A guy winding a handle isn’t much to look at, so it was cool to find this site dedicated to Yefim Ladizhinsky (1911-82), whose work I really like, and who shows Odessa organ-grinders working with other performers. Re Spectacle (organist bottom left) he writes:
A street-organ is a musical chest the size of a small suitcase. In fact, it was a mini-organ holding ten to fifteen tunes – songs, waltz and mazurka melodies – its square yellow-golden facade holding a multitude of thick and thin, long and short tubes narrowing down to the chink in the bottom. Air was forced out from this chink by the rotation of the handle , wringing out notes from the high “Do” to the low “Do” in different octaves. Set in this contraption was a prominent frame, with Gothic letters deciphering the name of its manufacturer surrounded by flying maidens in colourful tulles, as in Botticelli paintings, holding in their slim fingers tambourines with flying ribbons.
If the organ-grinder was endowed with musical ear and voice, he sang to the accompaniment of his street-organ popular melodies, “Marusya, she took poison…” and other heart-rending romances. Sometimes the organ-grinder was accompanied by a girl wearing a swimsuit. On the rug and to the accompaniment of the street-organ, she performed hand-stands, splits and other acrobatic feats. Her performances were beautiful and impeccable, arousing in us children amazement, admiration and envy, and in adults sorrow and sympathy.
A monkey or a parrot were almost an inseparable part of the organ grinders’ performances. The monkey never performed to the man’s orders. It was distinguished by an anarchist temperament and resisted any training. Therefore its behaviour was always unexpected. The monkey moved nimbly from one of the organist’s shoulders to the other; made itself comfortable on his head, or settled on the organ; cracked seeds and nuts, and opened wrappers inside which nestled candies. All this was done with its tiny paws, assisted by its teeth, while its eyes, which seemed outlined by kohl, darted intently in front of her and to the sides. The parrot, multicoloured or white, usually sat on a plank attached to a box which contained envelopes with “fortunes” for those who paid for it. In the case of a ‘paid-for fortune’, the parrot leaped on the organist’s forefinger and after long entreaties bent its head and took out an envelope, which sometimes contained, instead of a ‘fortune’ handwritten in capital letters, a metal ring.
The number of melodies performed was determined by the generosity of donations thrown down from the surrounding balconies and windows. We followed the organ-grinder through another two or three yards there he ventured for yet another performance. The yards were also visited by duets – guitar and mandolin; trios – two violins and a clarinet. For some reason one of the musicians was always blind. These chamber performances preferred the acoustics of yards, not squares. Their repertoire was very wide – from “Freilechs” to what I can now recognize as Baroque music. They contented themselves with the small number of tender hearts and modest donations. In the market place other shows drew crowds. These were also accompanied by the street-organ music.
There’s also a grinder in In the Market Place and Petrushka (I’ve made an arrangement of part of Stravinsky’s ballet for street organ). In Celeste Fraser Delgado & José Esteban Muñoz Everynight life: culture and dance in Latino America we read of an shrieking organillo callejero in a Neapolitan brothel in Buenos Aires, there’s a mega-brothel called Leierkasten in Frankfurt, and there are further avenues for anyone with the patience to crack Google Books.
Were they also used in more formal functions? That would be grist to another mill.