There are many people whose history and story has affected this particular Welte organ. The first is Michael Welte, (1807–1880), who founded the Welte company in the 1830s after having been apprenticed to a musical clock builder in the German Black Forest. Welte and his descendants would build instruments for the most discerning music enthusiasts across the world for the next hundred years.
One of these enthusiasts was Hiram Walker (1816 – 1899), a grocery clerk born on a farm in Massachusetts. Like Welte, Walker went on to create an empire from very humble beginnings. He made his millions with Walker’s alcohol distillery company. His son would later order a Welte Philharmonic Organ from the German company for the Walker family summerhouse in Boston. It is this organ that now sits in our workshop in the Belgian Ardennes.
Michael Welte learned to craft by hand each element of a musical clock. At the age of 25, he started a business with his elder brother in his home village in Germany’s Black Forest. He very soon realized that customers were just as attracted to the look of the clocks and the sound they made as they were to the clock mechanisms. Welte was one of the first people to build much larger and ornamental cabinets that contained several ranks of pipes and even percussion instruments, all of which mechanically performed sophisticated music. By presenting his luxurious instruments at fairs and Royal palaces, Welte instruments soon became the first choice for the European aristocracy.
In 1865, Michael’s eldest son, Emil Welte (1841 -1923), went to New York to open an office and show room. With the success of this move, in 1872, the company moved its German operations to Freiburg, next to a large European railway hub to ensure easier worldwide exportation. Michael Welte died in 1880, when the company, which at this time was already being run by his son, was one of the most modern and profitable mechanical musical instrument companies in the world.
Five years later, one of Michael’s other sons, Berthold Welte (1843 -1918), revolutionized the Welte Company by replacing the heavy wooden cylinders, on which the musical content that the instruments performed was held, with perforated paper rolls. This meant there was no limit to the sophistication of the music that the instruments could play. Paper rolls were easier to produce, the duration of the performance time was extended and the number of pipes or accessories on the instruments could be increased and automatically controlled.
In 1905, Michael’s grandson Edwin Welte (1876-1958,) and his brother-in-law Karl Bockisch (1874-1952), started to adapt the paper roll system for pianos. And in 1910, the Welte Company became the first in the world to build mechanical pianos that reproduced the recorded performances of pianists with all the nuances that these included. The system was named the “Welte-Mignon.” It was a great success and the most famous pianists of the time were delighted to record for the Welte-Mignon system. It enabled them to be heard in the living rooms of music connoisseurs and leave a record of their own interpretations of music for future generations.
Magnolia was a resort with houses facing the ocean and good train connections. A fire destroyed the Walker cottage not long after James bought it, but he had it rebuilt with unusual materials for this time and for the area, including fireproof features.
Among the many modern features that Walker introduced into the new house was a Welte Philharmonic Organ, which was discretely situated in a special room beside the living room. In the 1910s, this was one of the most elegant and modern accessories a house could possibly contain.
There is no keyboard on this Welte organ, as it plays automatically. And its sober facade simply features the mechanism where the paper rolls are placed along with a few buttons. As well as the metal pipes, the instrument also has a very large drum that replicates timpani, a glockenspiel and tubular bells. The Walker family ordered several paper rolls of music with the Welte including extracts of a Massenet opera, a Handel concerto and an entire opera by Wagner. These have remained with the organ until this very day.
In 2015, our worshop entered the picture.
Through Mr Breitenmoser, a Swiss dealer, Mr Paulis became the new owner of this incredible instrument. We went to Baltimore and safely packed all the pieces of the organ and its paper rolls. We also got Mr Center’s detailed records of how the instrument was taken apart. The precious organ then made its way by truck and boat to the Belgian Ardennes where the instrument in now stored at our workshop.
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Manufacturing and restoration of mechanical musical instuments
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