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Welte Philharmonic organs — a survival story, of sorts

Wednesday marks the 100th anniversary of the launching of HMHS Britannic, sister ship of the most famous ocean liner of all, RMS Titanic. Britannic never sailed as a liner; once World War I broke out, it was requisitioned by the British Admiralty, going into service in 1915 as a hospital ship. In November 1916, off the coast of Greece, HMHS Britannic either struck a mine or was struck by a torpedo, and sank within an hour. The ship’s designers learned their lessons from the Titanic disaster: Of Britannic’s 1,066 passengers and crew, only 30 were lost.

The mission change meant that one of Britannic’s most deluxe amenities was never installed, and thus survived: its Welte Philharmonic Organ. M. Welte & Sons, founded in Germany in 1832, became the world’s leading manufacturer of player pianos and other mechanical instruments. The firm’s great innovation was using punched paper rolls instead of spiked metal barrels for playback. For its Welte-Mignon reproducing pianos, introduced in 1904, the era’s greatest pianists — Pachmann, Carreño, Busoni, Leschitizky, Horowitz — were recruited to record. Welte-Mignon rolls preserved Debussy, Scriabin, and Mahler playing their own compositions.

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The Welte Philharmonic Organ, unveiled in 1911, applied similar technology to the pipe organ, dynamically registering 150 different parameters — notes, pedals, changes in stops, swell boxes opening and closing. Other companies introduced more elaborate player organs, but, as with the Welte-Mignon, the Welte Philharmonic’s recording performers were unparalleled: Marcel Dupré, Max Reger, Eugène Gigout.

The war interrupted demand, and resulted in the seizure of Welte’s American assets. (Those assets, later sold, became an independent company that, for a few years, made church and theater organs — Boston’s Church of the Covenant has a fine 1929 Welte-Tripp organ.) The German company declined as radio and recordings replaced player pianos; the 1944 bombing of Welte’s Freiburg factory was the coup de grâce.

Fewer than 10 of the largest, 150-key Welte Philharmonic organs still survive, along with a handful of smaller instruments given the “Philharmonic” name or fitted with a Welte reproducing mechanism. The Britannic-bound instrument now resides in a museum in Seewen, Switzerland. A disassembled 120-key Philharmonic once installed at Rockledge, the Gloucester estate of whiskey heir J. Harrington Walker, sold on eBay last year for just over $6,000 — a bargain. One wonders if there are others, forgotten, languishing in (very, very many) crates, hidden behind (very, very large) walls.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.
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