Today, Haydn and the court librarian make mechanical
music. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created
We know Joseph
Haydn for so much music -- quartets, oratorios,
symphonies. But he also wrote 32 pieces few of us have
ever heard. He wrote them around 1790, for the mechanical
This was the end of the clockwork age. The French, and
the Industrial, Revolutions had just broken over Europe.
And they were two ways we revolted against clockwork
thinking. We'd had enough of clockwork martinets running
our lives. We demanded a new freedom from regulation.
This was the twilight of clockwork's day as the center of
In 1761 the 29-year-old Haydn had gone to work in the
Esterhazy court. He stayed 30 years. In 1780 a very
interesting character turned up there. He was a priest
named Primitivus Niemecz, the new court librarian.
Niemecz was a scholar and a writer. But he had two other
talents. He was a gifted musician. He played keyboards
and stringed instruments. He also had remarkable
Niemecz played cello in Haydn's chapel orchestra. The two
became close friends. Beyond his library, literary, and
musical work in court, Niemecz did music-machine
maintenance as well. He worked with music boxes,
clockwork organs, and such.
He drew Haydn into the game. Haydn wrote 32 pieces for
the clockwork organ, and Niemecz made three exquisite
machines to play them.
A clockwork organ is a real organ driven by a cylinder
with pins on it -- just like the one in a music box. Of
course the whole thing is far larger and more substantial
than a music box. The resulting sound is that of a small
organ. The large cylinder, called a barrel, carried 10 or
so different pieces.
The collaboration between Haydn and Niemecz reached its
peak in 1790 when Haydn's position in the Esterhazy court
went bad. They made one organ before he left for England.
Niemecz finished two more just afterward.
They are beautiful machines. They give us the only chance
we have to hear Haydn's music performed exactly as he
heard it. Yet they represent the end of a way of
Haydn's pupil, Beethoven, took up the cause of the
revolution that'd swept Europe. He wrote a nasty little
round poking fun at the mechanical-organ builder Malzel,
who'd invented the metronome. But that was later in human
For now, Niemecz and Haydn -- two late geniuses of the
clockwork, rationalist age -- celebrate the last days of
their special time in history.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Ord-Hume, A.W.J.G., Joseph Haydn and the Mechanical
Organ. Cardiff: University College Cardiff Press,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H.