And a Monkey Played the Cello

Monkey Automated Orchestra

This six-piece automated primate orchestra is part of the Czech Museum of Music's current exhibition.

And a Monkey Played the Cello

Museum Exhibit Explains How Organ Grinders (and Others) Influenced Czech Music

Olympics? Rock festivals? Sports bar? Jazz on the river? What’s your favorite way to spend a lazy August afternoon or evening?

A hundred years or so ago, none of these options existed. So people from farms, villages, and cities alike all flocked to their local fair, whenever *a traveling troupe of entertainers hit town.

Puppet shows were one of the many attractions, according to information in the Czech Museum of Music’s current exhibition, “Monarchy – Magical Music Machines,” running now through Jan 28. Earlier, fairs had been more serious and sober, often linked to traditional religious feasts and holidays. But during the 19th century, the flavor began to change, and the fairs became more secular.

*a traveling troupe of entertainers hit town: a theatre, dance, or other group arrived at a destination
*barrel organ: a small organ on wheels. It plays songs when you turn a handle.

Music was an important attraction at the fairs. During the 19th century, many traveling theatres and puppet shows brought along with them an astounding array of very clever ways to make music without dragging along an orchestra. Organ grinders with their monkeys (live or automated), *barrel organs powered by perforated leather belts, and even steam-driven organs let the music play – non-stop.

During the summer, according to the museum, the action took place on the local town square. During winters, it moved inside to the local tavern. So patrons there had a double bill of entertainment – the show, and the beer.

Aside from hosting the ingenious and intriguing machines that made the first automated music, these fairs contributed something else historic and profound. Because the theatre and puppet plays were produced for a popular audience, the actors didn’t speak the empire’s German, but rather, the local language – Czech. The common people’s preference for their own language would soon also be reflected in a more “official” kind of music: the works of Smetana and other composers who helped foment pride in the Czech nation and its culture. — oo

— Mary Matz

Photo Credits: Miroslav Setnička

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