Music Australia News

The Water Organ

Rhonda Davidson-Irwin
| April 10, 2018

Much of our musical tradition has unbroken links to the ancient world. Any number of pottery shards and examples of wall art depict double flute players, harps, cythera, bells, drums, tamborines, brass instruments of various sizes and on some rare occasions an instrument called a water organ.

The water organ, also called the hydraulic organ, used the method of controlling the airflow sourced from flowing water or by using an air reservoir inside a water source that maintained air flow with water pressure.

Later, in 62 BC, Hero of Alexander also mentions the instrument and so he should, because around that time, the biggest Grecophile of the Roman world, the Emperor Nero, was busy bashing away at one, which was operated a little like a modern piano keyboard at every feast and party he could throw. Woe betide too any who failed to appreciate his genius with appropriate gusto.

This should not have been too hard for modern renderings of the machine to produce sounds much like the bagpipes. The music it produced was said to be stirring and anyone who has heard “the pipes” – especially if you have Scottish blood – can well understand just how this might have made the Romans feel. Let us hope that Nero did it justice.

Cicero, the famous lawyer, philosopher and author of the last days of the Republic, mentioned the water organ with words of glowing praise when he compared it to the finest wines, foods and poetry. The romans had copied it from the Greeks whose engineering, writing and art they so admired.

Indeed when Augustus, the first Emperor, rebuilt the Palatine Hill he included two libraries. One was for Latin books and the other, the Library of Apollo, was for Greek.

We even have the tombstone of a certain Alexander Pylaemenianus who was a slave of Caligula and worked at the Apollo library for thirty years before his death. Next to his tombstone is the inscription of another Roman slave interestingly called Musicus Scurranus, who was a financial administrator of the Emperor Tiberias.

The romans being how they were would have given him that name because he was probably always singing, playing music or reading poetry. From slave to emperor and through all the classes of the ancient world, music played a defining and important part. No feast or party was complete without singers, dancers, percussionists or the infamous flute girls. If you were to believe the Roman author Titus Maccius Plautus in his play “The Pot of Gold” you would think the latter to be akin to thieves or “fures” as they were called.

The literature of the ancients transported forward and assisted with the re-introduction of many ancient instruments through time. Eventually the church helped propel much of the ancient musical learning forward but of all the things that echo up from the past, one of the strangest and one of the most wonderful was the water organ.

If civilization were to fall, how much could we propel forward? What would be left of our great tunes and instruments, the musings of our souls, to be gifted to the people of the future?

In the meantime, take a look at this historic water organ which was powered up using its original engine, for a Mother’s Day recital in 2016 at Launceston’s Albert Hall. It was the first time it had been powered up in 36 years.

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