The creation of the music box was arguably one of the most revolutionary moments of musical history. While instruments have evolved in their forms and uses over the ages, the invention of a mechanism capable of independently reproducing an entire tune was a huge cultural leap.
The earliest music boxes were created in the 1700s, and were developed from snuff boxes. Their original name was carillons à musique, meaning “chimes of music” The idea of the self-playing box was developed from carillon bell towers in Europe. The mechanisms on these towers used pinned cogs on a rotating barrel to move hammers, which in turn would strike a tuned bell in sequence to produce music.
In the early years of production, most boxes came from Switzerland, where the clockwork operated mechanisms were created by watchmakers. In the late 18th century however, the steel music note, or tooth, was created, and pushed music box creation and demand to new levels. By 1815, the first company dedicated to music box production was created, and further factories subsequently opened in Switzerland, Germany, and even America. The industry employed over 100,000 workers, with early and famous makers including Nicole Freres, Reymond Nicole, LeCoultre and F. Nicole.
Where very early examples of music boxes utilised bells and drums, the mechanism used during the heyday of their production took the form of small pins on a rotating cylinder. An internal fine comb would strike the pins precisely as the cylinder moved, with each strike of the pin producing a musical note. The cylinders at the core of the music box were usually crafted from metal, with more expensive models having removable cylinders in order that the melodies could be exchanged. A melody would last for around 30 seconds to a minute, although some uniquely designed pieces could play music continually for up to three hours.
Most music boxes were built to sit neatly on a tabletop, however some were fashioned into large pieces of furniture. As the industry flourished, the forms of music boxes branched out, to include bird boxes, sublime harmonie, mandoline and orchestra cylinder boxes.
Toward the end of the 18th century, the cylinder design began to be replaced with a design that used metal disks to create melodies. Large pre-phonograph music machines were created in several forms, designed to sound as though an entire orchestra was placed within the box.
As the 20th century developed, music boxes began to be replaced by player pianos, which were larger and could play a larger assortment of melodies. Later, with its unique ability to play back voices as well as melodies, the creation of the gramophone would eclipse all previous forms of music player.
A beautiful example of a 19th century music box was included in Anthemion Auctions’ Fine Art Sale on the 13th of April. The intricately decorated piece plays ten airs, including Waltz’s, Polka’s and Choeur des Soldats, or Soldiers Choir, by Faust. The sound of a music box is distinct from any other medium, resonantly absorbing yet light and magical in tone. A piece of cultural history and a joy to listen to.