Reggia Caserta Organo Automatico 1, Royal Palace of Caserta Unofficial

Automatic organs

Anton Beyer's automatic organs were the "jukeboxes" of the Bourbons

THE AUTOMATIC ORGANS ARE VISIBLE IN: back rooms of the Council Chamber

Category furnishings
Type mechanical organ
Artist Anton Meyer
Year 1823-1840
Origin Austria
Material mahogany, various metals
technique cabinet making, sculpture, casting, chisel, gilding
Style empire
Dimensions (WxDxH) 194x106x53cm (first organ) - 270x150x91cm (second organ) - 97x134x72cm (cabinets)

The artist: Anton Beyer

Auth. Leonardo Perretti

The author of the two organs was Anton Beyer, as evidenced by an inlaid plaque found on the front panel of the minor organ, which reads: "Anton Beyer - Mechanic of the court in Naples". Beyer is well known to scholars of mechanical instruments, for having been one of the best builders of automatic organs of the 19th century. He was originally from Vienna, and moved to Naples, at the invitation of the Bourbon Court, in 1823. From a partial research archive, made for the occasion, have resulted in some documents, through which we have the testimony of his arrival in Naples and the place where he was lodged. The qualification of "mechanic" must obviously not be understood in today's meaning, but with the meaning of "expert of complex mechanisms", which at the time were identified with clockwork and similar mechanisms. Unfortunately, no documents concerning the last years of Beyer's activity in Naples and Caserta have been found. However, it can be hypothesized, as does Latanza, that he remained in that area until his death, given the large amount of material attributable to him that remains. Beyer worked at the Court of Naples, as has been said, as a "mechanic". He was regularly paid to take care of the maintenance of the organs that he himself had built, and probably also of the clocks, and he built new cylinders, which were compensated for separately. Of Beyer's activity at the Bourbon Court, we know at least three organs, which are the two in Caserta, and another, signed, currently privately owned in Palermo. We also have news of an organ that Beyer built for the royal palace of Capodimonte, for which 15 cylinders were paid for in 1827. This last instrument certainly does not correspond to those of Caserta, for reasons of temporal incongruity with the musical pieces contained in the cylinders of Caserta.

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Description of the automatic organs

The Royal Palace of Caserta has two automatic organs of different sizes and complexity, dating back to the first half of the 19th century, and a conspicuous heritage of 89 studded cylinders. The organs, whose author was the German master Anton Beyer, are  equipped with refined Empire-style chests of drawers intended to contain the ninety-nine musical rolls, which in turn constitute a precious heritage for the study of music.

The first organ

The first organ has the shape of a secretaire, and is equipped with a clock. It is in empire style and in feather mahogany with gilt bronzes.

The second organ is larger in size.

The automatic organ looks like a large Empire-style piece of furniture closed with wooden doors, and contains three registers of wooden pipes, divided into basses and sopranos, operated directly by the cylinders during the execution. In the upper part two small drawers and between these a clock. Inside, three secret doors with three small drawers.

Case for musical cylinders

One of the various dressers intended to contain the ninety-nine musical rolls, which in turn constitute a precious heritage for the study of music. This contains eighteen musical cylinders.

The Empire style cabinet in mahogany feather, flat columns on the sides with applications of capitals in gilded bronze, top in white Carrara marble.

The structure of automatic organs

  • The organ appears outwardly with the appearance of a mobile writing desk; the mechanism of the organ is contained in the upper part of the piece of furniture, hidden by the accessories that characterize its structure as a piece of furniture-desk; only the cylinder and part of the gearing are visible behind a small glass window located just above the flap. The construction of the mechanism corresponds to an already strongly characterized, almost standardized typology of the Viennese automatic organs of the first half of the 19th century, possibly differing only for greater precision in the construction. The strictly musical part consists of a small automatic cylinder organ with a single register of 46 notes (C1 – A4 on a 4′ base).
  • The structure of the organ is as follows: a lead weight, placed in a special vertical compartment along the rear left corner of the cabinet, is hung from a string, originally made of gut, which, unwinding and pulling a spool, sets a gear train. This activates the bellows which produce air under pressure, and, at the same time, rotates the cylinder, whose tips, by means of special levers or "keys", operate the valves (fans) which open the air towards the barrels. In its rotary movement, the cylinder is also gradually moved laterally, thus assuming a spiral pattern, so that the execution of each cylinder involves 6 complete rotations, and lasts about 4 minutes. The cylinders are interchangeable, inserted into the instrument through a special support.
  • The start of the execution of the pieces is determined at the stroke of each hour, by the pendulum clock, which is located on the front of the cabinet, at the top. Obviously, it is also possible to start the organ manually, or to block its operation. The weight charge is enough to play four cylinders. In order for the organ to function even acceptably, it is necessary that all its parts move perfectly. The forces involved are minimal, and even a very small imperfection can compromise the proper functioning of the entire instrument.
  • The typology of the pipes, usual for this model of organ, refers to the registers, particularly widespread in the German area, generally called "transverse flute" or "orchestral flute". The very denomination of the type of pipes gives an idea of the sound model to be created: a concert of transverse flutes which, suitably tuned, give an overall "orchestral" impression of the pieces being performed.
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Interior of the bigger organ

Interior of the bigger organ

Interior of the bigger organ

The musical cylinders

There are 44 cylinders belonging to the restored instrument, while for the major organ there are 45, for a total of 89, as has been said. , since the same current number results from historical inventories of the Palace. The songs contained in the cylinders reflect the "cultured" destination of the instruments. These are mostly arias taken from works by the major composers of the time: Donizetti, Mercadante, Verdi, Strauss, Pacini, etc. It is probable that the King or the members of the court chose the pieces to be noted in the cylinders as soon as the new works, often premiered, were presented at the San Carlo in Naples. In the notation of the cylinders we started from transcriptions for piano and voice, which were then adapted to the instrument. From the careful analysis of the cylinders, it can be assumed that the methodology used by Beyer to notate them allowed very high resolution in the positioning of the nails, which translates into extreme ductility in the explication of the expressive elements introduced in the transcription and preparation phases of the musical diagrams with which the cylinders were notated; their listening is therefore pleasant and fluid.

In an era like the present one, in which digital technologies seem to have surpassed everything built in the past in terms of quality and sophistication, automatic instruments are often seen with paternalistic benevolence as more or less clumsy attempts to imitate instruments and musicians real. But is not so. If analyzed from a technical point of view, and listening to the musical result does not betray this observation, they show that they were made by implementing extraordinary strategies and technical solutions, such as to allow the highest quality level of the final result. In our case, we can clearly see how an organ with only 46 pipes, albeit with a feeble voice, suitable for a small study for which it was probably originally intended, is able to fully convey the sensation of an entire orchestra without the musical value appearing crippled.

Alongside the aesthetic enjoyment, another element should not be overlooked which is the value of a rigorous document of ancient practices and executive methods. From an examination of the cylinders, during the restoration it was found that in the act of their construction the notator marked the conventional symbols near the tips that Bayer used to remember their size and, perhaps, their musical function within the piece . These symbols appear to be different from those known to us through known ancient treatises; these cylinders could therefore allow, if properly investigated, to reconstruct exactly the methods, otherwise lost, with which Beyer, and the tradition from which he descended, used to interpret and translate the music sheet.

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The musical cylinders

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