A Mechanical Dream – Lehmann’s Large Musical Cabinet

10 Feb to 8 May 2016

lehmann lille

The sounds of a 250-year-old “jukebox” will float through the rooms at Rosenborg when we present the newly restored large musical cabinet, made in 1755-57 by CF Lehmann, and the story behind it, in a special exhibition at the castle.

The four metre high musical cabinet is not simply the most impressive example of the craft of furniture making made in Denmark in the 18th century; it also has a built in “music machine” with a mini orchestra. Frederik V was able to impress and enchant his guests in the golden dining room at Christiansborg Palace with the cabinet’s automated trumpet, flute, and cembalo mechanism.

Two conservators from the Royal Danish Collection have worked for almost ten years to restore the cabinet to its original brilliance. At the same time we have together with musicologist Ture Bergstrøm recreated the music the cabinet played, using the original cylinders and digital aids. The return of the music adds a layer of sensation to the experience of history at the castle. Form and music magically supplement the piece of furniture, which doesn’t feature a single straight line, but in tune with the organic idiom of the rococo curves in every way imaginable.

Every half hour a bell in the cabinet chimed, after which the finest music in the form of a trumpet fanfare played; the cabinet also played a piece for flutes and cembalos every hour. There was a choice of 14 different pieces for flute, and 7 pieces for trumpet.

The cabinet is evidence of extravagant spending, and the price of 6,560 rigsdaler was the equivalent of buying a small palace. Frederik V ordered the piece himself in 1755, and it was already finished two years later. At that time Denmark was a major power, and it was important to display one’s wealth and position. With the cabinet’s virtuoso craftsmanship, noble varieties of wood, lavish gilt bronze fittings, and enormous size, nobody could be in any doubt about the king’s capabilities. Guests at the palace could also let themselves be enthralled by the fact that the court followed the newest fashions; the cabinet was made in the wildest and most advanced form of rococo.

lehamnn 2 detaljeSimultaneously, the cabinet exemplified the age’s interest in mechanics. It was before the industrial revolution and there was a great fascination with machines and mechanics, which is for example known from clocks of the time. Automated objects were the preserve of the few, and pure mechanical art in a fantastic guise like the large musical cabinet’s exterior was worthy of a king. The cabinet was in every way a showpiece.
Master carpenter Christian Friedrich Lehmann has until recently been a relatively unknown figure in the history of Danish furniture. In connection with the special exhibition, curator Jørgen Hein has completed a number of investigations through which it has been possible to partially reconstruct Lehmann’s activities in Copenhagen. Lehmann came from the region around Berlin and worked as a cabinetmaker at the Danish court from 1755-66.

Lehmann’s career ended abruptly after he fell out of favour with the court architect N-H Jardin. This was in many ways tragic for Danish furniture making, as Lehmann is considered the most important cabinetmaker of the 18th century. He only managed to deliver around 10 to 20 items of furniture in all, and thus didn’t make a significant impression or form a school. Lehmann’s workshop was in the Life Guard’s quarters at Christiansborg Palace, where we today find the square in front of Thorvaldsen’s Museum. In 1762 Lehmann had 14 assistants in his workshop.

The book Masterpiece – Music – Mechanics is published in connection with the completion of the musical cabinet, edited by Peter Kristiansen with a collection of articles about the history and construction of the cabinet, written by Bodil Stauning, Tom Feilberg, Jørgen Hein, and Ture Bergstrøm.

In all 21 pieces of music can be enjoyed in three different versions using the links here.

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