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Clayton's orchestrion: A rich echo of 19th-century whimsy

Saturday, November 03, 2001

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

What stands 12 feet tall, weighs two tons and can play nine instruments at once?

Sue Martin, director of visitor services at the Frick Art & Historical Center in Point Breeze, changes a music roll on the orchestrion at Clayton. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Click here to hear music from the orchestrion and to see more photos.

While a marching band on stilts would be a good guess, the answer, found at the Frick Art & Historical Center, is an orchestrion.

This gigantic self-playing instrument from the 19th century imitates orchestral sounds using the same technology as a player piano. But unlike the common band organs and calliopes, the regal orchestrions employ mammoth paper rolls and perform elaborate arrangements using multiple instruments.

Sitting in the enclosed porch of Clayton, the Frick's has an internal organ with pipes for trumpet, trombone, flute and piccolo, as well as a real triangle, bass drum, snare drum and cymbal. These allow the sophisticated orchestrion to play favorite classical, operatic and popular tunes as it does at the end of every tour of the Frick mansion. Patrons hear rousing renditions of anything from "La Gioconda" to "Dixie Doodle Girl March."

For years, patrons had to rely on their memory of the musical experience of the sophisticated music box that industrialist Henry Clay Frick bought for $5,000 in 1892 on the urging of business partner Andrew Carnegie.

But this week, the Frick released a CD, "Orchestrion Favorites From the Frick."

"We were always offering a CD of an instrument other than the one we had," says Sue Martin, the Frick's director of Visitor Services. "When that went out of print we thought, why not use ours?" The result is a intriguing and smile-creating recording of 15 of the 200-plus rolls in the Frick collection. In the 19th century, that collection was substantial, at a time when the orchestrion was a prized possession of the rich and the very rich.

"Orchestrions were musical status symbols," says Durward Center, an expert on the instruments. His company, Historical Instrument Restorations of Baltimore, rebuilt the Frick's orchestrion in 1990 and '91. "The Mellons had a big one, so did the Vanderbilts; sultan and king's palaces had them. They were wondrous toys. There were several in Pittsburgh. William Penn Snyder had a No. 9 out in Sewickley, and also a No. 5 on some of his barges that carried coke up the river."

The numbers refer to the size of orchestrions made by Welte & Sohne; one is the smallest, 10 the largest. The biggest still in existence is a No. 7 in a palace in Romania. The Frick's is one of only four No. 6s remaining.

In light of the high status of the devices, it's particularly amusing that, although Carnegie heartily recommended Frick buy one -- and an expensive one, at that -- Carnegie himself never did. Also entertaining are accounts of how Frick tried to trick dinner guests into believing there was an actual small orchestra performing when the orchestrion played in an adjoining room. Now anyone can buy a CD and do the same.

The CD may be purchased from the Museum Shop at the Frick for $18 or call 412-371-0600, Ext. 543.

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