AmaCerto excursion: Hearing music from the past at Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet Museum

Guide Christelle cranks up an old gramophone which needs a new needle each time it is played.
Guide Christelle cranks up an old gramophone which needs a new needle each time it is played.

ABOARD THE AmaCERTO — The tiny bird opens its beak and begins trilling a lovely tune. Six ghostly violins in perfect harmony play classical music without musicians’ hands anywhere in sight. A band of 27 dolls, each playing a different instrument, creates a pleasing symphony.

“Welcome to Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet Museum,” guide Christelle says, leading our large group through the multi-roomed museum. “It is almost unbelievable what you are going to see and hear in here.”

A teeny snuff box has a musical bird atop it.
A teeny snuff box has a musical bird atop it.

Christelle was right. I chose to visit the Musical Museum when the AmaCrto docked in Rüdesheim because I had heard so much about the self-playing musical cabinets. Other passengers on AmaCerto were going to learn more about the local specialty of Rüdesheimer Coffee. Still others were going to taste some of the Riesling wine for which Rüdesheim is famous.

As an extra treat, our transportation for the short distance into town would be on a mini train. We also could take the train back to the ship after our shore excursions. I decided to walk instead and take photos along the river.

Hard to believe but the more than 350 musical cabinets in the museum are the collection of one man. The story goes that Siegfried Wendel visited Las Angeles on his honeymoon and came across a collection of player pianos and mechanical instruments. Many of the instruments were in poor condition, some destined for the scrap heap. A craftsman, Wendel was fascinating by the self-playing devices and began collecting them. Wendel restored the musical works of art and then wanted to share the music with others.

An ornate musical cabinet plays circus music.
An ornate musical cabinet plays circus music.

That’s why in 1969 he opened his collection to the public in his hometown of Rüdesheim. Today, the museum is located in a 15th century manor. Some of the complex music boxes are so tiny – such as the bird on the ornate snuff box – that they can fit in the palm of your hand. Others are so huge that they fill up most of a room.

Remember these devices were all the rage before radios, record players, televisions and other forms of home entertainment. “If you wanted music in your home and could afford it, this is what you would have to entertain,” Christelle says. Clad in her old-fashioned dress and lace-trimmed straw hat, Christelle gave the history behind the instruments and showed how they played and how they sounded.

One scratchy gramophone record sounded like a speeded-up Doris Day signing the words of the song Que Sera Sera , “When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother, what would I be?” The needle on the oversized gramophone has to be changed each time, Christelle says, or it will destroy the record.

This instrument plays a violin and piano concerto - without hands.
This instrument plays a violin and piano concerto – without hands.

An ancient Edison gramophone that uses wax barrels made it sound as though 19th century legend Enrico Caruso was crooning right in the room with us.

The most elaborate instrument is the Orchestrion, a huge musical marvel that plays all the instruments of an orchestra. When Christelle cranked up that machine, the sound was almost deafening.

A workshop in the museum shows how the rolls of sheet music and perforated disks were created. So amazing were the sounds for the time, Christelle says, that the mechanical music cabinets were considered the work of the Devil or “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” I thought they were pretty heavenly.

Photos and videos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

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