Living History & Reenactment Music

Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson

17th Century Air Guitar

I'm finding much interesting information about early players of guitar and mandolin from a book first published in 1914, and finally enlarged and reprinted in 1972, called The Guitar and Mandolin: Biographies of Celebrated Players and Composers, by Philip J. Bone. There's a wealth of information about touring musicians, early women and child performers, and husband and wife touring musicians. For instance, there's poor Carl Eulenstein, born in Germany in 1802, who as a boy was learning violin, guitar and flute, until his widowed mother was persuaded by his uncle that he was a "lazy vagabond - as were all musicians." (It's true, you know.) Carl was apprenticed to a magistrate's clerk, then a bookbinder, then a hardware merchant with instructions to keep him away from music. So Carl borrowed jews-harps from his master's stock, hid them in his room and late at night leaned to play several at one time, "the effect of which was extraordinary". Many years later, he demonstrated his technique during a lecture by Sir Michael Faraday at London's Royal Institute . Do you suppose Sir Michael was lecturing on electromagnetic induction, when suddenly a looney with a mouth full of jews-harps jumped up and began twanging? But back to our young apprentice hiding in his bedroom. He was discovered playing a bit of late night French horn, and he was kicked out, to become a wandering performer on guitar and jews-harp. He wound up shoeless, homeless and starving in Paris, but his guitar playing finally attracted the attention of a famous harpist, who introduced him to all the right sorts, and finally launched his career. He eventually wound up playing for many wealthy patrons and royalty, became a guitar instructor in London, had the Duke of Gordon as his patron, and toured Scotland and England several times. He published a guitar method and several compositions and arrangements for guitar.

One of my favorite, but quite sad biographies found in this book is that of the unfortunate Allix. Here is an example of how you can be entirely too clever for your own good, and how playing "air guitar" in 17th century France could be extremely hazardous to your health. It seems that Allix was a musician, inventor and mechanic living in Aix, Provence, France in the mid-17th Century. He constructed a mechanical model of some sort that "when set in motion, imitated the tone of the guitar". Unfortunately, it caused his untimely death. He had a human-like model in whose hands he placed his mechanical guitar, with its fingers poised over the fingerboard. He placed it next to an opened window, while he sat in a corner of the room playing his own guitar. It is thought that the guitar was set in motion by air vibrations, somewhat like the "aeolian harp", or those little door chimes, while some separate mechanism made the model's fingers move. When Allix played his guitar, the sound echoed from the "air guitar".

Allix should not have cast his pearls before swine - the people of Aix had no appreciation of his invention at all. They were horrified by the performance, accused him of witchcraft, and committed him to trial as a wizard. Allix was unable to convince the Chamber of the Tournelle that his device was a machine, and so he was condemned to be hanged and burned in a public place, along with his infernal model, the accomplice of his sorceries. And so in 1664, sentence was executed to the satisfaction of the good people of Aix.

Alas, poor Allix! In his honor, let us play the following totally unrelated English country dance tune, from the 1665 supplement to Playford's dancing master: Black Jack ( or is that Black Jacque?) Black Jack is on the music page.