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 And the Glockenspiel Goes
Round and Round

by Bob Brooke


At 11 A.M. daily, crowds of onlookers pack the Marienplatz in Munich to view a unique performance from what amounts to a city clock in the Neues Rathaus, the New Town Hall—the Glockenspiel. This timepiece has been entertaining visitors and locals alike for over a century. But what most who are watching don’t realize is that there’s a group of dedicated 10 workers who operate the Glockenspiel by hand.

The City of Munich added this chiming clock to the tower of its New Town Hall in 1907, upon completion of the building. The Glockenspiel daily re-enacts two stories from the 16th century. It consists of 43 bells and 32 life-sized figures. The top half of the Glockenspiel tells the story of the marriage of the local Duke Wilhelm V, who also founded the world famous Hofbräuhaus, to Renata of Lorraine. In honor of the happy couple there’s a joust with life-sized knights on horseback representing Bavaria in white and blue and Lothringen in red and white. Naturally, the Bavarian knight wins every time.

Upon completion of the top story, the bottom half and second story—the Schäfflertanz or the coopers' dance—begins. According to myth, 1517 brought a severe plague to Munich. Legend says that the coopers danced through the streets to give Munich’s residents the all-clear that the plague was over. The coopers remained loyal to the duke, and their dance came to symbolize perseverance and loyalty to authority through difficult times. By tradition, a group of dancers, dressed in authentic costumes, perform the dance in many locations in Munich every seven years. Though this dance supposedly originated in the early 18th century, it’s current form only dates from 1871.

WATCH A VIDEO:  Watch the Munich Glockenspiel

The show lasts between 12 and 15 minutes, depending on which tune plays that day on the Glockenspiel’s 43 bells. At the end of the show, a small golden rooster appears at the top of the Glockenspiel and chirps quietly three times, marking the end of the spectacle.

The Workings of the Glockenspiel
The control center for this giant entertainment machine occupies a small space on the fifth floor of the tower. Externally, it resembles a display case. Under the glass are the shift levers with which workers operate the Glockenspiel. The Hahn or rooster, which crows at the end of the Glockenspiel and the Hanswurst, an ensemble member of the Schäffler, are also switched on by hand.

The bells on the top-floor create the music that accompanies the scenes. When a worker turns on the main switch, a purple cylinder, which is partially covered with small metal pins, begins to rotate. The arrangements of the pins produces the programmed melodies. Each pin triggers a bell strike via a switch relay. The principle is the same as a barrel organ, which is manually driven by a crank.

Overall, the Glockenspiel has six cylinders with a total of 22 different melodies, predominantly from folk songs dating back to the early 20th century, in its repertoire. The four pieces of music on cylinder 6, however, are only played during Advent.

To ring the 43 bells in the Bellfry, a staffer manually manipulates one of the 44 well-oiled musical mechanisms—there are 44 of them for 43 bells, one is a substitute. Here, by means of chains and a gear mechanism, the operator sets the bells in motion by pulling on a device which ensures that the clapper in each bell makes it ring.

The Characters
As the show begins, a standard bearer from the entourage of the Bavarian Herzog Duke Wilhelm V, recognizable by the white-blue diamonds and the Bavarian lion on the flag, appears. Wilhelm V and his wife, Renata of Lothringen (Lorraine), are already waiting for the courtiers to march in and for the knight tournament to begin.

This was one of the most expensive and downright decadent weddings of the Middle Ages. The Austrian archdukes arrived in a train of over 1500 horses and more than 600 oxen were carved and cooked up for the revelers. On the day of the nuptials, no less than 3,500 riders escorted the bride from the nearby town of Dachau.

The highlight was the Kröndlstechen, or crown joust, which took place right on Marienplatz and is now a big part of the Glockenspiel show. This medieval joust plays out Glockenspiel's top level. Caspar Nothaft von Wernberg zu Alhaming of Bavaria was declared the overall winner. He’d reportedly injured several fingers on his left hand, but not before unhorsing four riders.

The tournament, on the occasion of the two-week-long wedding celebrations of Wilhelm and Renata, actually did take place on the Marienplatz in the spring of 1568. The 2.10-meter-high rider figure of the Lothringer with his red and white helmet is the eternal loser. In the second round, he falls off his horse and must be manually picked up by a staffer at the end of the show.

When the bride and groom left the Frauenkirche (Our Lady’s Church) after the wedding, snow is said to have covered the ground. Today, the figures of the Glockenspiel defy wind and weather for 364 days of the year. Only on Good Friday is the Glockenspiel silent.

On the lower level the red-coated city’s coopers, or barrel makers, who are members of the Fassmacher or barrel-maker guild, perform their ritualistic dance known as the Schäfflertanz.

There’s also a mini-show at 9 P.M. each evening, when two figures appear from the bays below the clock face. On one side there’s the Angel of Peace blessing the Münchner Kindl, the Munich’s child-monk mascot. On the other side a night watchman appears, sounding the city curfew on his horn, accompanied by the strains of Johannes Brahms’ Wiegenlied or “Lullaby.”

At the end of each performance, applause wells up from the crowd on Marienplatz, much like that from the passengers in an airliner when the pilot makes a great landing.

The electro-mechanical Glockenspiel works almost exactly as it did when it was installed. Today, solar power provides the electric energy. Considering that it has been in operation for over a century, it runs very well, but it does need attentive care and maintenance: Its individual parts have to be ground and lubricated, contacts polished, screws need to be retightened, little wheels, gears and stops regularly replaced.

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