Grinding out a living


Coming out of Hamburg main station via the north exit you are occasionally greeted by a sound rarely heard these days: the trickle of tunes from a barrel organ. With his old-world instrument and the music of a bygone era, the organ grinder is not like the ordinary busker. I paused to listen (and to take a picture, and spare him some change), and wondered why this tradition has persisted in Germany, but not in England.

The riddle was not solved with a quick Wikipedia search. However, from what I can gather, the reason for one country’s abandonment and the other’s continued appreciation lie in the particular circumstances of the barrel organ’s invention and later uses.

It is not known when the barrel organ, or ‘Drehorgel’, was invented, but the first mention of such an instrument is from 1650, in the writings of the German Jesuit priest Athanasius Kirchner (1601-1680).

It appears that these mechanical instruments were often produced by the same craftsmen, many of them German, who also made the great church organs. The organ business was, in other words, a continental, and often German, speciality.

Portable organs made their way to England in the 18th Century. However, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries local authorities often banned the public playing of them. The players would simply grind out the same tune over and over again, being more of a nuisance than anything else. The derogatively named ‘organ grinders’ could hardly be blamed, though. They rented rather than owned the instrument, which were often of poor quality and with limited ability to change tunes.

In Germany it was perhaps a different matter: here there were well-produced organs, owned by their players, who consequently also had a much greater interest in their upkeep.

Fast forward to today, and a detailed internet search will show you that there are just six recommended street organ makers in England; in Germany, the picture is very different with over one hundred manufacturers. You might say that with such a long history of craftsmanship and being the so-called home of the street organ, it is hardly surprising that some organ makers still manage to grind out a living.