Fairground Organs

This essay first appeared on the electronic
mailing list Piporg-l

A 112-key Mortier Dance Organ

The punch-card playing street organ and its close relatives the showman's or fairground organ, the carousel organ, and the dance organ are most commonly associated with the Netherlands and Belgium, and it was there that many of the most famous makers flourished, especially in the 30 years either side of 1900. In fact the species probably originated in Italy, and many of the names often associated with these instruments are obviously Italian in origin (Gavioli, Marenghi).

The UK has become the resting place for several hundred restored examples. The British love of old steam engines, cars and the wider industrial heritage extends to a flourishing and spectacular survival of the travelling steam fair. One of the most famous events to be enjoyed is the Great Dorset Steam Fair which takes place on a several hundred acre site near Blandford Forum each year and at which a wide range of organs are demonstrated.

This fair also brings steam engines of every possible description (except for those that run on rails), a fairground containing many original and now rare rides, classic cars, bikes, military and argricultural machinery. The entire operation works on the principle that the exhibits work - so there are threshing machines threshing, cranes lifting, traction engines hauling and ploughing, rollers rolling, stone-crushers crushing ... and any other task you can apply motive power to.

Your correspondent attended this year as usual, brought to the site in the 'barouche' (1955 Citroen 11BL), and staying with my brother and family at nearby Fontmell Magna (a place I mention by name only in order to confirm to non-English readers that life in our countryside really is as quaint as it appears in the movies). As usual I spent some time comparing the various organs on display, applying a critical eye to the restorations (usually impeccable, but some of those guys don't know how to tune those things - there are two temperaments for fair organs, equal and another one I can't work out by ear (sounds like modified meantone), and some of the steam engine nuts restore them as machines but don't realise that you need a musical ear to complete the job).

The ones worth looking out for are the big showman's and fair organs, which were either entertainments in their own right on the fairground or were coupled with another large attraction such as a dance stage or later a Bioscope (Cinema). These beasts have no exact American equivalent. The nearest are the Wurlitzer band organs. I have a recording of a Wurlitzer model 164, claimed to be one of the 'world's largest'. I tell you, you guys ain't seen nothing.

A big fairground organ is the size of semi-trailer, on wheels, and is driven by a belt off a steam engine or by current generated by one. One side folds down to reveal a wildly garish frontispiece including, usually, functional arrays of pipes. These are of various peculiar types, none of them quite like pipes found in church or theatre organs. The fluework is largely wood, based on ranks of bearded viols (of extraordinary power) and transverse blown flutes, open and stopped, running up into piercingly loud trebles. In really large instruments there are many ranks of viols side by side, clearly intended as a potently throbbing celeste. Reed pipes usually include wooden Trombone basses with heavily mitred and cranked half length resonators, and several manufacturers used spun brass trumpets to fine musical and visual effect. There are then extensive arrays of percussions, tuned and untuned. The pipes are surrounded by statues, carving and painting in a style best described as 'Showman's Roccoco'. In even the most modest instrument at least one of the statues will move, either conducting the music with a baton or playing along on a triangle.

The instruments are operated from punched cards on the principle of a player-piano roll, but considerably more robust (and folded up Z-fashion). There were various standard systems referred to as '84 keys', '101 keys', '112 keys' and so-on, and technical developments on the action side (I believe a change from exhaust pneumatic to vacuum pneumatic) led to some being described as 'keyless' - e.g. '84 keyless'. The operators would be able to purchase the most up to date tunes from the manufacturers. Traditional fairgound organs are still being made in the Low Countries (where the craft never died out) and in Britain (a small-scale but interesting revival).

The different styles of instruments by the major makers is a fascinating study in its own right, and finding a really good instrument in good condition is a very special treat. The arrangements of the music are immensely flashy and complex, and use the technical resources of the organs to the full. The American band organs and carousel organs tend to play flat out all the time and get a bit wearisome (endless Souza marches played at a relentless and unvaryingly mechanical tempo). The big European ones go for sophisticated tonal effects and rapid changes of dynamic and colour. The music is intended, of course, to be highly entertaining and the arrangements are sometimes so audacious as to be both amazing and hilarious at the same time. Amongst instruments I have seen, the big Gaviolis seem to represent the very best of the classic late-nineteenth century type and the Italian 'Rossini' tone (my invented term!) - in fact the connection between them and nineteenth century Italian church organs (which also had percussions as standard) is quite clear. Other types have their own charms - the Belgian builder Hooghuys (yes the very same one who built the organ in the church at West Tofts, Norfolk, for Sir John Sutton in 1847) was noted for a distinctive nasal tone and an especially rapid action (allowing flutter tremolo effects as well as characteristically zany piccolo solos taken at a speed that only a machine could contemplate, let alone execute).

But my absolute favourite (yes, there's more) has to be the Mortier Dance Organ of the 1920s and 30s, the last type of mechanical travelling instrument to enjoy a success in its own right, and described below.

Belgian popular culture is something very special. Little understood by the rather snobby nations on its borders, Belgium is blessed with a populace who know how to enjoy the most uncomplicated pleasures. Like naughty children stuffing their faces with sweets, they include amongst the great national treats fresh Mussels served with fries and Beer made with fruit (like cherries or strawberries). It is impossible not to smile at aspects of the various national manias (especially if you come from a country as eccentric as England), and indeed that is the point of the idea - we are all invited by the Belgians simply to have fun.

So, imagine if you will, in the period between the two world wars (in which Belgium, like much of Europe, was poor and much battle-scarred) the emergence of a market for travelling dance-halls. These toured the towns and villages, setting up for a night or two at a time, and offering, under cover, a temporary restaurant, bar and dance floor for the entertainment of those who could pay a few francs. Music was provided a modified version of the fairground organ.

The Mortier company made this market their own with instruments which, while working on exactly the same principle as the outdoor organs, were completely different musically. And, in fact, completely different visually: the Mortier organs are the most splendid flowering of Art Deco kitsch that Europe ever saw. Naturally the scale of the animal is smaller than the Chrysler Building and it would pale in comparison to half the things that once stood on Coney Island, but Mortier more than made up for lack of space on the front of the organ by cramming it with the most outrageously garish and exuberant display of modern movement decoration, painted in every pastel colour imaginable (and extending to one or two shades of turquoise and mauve that are not), overpainted in silver and gold, and then varnished until the whole thing glitters like a rotating ball at a discotheque. The display includes no pipes (all hidden within), but does offer the spectator a sight of the more unusual percussions (chinese blocks, castanets, african gourds) and usually a mysterious 'phantom' piano-accordion and/or saxophone - suspended in mid-air against a black cloth and magically playing 'for real'.

The music is a mixture of folk, local pop songs, and international (often American) hits of the period, all performed in an idiosyncratic smoochy local style, with more than a hint of South American influence. There is a big overlap with the repertoire and style of the European cinema organist. Appropriately enough the tone of a Mortier is a bit like a rustic version of a Compton Cinema organ, based on smooth tibias, viols less fierce than those fitted to outdoor instruments, and backed up by reed basses as ponderous and opaque as half-length wooden tubes will allow. However, the presence of a free-reed section (the piano accordion) and the Saxophone (I think flue pipes) puts quite a different cast on the ensemble, and there are a couple of downright weird solo effects (I think the 'Vibratone' is the great Mortier speciality) that I cannot even begin to describe (well, one is like a swanee whistle and the other is a flutter tremulant so fast and deep that you expect the paint to flake off).

The Mortier is a fascinating beast: where the fairground organ is tarty like a can-can girl the Mortier takes you straight into the world of Maigret and Edith Piaf. Where's my moules frites and biere framboise?