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The joy of organs 5 March 2011

Posted by cooperatoby in beer.
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I’ve discovered a new joy in organs – of the street, café or dance variety.

Enthralled children at the Museum Speelklok in Utrecht

It all started when my cousin Steve Greatrex took me to the Museum Speelklok in Utrecht. This not only collects and restores mechanical musical instruments and curious automata of all sorts, but is a paradise for children, who can punch out and play their own tunes. Last week was half-term so it was busy: the museum now attracts over 110,000 visitors a year. One of the main reasons for its success must be the enthusiasm of the guides, who are mostly music students. It’s absolutely infectious. And it’s a popular art from, the predecessor of the jukebox and the MP3 player.
As we were shown round by Jelle Verhoeks and Alberic Godderis, I had a sudden flashback. I remembered how once day in the late 80s I’d set out on a beer expedition to Beersel, a village southwest of Brussels. We tracked down the Oud Beersel pub on the outskirts, which had a reputation for its home-blended gueuze. We installed ourselves in the middle of the room, at a party table encircled by a round bench. As we supped our sour beer, the landlord walked over to a contraption built into the wall, opened it up, pressed a button and played us a rousing tune. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, but now I realise I was privileged to be listening to what was probably Belgium’s last café organ, a Mortier Orchestrion. The pub is now a flower shop and the organ has been sold to an American collector. Happily the brewery nextdoor was reopened in 2006.
Until quite recently an organ grinder toured the back streets of St-Gilles a couple of times a year, but nowadays it’s quite rare to find an organ, a Dutch trademark, on Holland’s streets. There are plenty of collectors so they are no longer being broken up. But it’s a real shame that such uplifting and essentially public instruments should be hidden away in private and never heard.

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