This barrel piano from the English maker John Hicks contains a mystery that will be revealed with restoration.
Barrel pianos, also called street pianos, are the forerunner of the early twentieth-century player piano or pianola. Like the barrel organ, they were transportable and were common sights to city dwellers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Operators of barrel pianos wandered city streets and would play a tune in exchange for coins. A dancing child or a begging monkey often accompanied these ‘musicians’ to further dramatize the performance. Barrel pianos are known to have been produced in Bristol, England, by members of the Hicks family as early as 1805.
Although the family had primarily been cabinet makers, by 1816 Joseph Hicks had established himself as a barrel piano and barrel organ manufacturer. The instrument in the Stewart Symonds Collection was made by John Hicks, who set up his own workshop in London.
Yet another family member, George Hicks, moved to the United States and built barrel pianos there from 1849 until his death in 1863.
Barrel pianos have a large crank that, when turned, rotates a wooden cylinder fitted with brass pins. When it spins, the cylinder pins engage the individual notes of the piano mechanism to play a tune. The cylinders that produce the music could play multiple tunes.
Inside this Hicks barrel piano lies a recording of music from the past. With restoration, modern music lovers will be able to hear the popular music that entertained passers-by on the streets of London in 1857.
This is an exciting and enticing prospect, but will only be made a reality through the support of a generous benefactor whose adoption of this instrument will play a vital part in solving this thrilling 160-year-old musical mystery.