An Operatic Discovery in the Guinness Collection

While visiting the Morris Museum’s Guinness Collection of Mechanical Musical Instruments with his children in 2011, Anthony Sheppard, musicologist at Williams College, made an unexpected discovery. What he found was a Swiss cylinder music box with a reed organ from 1877 that, despite its age, played a familiar tune. Sheppard recognized the music box’s songs from Italian composer Giacomo Puccini’s operas Turandot and Madame Butterfly. 

The program card from the music box that Professor Sheppard encountered in the Guinness Collection. Note the listing of musical selections as well as the Chinese characters.

While musical historians had previously thought that Puccini was inspired by Japanese folk melodies, the music box provided evidence that those tunes were in fact Chinese in origin. “This particular object,” according to Sheppard, “is an operatic Rosetta Stone for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and Turandot and for understanding the global circulation of music in the late nineteenth century.”

Check out our website to hear audio clips from the music box, view a TV segment about this discovery from the program State of the Arts, and learn more about the Guinness collection:

Or you can visit the Morris Museum’s Guinness Collection yourself and hear the music that inspired Puccini, along with lots of other mechanized melodies, in person!