Musical Clocks in Utrecht That Will Blow Your Mind!
When my colleague suggested we visit the Speelklok Museum, I was at first intrigued. What is this offbeat tourist attraction? A museum in logical Netherlands to do with spells? But no, it was ‘only’ about musical clocks.
I imagined exhibits of pretty little music boxes through the ages.
“But it’s supposed to be really good!” she said. I didn’t look too keen, and so she asked what other things I might like to see while I was in Utrecht for the day, visiting her. “It should probably be an indoor thing, though. It’s likely to rain today.”
Now, when I go somewhere to see my friends, I can hardly ever think of what local sights I want to see. Frankly, it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s time spent with them. So, having failed to think of a better option, I told her a museum of musical clocks would do.
I didn’t expect to have my mind blown by self-playing musical clocks. But you see, the Dutch had somehow combined music with robotics, and it was surprisingly amazing.
The Speelklok Museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10AM to 5PM. It’s normally closed on Mondays – but conveniently it is open on Monday if it’s a public holiday.
There is an hourly free tour through the museum. Even though you get a narration device with a keycard and booklet upon entry, it’s worthwhile following the tour. The guide points out interesting features that you may not have even known to look at. The tours are run in Dutch and English.
Children (4 to 12 years): €7.00
The most current information would be on the museum’s website.
Self-Playing Travelling Sideshows
The beginning of the tour was predictable enough. There were musical automata which were like a more elaborate musical box – a bird singing in a cage, a rabbit hiding in cabbage, that sort of thing. I’d read of such devices delighting sultans in the Golden Age.
But then the devices got bigger.
There were street organs for playing music in the streets, often accompanied by a dancing monkey. But unlike, say, an accordion, the devices seemed really heavy. Still, apparently at the time organ grinders really did lug these around!
Then, the speelklok got even bigger. Like, way bigger.
Lined up all along the wall in the next section were giant musical clocks that were meant to play music for a fairground.
They were big, and they were loud. And they sounded surprisingly good! The guide fed perforated music sheets (the program) to one of them and cranked it up. According to her, that particular one included a sound that was supposed to sound like a goat!
I suppose there was a bleating sort of passage repeated throughout the score, but to be honest it didn’t sound like a real goat to me. Maybe if you squint your ears (if you know what I mean).
Later on, near the end of the tour, we saw a collection of the music sheets for these fairground machines. Stacked on shelves, they covered a music range extending from classical to modern tunes!
I guess these fairground ones were in use for a long time!
Your Own Personal Robot Musician
While these public performing music boxes were curious, and wowed by being large and in your face, it was still not mind blowing. The quality of the music, after all, is not what you would consider to be delicate.
But the more impressive musical clocks were next.
Way back when, before the 20th century, there was no such thing as music on demand. There was only live music – never mind thousands of songs on your phone playlist! If there was not a real human musician around, you simply did not have music. At least, aside from your own singing.
This is probably why, once the upper classes began living lives of leisure, it was desirable for young ladies to be accomplished in a musical instrument, and why it made them more marriageable. The skill would make for a much more pleasant home life.
In my imagination it went something like this:
Someone who was jealous of people with the tabletop musical clocks went, ‘Yes, very curious indeed. But it’s not like it can play real, orchestra music, with real, orchestra instruments.’
And the Dutch was like, Houd mijn bier.
The self-playing chamber instruments
The guide showed us a piano that had been modified so that it could play music automatically.
I was curious as to how it would sound. Surely, a programmed piano would not play as smoothly and beautifully as a human musician? I was a sceptic. Not that I am a good pianist myself, but this machine?
And then the piano began playing. The keys pressed themselves, flying through the music, exactly as if a real musician were playing.
It was really, really good. Mind-boggling!
The guide then told us that they had even made a self-playing violin!
Get out of here! Of all the classical orchestra instruments, surely the violin could not be programmed! The bow strokes, and the string controls… how could it be?
But it was. Inside a tall cabinet there was not one, but three self-playing violins, programmed to play in concert with a self-playing piano. She demonstrated the ‘chamber orchestra’.
I was speechless. Mind. Blown. The violins played for real.
This time, it was not quite like a human professional musician. Although the sound was good (they are proper violins, after all), the design could not quite replicate the subtleties that made the violin such an emotional instrument.
But my mind was still blown, that it was even done at all.
But why is the speelklok music so good?
I mean, the music did not at all sound like it was mechanical. It’s completely unlike the mechanical tinkling of a music box. Just take that thought out of your mind. Comparing these speelklok with even the nicest music boxes, is like comparing cotton with cashmere. The music flows.
It turned out that the reason is that real musicians were involved, not just engineers.
You’d think that the famous composers of songs coded into these instruments would resent that they’re not being played live. But actually, quite a few of them embraced the technology! They personally supervised the crafting and coding, so that the instruments played their music exactly right.
I’m sure that if such musical luxuries had stayed relevant and in fashion, the composers (and engineers!) would have figured out a way to make even the violins sound perfect.
From Ancient Automata to the Dutch Speelklok
The speelklok, literally ‘self-playing clock’, was of course not a new invention. The Greeks, the Arabs, and the Chinese, all had produced engineers who made and programmed all manner of automata to varying degrees of complexity. There were singing birds to please some monarch or other, time-keeping or astrological devices, even ones that automated toilet-flushing.
But somehow, I felt there was a subtle difference to the musical clocks in Utrecht, that took them to another level. It was not necessarily in their engineering complexity. Nor in any special way that the musical programming was done. It was not scale, or anything technical like that – even thought both were impressive. The latter part of the tour takes you behind the scenes to the making of such musical clocks, as well as the culture at the time they were in vogue.
What blew my mind the most was the chamber instruments. And I realised that the reason they were in a class of their own, was that – unlike all the other automata – they weren’t really made by engineers attempting to mimic something.
I mean, engineers crafted the mechanisms, obviously. But, if you think about it, they were made by musicians who made sure that the machines played music well. They may not have been engineers, but they were experts in the music bit, and they knew enough mechanics to supervise its replication in a self-playing machine.
For me, this is what I associate the most with Dutch culture. It is such a technological culture, that even their artists and musicians can be expected to understand something of engineering (oh how I envy this!).
It’s this confluence between art and engineering that produces design. And it is design that rescues engineering from becoming boring and uninspiring on the one hand, and over-worked and over-complicated on the other – as so frequently happens!!
Carbon offset information to the Netherlands
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Amsterdam produces carbon emissions of approximately 8,224 lbs CO2e. It costs about $41 to offset this.
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