Organs stir childhood notes
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