Or­gans stir child­hood notes

Alpine Observer - - People Around Town - By JAMIE KRON­BORG

A RE­CENT visit to Beech­worth to see and hear bar­rel or­gans play­ing across the town stirred trea­sured child­hood mem­o­ries for Hav­i­lah’s Ren Pit­man.

Ren and her hus­band Bob took seven-year-old daugh­ter Emma to a work­ing ex­hi­bi­tion of 20 in­stru­ments pre­sented by 40 mem­bers of the Aus­tralian Me­chan­i­cal Or­gans’ So­ci­ety in Beech­worth’s streets.

Dutch born-and-raised Ren, who has lived in Aus­tralia for 11 years, said her late fa­ther had been an avid col­lec­tor of bar­rel – also known as street – or­gans, which can range in size from a mu­sic-mak­ing mech­a­nism that can fit in­side a para­sol han­dle to the bulk of a pipe or­gan such as the one in Beech­worth’s Angli­can Christ Church.

“I’ve got a few or­ganettes here at home and also one of those mu­sic boxes with a metal (play­ing) disc,” Ren said.

“When our daugh­ter was a baby I would play the mu­sic box to her and she loves them.

“We thought the op­por­tu­nity for her to see and hear the larger ver­sions in Beech­worth was too good to be missed.

“The sound of them – it brings such cheer.”

Each year Me­chan­i­cal Or­gans’ So­ci­ety mem­bers choose a town in which to meet, ex­hibit and play their street or­gans.

Beech­worth, this year, was se­lected and 20 or­gans were placed in var­i­ous spots – from the town’s well-known main in­ter­sec­tion with her­itage-listed gol­drush-era build­ings at three of its four cor­ners to the foot­paths of Ford and Camp streets – lend­ing a colour­ful air and pro­vid­ing mu­sic which caught the ear of many vis­i­tors.

“The per­son who plays a me­chan­i­cal in­stru­ment in pub­lic is tra­di­tion­ally known as an or­gan grinder and they were a very com­mon sight in cities and towns from the 1800s to the 1920s,” said Mel­bourne or­gan en­thu­si­ast John Wolff.

“They played an im­por­tant part in bring­ing mu­sic to the gen­eral pub­lic in the days be­fore gramo­phones, ra­dio and mod­ern elec­tronic de­vices.

“The or­gan grinder also tra­di­tion­ally had a mon­key dressed in a sim­i­lar out­fit to its mas­ter and was there to col­lect the money from by­standers.”

Ren said she knew as a child that in for­mer times, in Europe, an or­gan grinder was of­ten a well-to-do per­son who had met with mis­for­tune and so they wore masks, sim­i­lar to a Vene­tian type, which hid their iden­tity.

She said she had learned from her fa­ther the ways in which to re­store bar­rel or­gans.

She also re­called that he would hear about one for sale and go to great lengths to find it.

“I re­mem­ber he once heard about one of them that had been of­fered for sale in Berlin,” she said.

“It was noth­ing for him to drive 1000 or 1500 kilo­me­tres to lo­cate them, of­ten re­ly­ing only on wordof-mouth to track one down.”

Ren said a street or­gan in good con­di­tion could be worth as much as $20,000 but in­ter­net sales and on-line auc­tions meant the in­stru­ments had be­come more read­ily avail­able and prices had dropped.

She said the or­gans were in their way a fore­run­ner of com­put­ers and knit­ting ma­chines, as a se­ries of linked cards ma­chine-punched with holes – like the pa­per rolls used for sound­ing a pi­anola – caused the in­stru­ments to play.

Beech­worth res­i­dents and vis­i­tors dur­ing the two-day work­ing ex­hi­bi­tion also heard Pam McDiarmid from Gis­borne play a replica herdy-gerdy, an old Euro­pean in­stru­ment with an in­ter­est­ing his­tory which dates to the 11th cen­tury, which she had made.

It is stringed and looks and sounds sim­i­lar to a vi­olin but in which a hand-turned resin wheel rubs against the strings to pro­duce sound.

It was played as a court in­stru­ment in the 15th cen­tury, be­came an in­stru­ment for ‘ladies of the night’ – pros­ti­tutes – in the 18th cen­tury and has since be­come a favoured folk in­stru­ment.

Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by Wendy Stephens and Coral Cook­sley

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