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Automatic organs

Anton Beyer's automatic organs were the Bourbon "jukeboxes"

Reggia Caserta Organo Automatico 1 700x500, Palace of Caserta Unofficial


    • 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 HxWxD:194x106x53cm (first organ) – 270x150x91cm (second organ) – 97x134x72cm (cabinets)

    Located into: State Apartments, back rooms of the Council Room

Anton Beyer

auth. Leonardo Perretti

L’autore dei due organi fu Anton Beyer, come testimonia una targa intarsiata che si trova sul pannello anteriore dell’organo minore, che recita: “Anton Beyer – Meccanico della corte in Napoli”. Il Beyer è ben noto agli studiosi di strumenti meccanici, per essere stato uno dei migliori costruttori di organi automatici dell’ 800. Egli era originario di Vienna, e si trasferì a Napoli, su invito della Corte Borbonica, nel 1823. Da una parziale ricerca d’archivio, compiuta per l’occasione, sono risultati alcuni documenti, attraverso i quali abbiamo la testimonianza del suo arrivo a Napoli e del luogo in cui egli fu alloggiato. La qualifica di “meccanico” non deve ovviamente essere intesa nell’accezione odierna, ma con il significato di “esperto di meccanismi complessi”, che all’epoca si identificavano con meccanismi ad orologeria e similari. Non sono stati purtroppo trovati documenti riguardanti gli ultimi anni dell’attività di Beyer a Napoli e a Caserta. Si può ipotizzare tuttavia, come fa Latanza, che egli rimase in quella zona fino alla sua morte, data la grande quantità di materiale a lui ascrivibile che ci rimane. Beyer lavorò presso la Corte di Napoli, come si è detto, in qualità di “meccanico”. Egli veniva regolarmente stipendiato per curare la manutenzione degli organi che egli stesso aveva costruito, e probabilmente anche degli orologi, e costruiva nuovi cilindri, che gli venivano compensati a parte. Dell’attività di Beyer presso la Corte Borbonica, conosciamo almeno tre organi, che sono i due di Caserta, e un altro, firmato, attualmente di proprietà privata a Palermo. Abbiamo anche notizia di un organo che Beyer costruì per il palazzo reale di Capodimonte, per il quale furono pagati 15 cilindri nel 1827. Quest’ultimo strumento certamente non corrisponde con quelli di Caserta, per ragioni di incongruità temporale con i brani musicali contenuti nei cilindri di Caserta.


La Reggia di Caserta possiede due organi automatici di diversa dimensione e complessità, risalenti alla prima metà dell’ 800, ed un cospicuo patrimonio di 89 cilindri chiodati. Gli organi, il cui autore fu il maestro tedesco Anton Beyer, sono  corredati da raffinati comò in stile impero destinati a contenere i novantanove rulli musicali, che a loro volta costituiscono un prezioso patrimonio per lo studio della musica.

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

The organ appears externally with the appearance of a writing desk, the organ mechanism is contained in the upper part of the cabinet, hidden by the accessories that characterize the structure, in fact, of the cabinet-desk; only the cylinder and part of the gears are visible behind a window with glass placed just above the flap top. The construction of the mechanics corresponds to a type already strongly characterized, almost standardized, of the Viennese automatic organs of the first half of the 19th century, possibly differing only for greater precision in construction. The strictly musical part consists of a small automatic cylinder organ with a single register of 46 notes (C1 – A4 on a 4 ‘basis).

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 reel, sets in motion a gear train. This activates the bellows that produce air under pressure, and, at the same time, rotates the cylinder, whose tips, by means of special levers or “keys”, operate the valves (ventilators) that open the air towards the barrels. In its rotary movement, the cylinder is gradually moved also in a lateral direction, thus assuming a spiral trend, so the execution of each cylinder involves 6 complete rotations, and lasts about 4 minutes. The cylinders are interchangeable, inserted in the instrument through a special support.

The start of the performance 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. It is obviously also possible to manually start the organ, or stop its operation. The weight charge is enough to play four cylinders. In order for the organ to function in a way that is even only acceptable, 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 organs, refers to the registers, particularly widespread in the German area, generally referred to as “Transverse flute” or “Orchestral flute”. The same name of the type of pipes gives an idea of ​​the sound model that is intended to be created: a concert of transverse flutes which, when properly tuned, make the overall “orchestral” impression of the pieces being performed.

Interior of the bigger organ

Interior of the bigger organ

Interior of the bigger organ

The music

The cylinders belonging to the restored instrument are 44 in number, while for the major organ there are 45, for a total, as mentioned, of 89. It can be assumed that the cylinders that have arrived today are the totality of those built , since historical inventories of the Royal Palace show the same current number. The pieces 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 likely 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 in first performance, 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 notice them allowed a very high resolution in the positioning of the nails, which translates into extreme flexibility in the explanation of the expressive elements introduced in the transcription and preparation phases. musical diagrams with which the cylinders were noted; their listening is therefore pleasant and fluid.

The musical cylinders

In an era like the present one, in which digital technologies seem to have surpassed in quality and refinement everything that had been built in the past, 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 finding, they show that they have been achieved by implementing extraordinary technical strategies and solutions, such as to allow the highest quality level of the final result. In our case, it is clear how an organ with only 46 pipes, albeit with a feeble voice, suitable for a small studio which was probably originally intended, manages 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 methods of execution. From the examination of the cylinders, during the restoration it was found that in the act of their construction the notator marked the conventional symbols that Bayer used to remember their size and, perhaps, the musical function in the context of the piece, near the tips. . These symbols appear to be different from those known to us through the 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 musical sheet.

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