CC-28382-C, "The Clockwork Opera"

The Castaigne collection, CC-28382-C: The Clockwork Opera

This piece originated in France, the work of Jacques de Vaucanson. It was unveiled in 1781, just one year before his death (and several years after it was thought he stopped working on similar projects). Composed of brass, wax, leather, glass, and hair, this ingenious piece of automata depicts a scale model of a stage upon which a cast of players stands in costume and before which sits a full orchestra. Like many of Vaucanson's works, every player and every actor is amazingly detailed. One can even imagine seeing tiny fingerprints on the pads of the fingers of each figure. Even with all this detail, the entire contraption is only about a meter square, and stands half a meter high.

The machine is powered by clockwork springs, as well as a foot-powered bellows. When wound, the clockwork sends the actors about the stage playing their parts. It also controls the members of the orchestra who play their instruments. The bellows provides airflow to make the instruments actually play, and an amazingly complex set of baffles within the actors causes them to emit a sound very much like singing voices.

The motion and sounds are controlled by a complex set of movement spindles not unlike the simple movement spindle found in any music box. In it's current configuration, there were once nine such spindles installed, but three have been lost to time. Without them, half of the orchestra remains silent and several of the actors are motionless. Other than the missing spindles, the piece is in fine condition.

It has been determined from what remains of the music that the piece being played and acted is from Act II of Benvento Chieti Bordighera's 1768 opera, "Massa di Requiem per Shuggay".

Another huge set of 198 spindles was uncovered recently that seem designed to fit into this majestic music box, but nobody has yet determined exactly which spindles go together - and the spindles work closely enough together that mixing them causes the entire work to freeze up. Attempts to find other working combinations have ceased for now, for fear of damaging the mechanism.

(For more information on Jacques de Vaucanson and his amazing automatons, take a look at

— Marshall Gatten

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