Symphonion Automat No. 25 Fallstaff

By Mark Singleton.

Long ago, in those days when we still learned by reading printed material, information on items considered rare would be gleaned from the odd book and what hands on experience the adventurous collector of a disc musical box could muster.

With the advent of the internet however, our perceptions were literally turned on their heads, indeed some boxes considered rare, turn up regularly.

Some pieces however, are the stuff of legend! Did these machines really exist; has anyone in living memory actually seen one?

Usually the odd original piece is known, with such rarity that claims of: But only two or three undamaged original pieces are known to exist”

Example being Symphonion’s exceptionally beautiful ‘Gambrinus’ adorned with a masterpiece of terracotta, by way of polychrome figure of the good King who reputedly invented beer. Yes there are reproductions of several qualities around the planet, but an original, you could count on one hand, excluding your thumb.

Not so his stable mate, and probably considered by many to be extinct; The “Fallstaff” Symphonion, model number 25FS.

To my knowledge, there was no previously known example out there. Featured only in a catalogue, printed in 1898 showcasing the wares of  Ernst Holzweissig.

Then, out of the blue, early in 2015 an example made an appearance in a provincial English auction house.

Naturally I was alerted to its presence, but quite out of character I was rather blasé about checking its authenticity, as this model in particular has also been extensively reproduced, to the point of even turning up on eBay.

Word got back to me that I had missed an original. . . Unfortunately, some things are just not meant to be. However, I also learned that erstwhile friend and dealer Vincent Freeman, a man of great experience and holding a respectful, yet hard earned encyclopaedic ‘hand’s on’ knowledge was the person brave enough to check its authenticity and put the money on the table. 

The images of this fabulous piece were shared with me and thanks go to Mr. Freeman for allowing them to be reproduced.

Having spent many, many years with the periodic musing on who or where the Gambrinus figure came from, it hit me while looking at this 25 FS  . . .  it could be, in my opinion, from non-other than the illustrious workshops of  Friedrich Goldscheider.

With a seemingly quite unrelated piece in my own collection, yet bearing a striking similarity by way of style, composure & texture as Fallstaff and indeed Gambrinus, it should have been obvious earlier.

Geographically speaking, most people associate this company with Vienna, but a little research soon showed they also had a branch in Leipzig . . . the probability leans in favour of certainty. “Unless of course”, in the words of Esther Rantzen (That’s Life) “You know better

The figure sitting atop the original oak staved barrel with coopered iron rings, which contains within, a coin operated 29.5 cm sublime harmony mechanism. But one of the questions that may be asked regarding this intriguing character is: Who were you?

So indeed, who was Fallstaff?  Primarily he is a fictional character who appears in three plays by William Shakespeare. Henry IV parts 1 and 2 popping up again in The Merry Wives of Windsor, where he is portrayed as the buffoonish suitor of two married women.

Though primarily a comic figure, Fallstaff still embodies a kind of depth common to the bard’s major characters. A fat, vain, boastful, and cowardly knight, he spends most of his time drinking at the Boars Head inn with petty criminals, living on stolen or borrowed money. Fallstaff leads his companion, in all three plays, the apparently wayward Prince Hal, into trouble, and is ultimately repudiated after Hal becomes king.

Characters borne from the minds of comic playwrights are usually loosely based on real people, garnered by historical study, or good old people watching.

Shakespeare was no exception. While who Fallstaff was based upon has been a bone of contention by many an academic over the years, he was probably conjured from the colourful exploits of three or four people. For sake of argument I will focus here on but one, where the exploits of fact overlap fiction on many an occasion.

Sir John Fastolf, (1380 -1459) Knight of the realm, and early recipient of:  The Most Noble Order of the Garter . . .   

Whilst enjoying an unusually long life given both the period and his lifestyle, much of Shakespeare’s writings regarding his character, are by far too similar to be coincidental. His life makes for interesting reading;  A claimed pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a boy, in the company of Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV. He had a distinguished and successful military career, with the minor hiccup of being stripped of his garter after being branded a coward, having being forced to retreat from an encounter with Joan of Arc at the battle of Patay.

With his reputation tainted, it took Fastolf thirteen years to clear his name and be reinstated at a military enquiry convened by the Order of the Garter. This incident depicted, somewhat unfavourably by Shakespeare in the first of his plays with Fallstaff.

So when we look back at this jolly figure making merry with wine jug in hand sat atop the Symphonion’s barrel, it’s probably none other than Sir John, as he too, just like Shakespeare’s character not only drank in The Boars Head Inn, Southwark, London, he owned it, part of his huge property portfolio.

There is much more to the life and times of this man. Interesting reading can be found at:

Sir John Fastolf was buried in his home town of Caister-on-Sea, near Great Yarmouth, in a specially built aisle on the south side of St Benet’s Abbey. The listed remains of which can still be seen today, curiously now with a later 18th century addition of a windmill, now ruined, but also listed.

Image courtesy of John Armagh.