Concert at the Musical Museum

Date January 1, 2010 | Map

A museum for automatic musical instruments. Just the place for me: I have always wanted to go there, but never quite made it. Until today: the New Year’s Day afternoon concert seemed to be an appropriate activity for the first day of the new year.

And I should have known what to expect: old people, plenty of them. Feels…strange…to be the youngest by quite a margin these days, almost like a child among adults. Or like a visitor in a care home, had the folks around us been less fit. But the programme promised light classics mixed with a touch of humour, which is exactly the kind of stuff that attracts the elderly, sometimes by busloads, as I had experienced earlier (German article). But the old folks usually have brilliant stories to tell, and today they were told by the automatic instruments of the Musical Museum. A brand new experience for us, pure nostalgia for the others.

The programme itself was not really spectacular. Light classics was a very ample description for a bit of Strauss, some pieces from the twenties and thirties, plus a bit of Musical glamour. Topped with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance and Auld Lang Syne. No, the appeal came from the musical instruments: while the concert piano was nice but not spectacular either, the player was. The keys were not virtuousically stroked by a master musician, but by a pianola component – the piano was played by a machine! Not quite, though: ironically, the player machine had to be operated by someone in order to advance the paper roll, providing us with the pleasure of watching a man wiggling some levers, switches and pedals.

At least this was more exciting to watch than the Mighty Wurlitzer played by an automatic mechanism, which did not produce any visible movement at all. We actually had to trust our host that the sound was coming from the Wurlitzer, and not from an MP3 file hidden on an iPod in the cabinet. However, our host also played the Wurlitzer live – what a joy to hear this characteristic instrument, the theatre organ with its multitude of mechanically created sounds, produced by pipes, bells, percussion instruments and other things. Initially designed to accompany silent movies, a few music-only pieces were composed specifically for this one-man-orchestra instrument. The Musical Museum’s Mighty Wurlitzer was optically enhanced with LED-based changing light effects to both sides of it, making it look even grander than in its original state.

Gala Concert Ticket

Gala Concert Ticket

We also had a chance to visit two of the three galleries that make up the actual Museum. £8 may be a hefty entrance fee for just three rooms, yet this is a private self-financed museum with a collection of things that are usually nowhere else to be seen these days: machines that can play back music, the predecessors of CDs and MP3 files, or rather of modern performance keyboards. And considering that the museum’s electricity standing charge is about £500 a month before any electricity is actually used, the entrance fee is not that high, and well worth paying to support this charming museum.

The Musical Museum is located close to Kew Bridge station, not too far from Gunnersbury Tube & Overground station, or a pleasant few minutes’ walk from Kew Gardens. Nearby is the Kew Bridge Steam Museum, which is still on my list of things to do.



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