The Fairground Organ of Keith Emmett & Sons at the Christmas Lights Switch-On in Stony Stratford last weekend (Patrick Comerford, 2022)
This was my first time to experience and enjoy the Lantern Parade and the Switch-On Funday celebrations in Stony Stratford.
Christmas lights are strung across the High Street, lighting up my flat throughout the night, ranging from traditional lights in primary-colour bulbs to choir boys, Santas, snowmen, and lit-up Christmas trees in brackets on many of the façades of the shops, bars, hotels, business premises and houses .
The weekend programme, leading up to switching on the lights on the Christmas Tree in Market Square on Saturday evening included Morris dancers, street theatre, Stony Stratford’s own town crier, food and craft stalls (including mulled wine), and a spectacular Lantern Parade from York House on London Road, down the High Street, onto Church Street and into the Market Square.
I even had a Greek coffee in the Swinfen Harris Hall beside the Greek Orthodox Church on London Road.
I was overwhelmed by it all. I have seen Morris dancers many times over half a century or more, I have enjoyed Lantern Parades, including a memorable one on the River Deel in Askeaton, and now that we are into the first week in Advent I have to concede I truly enjoy the build-up to Christmas.
For me, the most unusual or unexpected experience was hearing the Fairground Organ of Keith Emmett & Sons, who have been involved for many years in the Switch-On Funday celebrations in Stony Stratford.
Keith Emmett & Sons are based in neighbouring Cosgrove, and are funfair operators with an international reputation. They are regular sponsors of these popular celebrations in Stony Stratford, one of the few events in England to regularly showcase this beautiful and rare fairground organ.
The Emmett organ, with its distinctive sound, took pride of place at the weekend on the High Street at the top of the town, next to the junction with Wolverton Road and London Road, performing at regular intervals throughout the day.
The organ was built in 1903 as an 87 key by the Waldkirch branch of the Gavioli company in the Black Forest, and has been in England since 1986.
Gavioli & Cie made fairground organs first in Italy and later France and Germany. The firm was founded in 1806 in Cavezzo by Giacomo Gavioli (1786-1875), who moved to Modena in 1818. His son, Lodovico Gavioli (1807-1875), was an inventor who built a large orchestrion organ, the ‘Panharmonico’, for the Duke of Modena. However, the duke refused to buy it, and Ludovico took the instrument to London and to Paris.
Lodovico also designed and built Modena’s city hall, the Palazzo Comunale, the city hall. Lodovico moved to Paris in 1845, and from 1858 on he was running his own organ building company on the Rue d’Aligre. His three sons, Anselme, Henry and Claude, continued the business, establishing a branch in Waldkirch in in Baden-Württemberg and agencies in Barcelona, Manchester and New York
Waldkirch is in the Black Forest, 15 km north-east of Freiburg im Breisgau. Its name translates into English as ‘Forest Church’, but the town is known as the ‘town of mechanical organs’, where fairground organs played on the streets were long manufactured by well-known, locally-based firms.
The Emmet organ was built in Waldkirch in 1903 and was modified in 1921 to play on the 89 keyless no 4 scale by Alfred Lenk. It was overhauled in 1979 by Carl Frei of Waldkirch, and in 2003 by John Page of Milton Keynes.
The 87/89 scale was the mainstay of the Gavioli firm, and is operated by pneumatics with about 200 metres of action tubing. Its instrumentation is: Pan flute, Piccolo, Violin x 3, Clarinet, Harmonic flute, Transverse flute, British flute, Trumpet, Cello, Saxophone Accompaniment, Contra Bass, Trombone Glockenspiel, Snare and bass drums.
The total number of pipes is 319, of which the largest is 4 metres long, and the smallest is a mere 3 cm.
The organ came to England from a Norwegian showman. It was known as the Lunds Tivoliorkester Gavioli until that name was painted over by its present owners, Keith Emmett & Sons. John Page of Page & Howard in Milton Keynes took on the task of maintaining the organ when it arrived in England in 1986, and carried out a full restoration in 2003.
The organ operates with cardboard book music, which runs through the keyframe mounted on the end of the organ. It operates on the keyless system, which means there are no keys in the keyframe – only a row of holes in a ‘tracker-bar’ similar to a player-piano.
Listening to the organ at the weekend brought back memories of the delight on first hearing ‘Being for the benefit of Mr Kite’ on the Beatles album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club in 1967.
John Lennon wanted the track to have a ‘carnival atmosphere’, and told producer George Martin that he wanted ‘to smell the sawdust on the floor.’ In the middle eight bars, multiple recordings of fairground organs and calliope music were spliced together to attempt to meet this request.
I can only how imagine how people of my generation, when they heard the sound of the fairground organ at the weekend, had fond nostalgic memories of the sound of funfairs years ago.
In Stony Stratford, some of those funfairs were held on what was known as ‘The Fair Field’ on Wolverton Road, on land where Breton and Ryland were later built; others were held on the Market Square. Nowadays, the Market Square is at the heart of these funday celebrations and switching on the Christmas tree lights.