From Barbaric Noise to Beloved Melodies – An Organ Grinder and Sonic Identity of the City in Nineteenth-Century Soundscape of Warsaw

  • Abstract:

    An organ grinder is an ambiguous figure in the soundscape of the nineteenth-century European city, yet quite a ubiquitous one. Although they are of different nationalities, these sonic urban nomads seem quite similar – male, impoverished, with an animal of some sort as a companion. The sound they produce marks the soundscape enough they ‘require’ to be analysed. Most of the time the sound, the melodies and the music of an organ grinder were considered a noise – loud, repetitive and of poor quality, they horrendously ‘travested’ popular opera hits of the time, they ‘contaminated’ the public sphere, and thus were something to be dealt with and regulated. Organ grinding aroused an array of negative feelings, from patronising contempt to utmost horror. The adequate language followed: ‘barbaric’ noise, ‘uncivilised’ sounds, rough music etc., and an absolute opposite of ‘art’, ‘music’ or ‘talent’. I would like, however, to focus on cases when an organ grinder was a welcomed guest and an anticipated visitor. Since my research project is about Warsaw at the turn of nineteenth and twentieth century, I will draw examples from this particular soundscape. Not surprisingly, the distinction of how the inhabitants would approach an organ grinder is of a class – the musician was a welcomed guest mostly in poor districts of Warsaw. They would usually enter the well-shaped yards of the Warsaw tenement houses and play – earning little money but much respect as they brought entertainment and culture to the toilsome everyday life. One more aspect is worth examining, which makes a Warsaw organ grinder different from, say, the London one: in the context of the city without autonomy under the Russian authority, an organ grinder – unintentionally, I guess – turned at times into a national hero, when playing religious songs and church antiphons.