An 18th Century Novelty: Music for Mechanical Organ Clock

On Wednesday, I pointed out the persistent “tick-tock” rhythm of the second movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 101- a detail which earned the piece the nickname, The “Clock” Symphony. That got me thinking about the small collection of music, written by Haydn and other composers, for the mechanical organ clock, a popular eighteenth century luxury item which combined a clock with a small, mechanized organ. It’s a device which epitomized the scientific rationality of the Enlightenment. Coming long before electronic synthesizers, the inner workings of the mechanism must have inspired a sense of thrill and fascination.

This 1766 clock, built by George Pyke, is one of only a dozen of its kind remaining in England. It plays a melody called, Der Wachtelschlag (“Call of the Quail”), music Haydn wrote specifically for the organ clock.

Haydn: Six Pieces for a Musical Clock (1792)

Joseph Niemecz, the librarian of the Esterházy court where Haydn was employed, created a number of elaborate organ clocks, some with multiple stops. Here is more music Haydn wrote for Niemecz’ machines:

Handel: Pieces for a musical clock, HWV 600

Charles Clay, an English clockmaker during the reign of George I, created these elaborate clock organs. Here is some of the music Handel wrote for these clocks:

Mozart: Adagio and Allegro in F minor for Mechanical Organ, K. 594

Mozart wrote three mechanical organ clock pieces for the eccentric Viennese aristocrat, Count Joseph Deym von Strzitez. It appears that his motivation was strictly financial. In a letter to Constanze, dated October 3, 1790, he wrote,

If it were on a large clock-work with a sound like an organ, I’d be glad to do it; but as it is a thing made up of tiny pipes only, which sound too shrill and childish for me.

At first intended as a funeral mass to be played on mechanical clock for Field Marshal Gideon Baron of Laudon, this music was rededicated to Count Deym von Strzitez.

Beethoven: Five Pieces for Musical Clock

This music surfaced after Beethoven’s death. At first, the instrumentation for which the music was written remained a mystery. But it appears to have been written for the mechanical clock organ.

Recordings

  • Haydn: Six Pieces for a Musical Clock, Hans-Ola Ericsson iTunes
  • Handel: Pieces for a Musical Clock, Olivier Latry iTunes
  • Mozart: Fantasie In F Minor KV 594, Martin Haselböck iTunes
  • Beethoven: Five Pieces for Mechanical Clock, Hans-Ola Ericsson iTunes

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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