Orchestrion: Background music or concert instrument?
By Henry Schultz
The Orchestrion was the ultimate entertainment system of the nineteenth century. It is a self-playing mechanical instrument that sounded pipes, bells, and various percussive instruments when triggered by music rolls. Orchestrions were extremely expensive, so very few people had them—not even Andrew Carnegie. Henry Frick, however, bought a Style 6 Welte orchestrion for $5,000, which is approximately $166,000 today. This does not even include the cost of the 135 music rolls which cost $9.50 each and the instrument’s maintenance which cost $60 every few months. On top of it all, Frick built the entire front porch to provide a space for the Orchestrion because its weight was causing the parlor floor to collapse.
Considering the money and effort Henry invested in the orchestrion, one wonders how he actually used the instrument in everyday life. Helen Clay Frick’s memoirs indicate that the orchestrion was used as dinner entertainment. She said that “dinner was always served in the large dining room… at 6:30. […] During the meal, the orchestrion [sic] would play [my father’s] favorite tunes, among which were the following: Selections from tannhauser [sic], martha, william tell, [Handel’s] largo, [and] Gounod’s ‘Ave Maria.’” Helen also said her father would surprise guests at the end of the meal by revealing that the dinner music was not performed by a live ensemble, but, instead, by a large machine.
In this clip, you hear the song “Sadie” from the 1901 American musical The Little Duchess played on the Fricks' orchestrion and captured from the dining room of Clayton house. On the porch, the orchestrion is quite loud, sounding at about 80 decibels, which is comparable to the amplitude of city traffic. The orchestrion sounds quieter in the dining room, sitting around 68 decibels, however this is still significantly louder than an average conversation. Because of this, I believe that the orchestrion would have overpowered table conversations. In the re-creation of the dinner scene, you will hear the service bell which was used to summon supper and the clinks of tableware. In the recording, the guests are listening to the music instead of having dinner conversation. If they did have conversations, they would have only been able to hear people sitting very close.
Field recording and sound clip re-construction by Henry Schultz
It is hard to guess how the orchestrion was used in everyday life. Clearly Henry saw the Orchestrion as something more than a passive, background instrument because he maintained the instrument regularly, purchased a large collection of rolls, and built a whole room to store the machine. The catalog of music rolls shows that Henry had music for all different occasions. Peaceful songs such as Ave Maria might be used on a relaxing rainy days, while the Sousa marches might have been enjoyed by Childs Frick and his drill squad, the Clayton Cadets. The march heard in my recording was probably best suited for background music because it's festive and playful. The children or even guests might have sung along if they knew the original lyrics about a beautiful lady named Sadie. Most likely Henry played different rolls for different occasions, which suggests that the Orchestrion was most likely used for both passive and active listening depending on the context.