, especially during the long summer evenings.

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Utrecht has been the country’s religious centre since the 8th century, manifested in the number of churches, the monastery, and St. Catherine’s Convent. It was the most important city in Holland until the 17th century Golden Age, at which point it was superseded by Amsterdam as the country’s cultural and commercial centre.

Utrecht St. Martin’s Cathedral

Utrecht St. Martin’s Cathedral

The Nicolaikerk

The Nicolaikerk

But, contrary to my usual quest for history, castles and churches, this time I was content to wander through the streets, window-shopping and enjoying the atmosphere and smells – freshly baked bread and sausage rolls from the bakery, chocolate from the Factory, and flowers from the open air stalls.

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I saw the usual designer boutiques, and chain stores common to most European cities, and shops selling toys and souvenirs, cakes and confectionery, antiques and books,

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and elegant couture hollandaise.

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It was while I was thus engaged that I had my serendipitous moment. On Steenweg, amongst the boutiques and coffee shops, I spotted a sign for the MUSEUM SPEELKLOK – a museum devoted entirely to mechanical musical instruments. I was also lucky to catch the tail end of a guided tour in English!
And so I went on a journey down memory lane, seeing and hearing a vast collection of the most beautifully crafted carillon clocks, musical boxes, pianolas, orchestrions – including the singular Hupfeld Phonoliszt Violina, a singing nightingale, barrel organs (gigantic hurdy-gurdys) and flötenuhren (organ clocks – http://www.fine-clocks.com/organ-clocks/about-organ-clocks.html .) This museum has it all!
As promised in the brochure, I was able to “enjoy the surprise, allure and enchantment of the sounds of the museum’s rich and varied collection of automatic musical instruments.” Today we have iPods and MP3’s, which are not nearly as attractive as these contraptions of old, but are certainly less cumbersome.

Large Dutch street organ

Polyphon model 5 platenwisselaar – (c.1900)

Polyphon model 5 platenwisselaar – (c.1900)

Guided tours take place every hour (English on request, at no extra charge), and visitors can hear the varied repertoire of these magical creations: “Viennese waltzes and tangos, to tearjerkers and the very latest hits”. Our young guide also recounted the fascinating stories behind many items in the collection; “personal and often amusing anecdotes enliven and amuse, making the tour a delightful event.” The cheerful sounds of these self-playing musical machines takes one back to the entertainments of a century ago or more. I could imagine elegant ladies with long skirts and feathered hats promenading in the Prater in Vienna, or Hyde Park, or the ordinary folk enjoying fairgrounds and street music to the pneumatic strains of these fabulous inventions.
They date back to the 16th century in Holland, beginning with church carillons. Necessity became the mother of invention when those unable to play musical instruments, but who wanted to listen to music, began inventing all sorts of self-playing instruments – from musical boxes to the larger street organs.
The orchestrion is a machine that plays music sounding like an orchestra or band, and operates by means of a pinned cylinder or a music roll. The sounds usually emanate from pipes – though different from that of a pipe organ – and include percussion instruments. Some also contain a piano. Tchaikovsky grew up with an orchestrion in his childhood home, and in this way became familiar with the great orchestral and operatic repertoire of the day.
A pianola, or player piano, is a self-playing piano containing a pneumatic or electro-mechanical mechanism that operates the piano action (hammers striking the strings) by means of pre-programmed melodies on perforated paper. These play within the piano case by means of wooden rollers, and occasionally metal rolls. The invention of the phonograph and the radio during the 1920’s eventually led to their decline in popularity. (For more information see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Player_piano .)

Musical clocks, a singing nightingale

Musical clocks, a singing nightingale

a Hupfeld Phonoliszt Violina (centre, c.1925)

a Hupfeld Phonoliszt Violina (centre, c.1925)

a large street barrel organ

a large street barrel organ

The Hupfeld Phonoliszt Violina is perhaps the most ingenious of all: four full-sized violins rotate on a central bracket, passing a circular horsehair bow which strokes the strings. This bowed string sound is accompanied by that of the piano keyboard, playing from a pre-programmed perforated roll.
You can hear the Hupfeld Phonoliszt Violina on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3W3N4MP2R6g and here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uI75Xa2xhOU
The most amazing fact of all is that the museum is housed in a church! It was the Buurkerk (Citizens’ Church), which is one of the largest medieval churches in Utrecht. The museum was opened by Queen Beatrix in 1984. It includes a Restoration Room in which experts restore and service these incredible creations, ensuring that they will survive for future generations to enjoy.

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In 2006 the Museum celebrated its 50th Jubilee by hosting a special exhibition titled “Royal Music Machines”. Several distinguished museums loaned items from their collections for the event: the Hermitage Museum, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), and the Art History Museum in Vienna.
The brochure tells visitors:
“A recent addition to the museum is the Museum Expedition. Discover at your own leisure the magical stories, technical craftsmanship and remarkable music of the different musical instruments. Organ monkey Toon takes children on a treasure hunt throughout the museum halls on a quest to find their favourite tune.”

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Beleef een vrolijke dag in Museum Speelklok!

Enjoy a fun day in the Museum of mechanical musical instruments!
I, for one, can vouch for a wonderful experience for children and adults alike. No-one can fail to be entertained by this marvellous experience!
For more information see the website: www.museumspeelklok.nl ,
and watch a video here: https://www.museumspeelklok.nl/plan-je-bezoek/het-museum/
Adults €11 and children €6 (May 2015).

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