The true short story about the Dutch barrel organs

[This one is for Robert Gaal]. There is nothing so loud as a Dutch barrel organ. When you walk the streets of Amsterdam, you will find yourself overwhelmed with the joyful sound of pipes, drums and flutes jolly spouting one or another tune.

Where most barrel organs are quite small and modest, the dutch (also check these images) can be huge and are loud enough to be heard in a radius of kilometers.

An impression of a small Dutch barrel organ in action

This is not strange as it origins from a war machine. This is the remarkable story mostly known only inside the group Dutch barrel organ players, as hardly anybody else really cares:

Origin of the modern Dutch barrel organ

At the end of the Eighty years war, the Dutch resistance got short on resources and money. It was only a matter of time before the war for Dutch Independence would end in defeat and we would remain just one of the other province of the Hispano Portugese empire.

Based on known technologies a new instrument of terror came from an unforseen corner: the Portable Pipe Organ developed by Guido Warnies of Gent. Originally designed to enable churches to move their assets to a save haven quickly when a new battle would take place an unknown soldier opted the plan to use these musical instruments as an instrument of terror.

Naturally these organs did not have the complex “pianola” like mechanics to play music. They were manually operated by organ players.

Instruments of terror

Using not only  dissonant or discord music through pipe flutes, also mechanically driven drums were added to increase the level of intimidation. Moving five to ten Portable Pipe War Organs at the same time, the dissonant music would be so loud and intimidating that it became unbearable.

Naturally the War Organ players were chosen from the brave Dutch who where deaf from birth or due to hearing impairment from the sounds of gun and cannon firing at close range. The Dutch warriors would wear hearing protection in the shape of clay or wax props.

Playing the War Organs day and night the Dutch exhausted the Spanish conquerers and drove them close to madness: to the levels of breakdown after which they were easy pray for cleverly laid ambushes.

While the peace negotiations were progressing at a snail’s pace, with the Portable Pipe War Organs, Frederick Henry managed a last few military successes: in 1644 he captured Sas van Gent and Hulst in what was to become States Flanders. In 1646, however, Holland, sick of the feet-dragging in the peace negotiations, refused to approve the annual war budget, unless progress was made in the negotiations.

Where history forgets

As sometimes happens, in the course of history, the role of Portable Pipe Organs as a whole moved into obscurity. As none of the Spanish soldiers were able to tell and the Dutch simply closed the book due to Frederick Henry’s impopularity as a troublemaker in the peace process, mostly all records of this clever strategic use of Portable Pipe War Organs simply vanished.

Rediscovery of the concept

Only about 1850 the italian Ludovico Gavioli re-invented the concept of Portable Pipe Organs and created a new branch of barrel organs, but qua size and loudness they were not half as impressive as the original Belgian / Dutch Portable Pipe War Organs.

Seeing that the market was ripe, in 1875 the  Belgian Leon Warnies started his own production of barrel organs. As he needed something more powerful than the French Italian barrel organ he based his designs on the remnant Portable Pipe War Organ sketches by Guido Warnies of Gent inherited from his family lineage. His organs thus became much more impressive than the ones developed in Paris by Gavioli due to the loudness and use of drums and bells and adapted soon in the Dutch culture. And so an old Belgian Dutch war machine was revived again in an completely different form.

Nowadays Dutch organ players hold an almost religious belief that playing the Dutch barrel organ is a cultural service to community as where even an single instrument is actually too massive and loud to please a person even momentarely and the element of terror is still present even though the concept of the original Portable Pipe War Organ has been scaled down to the size of the current instruments.


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2 comments

  1. Hallo,
    Hele interesante informatie in dit stukje.
    Ik ben een achter-achter klein kind van Leon Warnies en ben al jaren op zoek naar zijn vaders en voorvaders, maar ben nooit verder dan zijn moeder gekomen. Daarom heel erg geintreseerd naar een eventuele lijn naar Guido Warnies.
    Kunt uw mij mischien helpen?

    Bij voorbaat dank,
    Lido

  2. Thomas Bailey · · Reply

    Huge? Can be heard for kilometers? Sounds like the Midmer-Losh organ in Atlantic City, with its 33,112 pipes, some of them on 100″ wind pressure. Of course it is not even close to being portable. The organ in Balboa Park, San Diego is also quite large and powerful, as is the one in the Wanamaker, Philadelphia.

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