Did you know that self-playing violins already existed over 100 years ago? These and other rarities can be viewed in the Museum mechanischer Musikinstrumente (Museum of Mechanical Musical Instruments) – and experienced in all their acoustic glory.
The Kaiserdom (Imperial Cathedral) of Königslutter lies 15 kilometres to the west of Helmstedt – and just a few steps from the cathedral is the Museum of Mechanical Musical Instruments, which houses a truly fascinating exhibition of 250 items ranging from a miniature music box, which fits in a closed fist, to the 12-square-metre carousel organ. By the way, almost all of the instruments and equipment are intact and ready to play at any time.
Which is why we also definitely recommend taking part in one of the tours, which aren’t just informative and funny: a special highlight is that you can also experience many of the exhibits in action during the tour. Take a look and listen for yourself!
Keys and strings moved by unseen hands
A Steinway grand piano from 1910, which was automated by the Welte company, is especially worth seeing. This ‘player piano’ can play pieces with the aid of punched paper tape, which was previously produced with a special piano. Many famous composers and pianists immortalised their piano playing in this way – from Claude Debussy and Max Reger to Gustav Mahler and George Gershwin. What’s unique about Welte’s automated piano is that not only were the pitch and tone length recorded but also the force with which the keys were struck: the reproductions thus sound exceptionally natural and ‘live’.
A greater challenge for the inventors of the time was making a violin play via mechanical means. Anyone who has ever held this kind of string instrument in their hand can confirm that the interaction between the strings and violin bow is complex: many hours of tireless practice pass by before the first beautiful tone is heard. With its ‘Phonoliszt Viola’, the Hupfeld company from Leipzig managed to bring together three violins and one piano to form a completely automatic and magnificent sounding quartet in 1910. Following a performance at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1910, it was referred to as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’.
Kettledrums and trumpets
The carousel organ produced by the Bruder brothers from Waldkirch in 1925 is a bit more versatile and much, much louder: when the museum tour guide starts up this impressive instrument, visitors are so impressed that they prick up their ears! That’s because they can hear not only organ pipes, but drums and cymbals as well.
A ‘replica’ of famous actor and singer Tino Rossi is quirky and, in its own way, worth a look and a listen. This life-size animated figure can move its mouth and eyes – while a mechanically operated drum and an accordion play. The different ways audience members react to this performance are very interesting: for some, it just looks funny, while others even find the figure a bit scary with its rolling eyes.
Interesting information, clearly explained
In addition to the tours, the museum also offers a great deal of information about the instruments: historical notes, technical details about how they work – and all manner of fun facts. This allows you to experience the world of mechanical musical instruments in both a sensory and intellectual way. And anyone who doesn’t fancy a tour can buy a booklet on the exhibition at the entrance: bearing the apt title ‘Your ears won’t believe their eyes’, this booklet guides you through the museum with 76 pages of illustrations.
After visiting the museum, it’s worth popping in to the neighbouring cathedral cafe to digest all of the sounds you’ve heard – you can get delicious coffee and cake here. After an energy boost, you could then visit the interesting cathedral and stone masonry as well: it was opened in 2011 and depicts the Imperial Cathedral and its architectural history from the viewpoint of the stonemasonry trade. Get an up-close look at the incredible human effort that lies behind the construction of this cathedral!