What are organ clocks?

Organ clocks are precision mechanical clocks combined with a small organ. The mechanical clock movement is linked to the musical mechanism and the music is generated by a rotating barrel, usually of wood. The result is melodious and music pieces were composed especially for organ clocks by famous composers such as Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart.

The organ clocks were built for affluent, culturally sophisticated people, with an appreciation of art and music. They possibly originated in the late seventeenth century, but their high point was in the “Age of Reason” in the eighteenth century. The finest specimens were built primarily in Berlin around 1770. But many were made in Vienna and in England, the Netherlands and France a decade later. Extensive production of organ clocks began in the Black Forest from circa 1810 but these clocks were of lesser quality.

The music barrel - Most precious part of an organ clock

The greatest advances in organ clock making were made by the Viennese. They made the clockwork to such a high standard that the motion of the wheels and pinions and the rotation of the fly did not drown the melodious sounds of the organ itself. The tonal quality of the pipes was perfected and remains unsurpassed to this day. Finally they doubled the musical playing time up to 8 minutes, without the necessity of rewinding the mechanism.

Organ clocks were also used for entertainment in inns and taverns. Thus they already existed, like the other kinds of clocks made in the Black Forest, at the dawn of the age of mass production. At the same time barrel organs were manufactured in large numbers.

The era of organ clock manufacture came to an end at about this time. Alternatives such as the much cheaper musical boxes were developed in Switzerland. But these, like the carillon, were not capable of musical dynamics. The Swiss music box movements were initially confined to clocks which were erroneously referred to as “Spieluhr” (musical clock).

Today many of these precious old organ clocks are to be found in private collections and museums. The clocks made by our Matthias Naeschke clockworks follow in the long tradition of organ clock making and our skills are recognised world-wide. We are frequently asked by collectors and museum curators throughout the world for advice and information concerning an old organ clock.


There are traditional music pieces from Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn

Organ clock music encompasses only a very small segment of our Western musical culture. Despite this, such an area of music does exist in its own right. On the one hand, a composer who is writing for a small organ clock is limited by the range and volume of the instrument, but on the other hand be has completely different tone qualities at his disposal. The limits and possibilities of a musician’s playing techniques are not relevant here at all. Even 15-part chords or simultaneously played chords with runs or trills are possible.

Musikbeispiele:


With the pinned barrels of these small organ mechanisms the most subtle variations in tempo and rhythm are possible. By influencing the response of the pipes, the finest nuances in articulation are obtainable, since the valves can be opened at differing speeds. Music can be made much more dynamic than is possible when performed by a musician. And a fuller sound is possible because there is no restriction of the performing musician’s ten fingers.

Von Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, über Ludwig van Beethoven bis hin zu Joseph Haydn ist herrlichste Musik für diese kleinen Instrumente überliefert. Aber auch entsprechend gestaltete Volksmusiksätze erklingen äußerst liebenswert. In einem Wohnhaus verbreitet stündlich erklingende Flötenuhrmusik eine Atmosphäre von persönlicher Geborgenheit. Auf unsere, von elektronischer Klangerzeugung strapazierten Ohren übt diese Musik einen unvergleichlichen Reiz aus.

Each barrel is an expression of the marking musician

The designer who marks the barrel must be a sensitive musician who has experience in harmonization and ornamentation and finds an ideal form of musical expression in his making of the barrel. The barrel itself has had a long tradition over 250 years, having been used for chimes, mechanical spinets, harp clocks, then organ clocks, as well as for ordinary barrel organs. From the middle of the eighteenth century onwards, the heyday of the organ clock, the possibilities for rendering music with the pinned barrel reached a state of perfection. Essential for such perfection, however, was the precision and durability of the organ clock movements achieved by the clockmakers of the time.