Composers Datebook®

Maelzel's Mechanical Wonders

Franz Haydn (1732 – 1809): Flute Clock Pieces (mechanical "Flute Clock" c. 1800) Candide 31093 (out-of-print LP recording) Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): Wellington's Victory (Berlin Philharmonic; Herbert von Karajan, cond.) DG 453 713


Composer's Datebook - July 21, 2021

2:00


July 21, 2021

Synopsis

On today’s date in 1838, the crew of the American ship Otis, docked at a harbor in Venezuela, discovered that one of their passengers had died in his cabin. He was the German inventor and one-time business associate of Beethoven, Johann Nepomuk Maelzel.

Maelzel was born in Regensburg in 1772, the son of an organ builder. Perhaps a childhood spent among the inner workings of pipe organs predisposed him to become an inventor of mechanical instruments. At age 20, Maelzel moved to Vienna, and began peddling mechanical organs that could play short tunes by Haydn and Mozart on demand.

Maezel didn’t stop there: he invented entire mechanical orchestras and other wonders for display in a museum he opened in 1812. Beethoven even composed a piece for Maelzel’s mechanical orchestra entitled “Wellington’s Victory.”  The two collaborators soon fell out over who owned what, and Beethoven re-orchestrated “Wellington’s Victory” for human performers.

Maelzel took his contraptions on tour and spent a good deal of his later life exhibiting them in the United States and the West Indies. Today, Maelzel’s musical inventions are regarded as obsolete curios – with one exception: he’s credited with finessing and popularizing the use of the metronome.

Music Played in Today's Program

Franz Haydn (1732 – 1809): Flute Clock Pieces (mechanical "Flute Clock" c. 1800) Candide 31093 (out-of-print LP recording)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): Wellington's Victory (Berlin Philharmonic; Herbert von Karajan, cond.) DG 453 713

On This Day

Births

  • 1896 - French composer Jean Rivier, in Villemomble

Deaths

  • 1838 - German inventor of the metronome, Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, age 65, on board the brig Otis in the harbour of La Guiara, Venezuela, en route to Philadelphia; Beethoven's orchestral battle-symphony, "Wellington's Victory," was originally written for one of Maelzel's mechanical music-machines

Premieres

  • 1733 - Handel: oratorio "Athalia," in Oxford (Julian date: July 10)

  • 1938 - Hindemith: ballet, "St. Francis," at Covent Garden in London, with composer conducting (the suite titled "Nobilissima Visone" is drawn from this score)

  • 1971 - William Bolcom: “Frescoes” in Montreal, with Bruce Mather (piano and harmonium) and Pierrette LePage (piano and harpsichord);

  • 1983 - Thomas Oboe Lee: "Morango …almost a tango" for string quartet, at the Sanders Theater in Cambridge, Mass., by the Composers in Red Sneakers ensemble