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Keyboard Thursday album review: Wagner's opera music reincarnated on player organ

By John Terauds on March 7, 2013

A sketch of the Welte Philharmonic organ that was supposed to have been installed in the Britannic in 1914.
A sketch of the Welte Philharmonic organ that was supposed to have been installed in the Britannic in 1914.

The Britannic Organ Vol. 5 from European label Oehms Classics is a rarity of rarities, collecting performances of the music of Richard Wagner imprinted on rolls made for Welte player organs 100 years ago — in time for the Wagner centenary.

The only way we can tell how pianists and organists interpreted music before the advent of the phonograph is by listening to the rolls they recorded for companies like Welte in Europe and Aeolian in the United States.

wagnerFor the 100th anniversary of Wagner’s birth in 1913, Welte hired the world’s best concert organists to record rolls for its player mechanisms. The rolls are made of paper, so are being digitized in a complex, expensive process, to preserve the hands and feet that originally recorded them.

In the digitising process, which has been coordinated in Switzerland, the rolls were brought to the Museum of Music Automatons in Seewen in order to record the music one of the few surviving organs with a working Welte playback mechanism — one that includes cute little special effects like bells.

The instrument used to record this album is called the Britannic Organ because it was built for White Star Lines to be installed in one of the Titanic‘s sister ships. (The story of the Britannic, which never saw regular passenger duty because it was commandeered to serve as a hospital ship during World War I, is just as tragic as the Titanic‘s. You can read the short version here.)

What we get is a colourful collection of Overtures and miscellaneous other largely operatic material from Wagner’s greatest hits.

Particularly fine is a transcription of “Träume” from the Wesendonck-Lieder and a jaunty Homage March for King Ludwig II of Bavaria on disc 1 and the Death March from Götterdämmerung and the Overture to Rienzi on disc 2.

The Götterdämmerung excerpt, with its bells, chimes and heavy tremolo (vibrato) is cheesy yet utterly engrossing.

You can find all the details on this fascinating two-CD album here, but the information is all in German.

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If you’re planning to be in Switzerland, the Museum of Music Automatons has a special exibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Welte Philharmonic Organ running until March 31, 2014. Details here.

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Here is a little home video of a Welte Philharmonic player organ at work, at Broomhill, Sir David Salomon’s house in Kent, in the U.K., followed by a bit more Offenbach on another Welte organ:

John Terauds

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