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More Than a Melody: Antique Music Boxes


Handcrafted Music Making Mechanisms

Do you remember your first Walkman or iPod? The ongoing commitment to streamlining portable musical devices exemplifies how crucial music is to our culture and to humanity. But long before we could stream music on our cell phones, inventors strove to automate the different musical fashions of their time. In fact, the first known records of mechanical music boxes date back to the 9th century! But these musical innovations weren't just functional, they were ornately designed and assembled at the highest level of craftsmanship. At M.S. Rau Antiques, we have an incredible and diverse selection of antique music boxes and musical devices, varying tremendously in scale, from hand-held bird boxes to towering orchestrions.



One of the earliest examples of automated music boxes in our collection features the melody of a bird song, rather than a traditional musical composition. Known as “bird boxes,” these unique and complex automatons include a small, intricately feathered robotic bird that emerges from a box to “sing” its song. One of history’s most admired makers of bird box automatons is Frères Rochat, who designed this elegant example, the Singing bird box in silver decorated with enamel of circa 1840, that operates on a fusée movement. Fusée movements are known for their astonishing complexity, which provide the longest and clearest playing movements as a result of their chain-driven operation. See a video below.


Many early music boxes were made by watch and clock-makers, who were well suited to manipulate their small, intricate mechanisms. They sometimes even fitted musical mechanisms in snuff boxes! Eventually, for a bigger and deeper sound, the size of the boxes had to grow, so cabinet makers were commissar to build ornate housings for larger mechanisms.




Some of our most enchanting antique music boxes operate with a disc mechanism whose melody is imprinted in metal, rather than on a paper roll. The Polyphon Autochange Disc Music Box from circa 1890 is one of my personal favorites. Much like a jukebox, it contains several large metal discs that each feature a song. These can be interchanged (and the box can hold up to 6 at a time!) There are even slots on the front of the box to display text or artwork corresponding to each disc’s melody.





A smaller, tabletop version of this same mechanism resembles an old-fashioned record player; in the Regina Music Box the metal disc sits horizontally, and pins below hit each perforation as it spins to create the chimes. The box’s disk is also removable and interchangeable—and is offered with a total of 17 discs!


Eventually there was demand for larger scale music boxes that would replace live bands or orchestras in dance halls or cafés. One such invention was the Arburo Orchestrion Organ by Bursens & Roels. This electrical organ from the early 20th century boasts not only a 168-pipe organ, but also base and snare drums, a triangle, and 20 different melodies on interchangeable paper scrolls. Check out the video below to experience this bold and boisterous machine.




My favorite example in the store is our Hupfeld Phonoliszt-Violina. This model is a personal string quartet for your home, with three finely tuned violins and a piano, all automated to play from one of several paper rolls of varying compositions. The violins are played by a circular bow comprised of 1350 horsehairs. However, one of the most exciting parts of this piece is its development of dynamic range, allowing it to play very quietly in piano, or a loud forte, something previously only achievable by a human musician. This is one of only 63 remaining models of the Hupfeld Phonoliszt-Violina Model B globally, and is in excellent condition. Take a look at it in action below.






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