50 Years

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Stirring Stuff - Fair Organ Preservation Society

Stirring Stuff

by Archie Mercer

The Thimble & The Ocean

The repertoire of the fair organ should be absolutely superb, since it has the best music of all periods upon which to draw. Unfortunately it doesn't work quite like that.

The fair organ's original hey-day was from about 1892 until the early 1930s. The music provided for it consisted, for the most part, of popular tunes of the day, mostly of recent vintage. A large proportion, probably the majority, was simply popular songs. This was augmented by items from the band repertoire, falling more or less into the category of 'light' music - which had only separated from the mainstream of 'serious' music during the 19th century. This band category included, for instance, the better-known Strauss waltzes and Sousa marches, some overtures, Liszt's best-known Hungarian Rhapsody and selections from various shows. It even ran to operatic selections, so Verdi and Wagner each got a toe-hold.

With the revival of interest in the fair organ from around 1960, the scope widened a bit but only a bit. The basis of the latter-day repertoire was still popular tunes of the time. In other words, the fair organ repertoire tends to follow popular taste rather than helping to formulate it. Let's have a quick riffle through the overall position.

For a start, the 20th Century composers of what passes for 'serious' music are virtually ignored, even the tuneful composers such as Sibelius and Vaughan Williams. The nearest thing to a contemporary 'classic' we're likely to hear is the Sabre Dance.

The 19th Century composers of the 'Romantic' school are a bit better represented but not nearly as much as they might be. I've mentioned Liszt, Verdi and Wagner. There's some Tchaikovsky around, and the odd Brahms Hungarian Dance, but I cannot, off hand, recall meeting any Schubert, Dvorak or Grieg to name but a few. What about Beethoven then, generally recognised as the greatest of the great? I once met an orchestrion that had a paper roll of his Leonora No. 3 Overture but I don't remember ever hearing any Beethoven on the rally field or in the street.

Then there's the 'high-classical' period of the late 18th Century; Mozart can be heard occasionally. There's his overture to The Marriage of Figaro of course, his Turkish March or Turkish Rondo (which seems, in practice, to be restricted to large Mortiers) and a theme from his 40th Symphony that was popularised two or three decades ago as Mozart Forte. Boz Gram's Hooghuys, which boasts an idiosyncratic owner-notated repertoire from the 1930s, has a certain well-known Boccherini minuet; I know of no Haydn, however.

Then there's the 'baroque' period - the age of Purcell, Handel, Bach and their contemporaries. The music of this period is full of sprightly dances and tuneful airs that are consistently overlooked. Handel is represented twice - by the Hallelujah Chorus and The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. Neither Purcell nor Bach seems to be represented at all, although Thomas Arne's perennial Rule, Britannia also derives from this period and Kevin Byrne has notated some fragments from Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

Pre-'baroque' compositions are virtually a write-off from the start. A vast amount of music, in manuscript or even in print, still survives, a fair proportion of it being extremely tuneful. It is gradually being disinterred, studied, performed and recorded but not, so far as I'm aware, notated for mechanical organ.

Folk music (song and dance) is often of venerable age, though, because of changes via the 'folk process' as performer passes it to performer, it's not very easy to give even an approximate age to any specific tune. Some traditional hymn-tunes, too, have folk-status. There is actually quite a lot of folk-music in the fair organ repertoire, usually in selections called Jig Selection, Reel Selection, Scottish orIrish Airs, English Morris Dances and the like. Possibly the oldest pedigree tune in the organ repertoire is Greensleeves. This is a folk-tune - it turns up as a traditional Morris-dance tune for one thing - but it happened to be notated in Tudor times, much as we know today. At one time its composition was attributed to Henry VIII, who seems, rather surprisingly, to have been a competent musician, but more recent research indicates that it was known before his time (he died in 1547) so it may well be half a millennium old or more.

Obviously, I do not have an exhaustive knowledge of the full repertoire of every fairground or other mechanical organ, so it's possible you may know of some Bach air, Haydn minuet or Beethoven march that some organ has tucked away in its library. But, in general, I think I've dealt fairly with the subject.

© 1996 Archie Mercer

Originally published in edition 4 of The Key Frame 1996.

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