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The Magic of Merlin

This month we’re thrilled to welcome cellist and writer, Dr. Sarah Freiberg, to the Cello Museum. This summer she and her husband—and her Merlin cello—went to England to see a mechanical swan. Read on to find out more.
Dr. Sarah Freiberg, Cellist

Dr. Sarah Freiberg, Cellist. Photo courtesy Sarah Freiberg.

The Magic of the Silver Swan

The Silver Swan (1774) by John Joseph Merlin, Bowes Museum. Photo by Andrew Curtis, Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Silver Swan (1774) by John Joseph Merlin, Bowes Museum. Photo by Andrew Curtis, Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0.

A majestic mechanical silver swan, weighing scales for coins, a wheelchair, a skeleton clock, a patent to put piano action into harpsichords, and my cello. You might well wonder what these disparate things have to do with each other. They were all created by 18th-century inventor extraordinaire John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803), and all were at the July 2023 opening of a new exhibition, entitled The Magic of the Silver Swan at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, England, which ends in January 2024.

End of a Roller-Skating Career

Merlin, always a tinkerer, is often also credited with inventing roller skates, though it is likely that he merely made improvements. Perfection, however, eluded him. There is the famous story of him playing the violin while roller skating at a masquerade party and not realizing that a mirror was in front of him. Suffice it to say, all did not end well for Merlin that night. Shortly before I met my cello for the first time, I had come across that tidbit about Merlin crashing into a large mirror; as I remember, the story ended with “thus ending both his violin playing and roller-skating careers.”

Finding My Merlin

I was fortunate to find my Merlin cello, which I use as a baroque instrument, over 20 years ago—the Boston area luthier Curtis Bryant had just procured it at auction in London. While he looked over my previous cello, which was buzzing, he let me take home the Merlin, and that was that. I’m still in love with its sound all these years later.I wanted to learn more about my 1784 cello and this amazing inventor and managed to track down the catalog for a 1985 London exhibition devoted to all things Merlin. So besotted was I that I wrote an article on “Magical Merlin,” which was printed by the Internet Cello Society, (now part of CelloBello). I was happily surprised that several people got in touch with me about Merlin as the result of the article, including an Anglican priest who inherited his Merlin cello from his mother. Over the years, I have often corresponded with folks associated with the Bowes Museum, as one of their prize possessions is the glorious silver swan—a mechanical wonder that Merlin made the innards for—it is really a gigantic music box, and it turns 250 this year.

Journey to Barnard Castle

Barnard Castle

Barnard Castle. Photo courtesy Sarah Freiberg.

At the suggestion of Jonathan Peacock, who helped with organizing the exhibition celebrating the swan’s significant birthday, I decided to take my cello to the exhibition’s opening, which was no small feat! My husband came along for the experience.

Barnard Castle is in the north of England, nestled between Durham and York, and close enough to town of Darlington to be approachable by train, with a taxi ride at the end. We flew from Boston to London with my cello inverted in the window seat. From there, we wandered via Leeds to Barnard Castle, a charming town with amazing historical ruins, and home of the grand Bowes Museum. Built over decades to house the vast art collection of John and Josephine Bowes, the museum opened in 1892, after both John and Josephine had passed away. The couple had purchased the Silver Swan in 1872, enchanted by its lifelike movements to music.

Sarah's husband looking at the Joseph Merlin mechanical swan at the exhibition at the Bowes Museum.

Sarah’s husband looking at Merlin’s swan at the exhibition. Photo courtesy Sarah Freiberg.

Merlin’s Musical Instruments

With the help of Oxford luthier Ben Hebbert, Peacock had tracked down other Merlin-made instruments—a violin, viola, and another cello—the latter of which was already ensconced on an exhibition wall. On July 7th, the day before the official opening of the exhibition, we joined in a Preview Event, which included speeches and a tiny concert of two different versions of Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan” (naturally) from The Carnival of the Animals.

Jonathan Peacock and Ben Hebbert with Merlin viola

Jonathan Peacock and Ben Hebbert with Merlin viola. Photo courtesy Sarah Freiberg.

Fitting this and a recital the following day into his busy concert schedule, Mischa Maisky performed the familiar version with his son Max at the piano. Following that, he kindly agreed to play with me the mashup of the “The Swan” with the Prelude from the 1st Bach cello suite that composer/cellist Brooks Whitehouse calls “The Ugly Bachling.” We had a few minutes to run through the piece before the performance; my little Merlin, tuned up to 440, did very well. It was an honor to play with Maisky, and the audience loved it.

The Silver Swan Exhibition

On Saturday, July 8th, the official opening of the Silver Swan exhibition, I finally had a chance to see the rooms devoted to automata and, of course, Merlin. I knew that the great 18th-century portraitist Thomas Gainsborough had painted Merlin in a bright red coat, but it turns out that Merlin had another copy made to send home to his family in Belgium, which is prominently displayed at the exhibition, along with other Merlin inventions and a variety of automata. While I couldn’t try the other Merlin cello, I did cozy mine up to it for a photo or two.

Merlin Cellos Together. Photo courtesy Sarah Freiberg.

Family Reunion: Merlin Cellos Together. Photo courtesy Sarah Freiberg.

Signed by Merlin

It is thought that Merlin didn’t really have time to make all the instruments that came from his shop; instead, he obtained instruments made by others and often stamped them with his name and London, as he did twice on my cello. However, I knew from Bryant that Merlin had signed the inside top of my cello with his name, address and the 1784 date, and I like to think he had more of a hand in its production than merely adding his name to it. I was thrilled when earlier this spring, luthier Michael Hartery managed to take pictures with the help of fiber-optics of the writing for me to see.

Pencil Signature of Joseph Merlin inside Sarah Freiberg's Cello

Joseph Merlin’s signature inside Sarah Freiberg’s John Joseph Merlin cello, 1784. Photo courtesy Sarah Freiberg.

Merlin’s Musical Inventions

Merlin was always looking to improve things, and string instruments were no exception. There was a “newly invented Fiddle, with 5 strings” and he advertised “new-invented Pegs and Tail-pieces which prevent the strings from slipping.” Unfortunately, neither the tailpieces nor the pegs have survived. I assumed they didn’t work as well as advertised, but upon seeing the large filled-in peg holes on my cello, Ben Hebbert suggested that perhaps Merlin had used mechanical pegs, such as on double basses—an intriguing thought.

Merlin had developed a “pentachord”—a small, five-string cello tuned C-G-D-A-d. Commissioned by Sir Edward Walpole, it was the instrument for which famed cellist James Cervetto composed his Opus 3 sonatas (1777) for cello and bass. The Merlin pentachord, which has a smaller body than a regular cello, has since been modified to a four-string child’s instrument. Although clearly stamped “Merlin”, the pentachord was made by a Mr. Carter, who also worked for the esteemed instrument maker William Forster—who made my “modern” cello.

Merlin Instruments Reunited

Merlin Instruments Together.

Merlin Instruments Together. Photo courtesy Sarah Freiberg.

Hebbert had the violin and viola out as well during my talk. Both instruments have unusually large lower bouts. Merlin, ever experimenting, may have been pondering how to make a small instrument have a big sound—as viola makers still do today. Soon, if not already, those instruments will spend the rest of the exhibition on a wall, but we did manage an artful photograph of them with my cello.

My Merlin Lecture-Recital

I thought that it would be nice to give demonstrations on my Merlin cello, and the staff found the perfect room for little lecture performances—one with old keyboard instruments and a harp. My thought was to talk about Merlin’s London from a cellist’s perspective. Many cellists and composers flocked to London in the mid-18th century, so there was much music to choose from.

Merlin Exhibition at The Bowes Museum. Gainsborough portrait of John Joseph Merlin and a Merlin clock.

The Magic of the Silver Swan exhibition at the Bowes Museum showing a Gainsborough portrait of John Joseph Merlin. Photo courtesy Sarah Freiberg.

For the lecture-recital, I included music by cellist/composer Stephen Paxton (1734-1787), who was born in Durham but settled in London, as well as borrowed a keyboard work of Johann Christian Bach, otherwise known as the London Bach. The only piece I thought I knew for cello by J.C. Bach is a viola or cello concerto that was fabricated by Henri Casadesus in the 20th century, so I thought that unwise to play!

Years ago, I recorded the complete cello sonatas of Neapolitan composer Francesco Guerini, active in London from 1760-1770, and performed a movement from the first sonata. I also played a movement by James Cervetto (1748-1837) from his opus 3, written for the pentachord. James, the son of cellist/composer Giacobbe Cervetto, was known for his virtuosic playing, including in thumb position, but this work would have been much easier with the added “d” string!

I also played just a snippet of the Haydn D Major concerto, as it has recently been surmised by Thomas Tolley that James Cervetto probably played its premiere in London in 1784. I ended my recital with a Scotch Air with fingerings from John Gunn. Imagine my surprise when a member of the audience turned out to be a baroque violist who suggested I get in touch with George Kennaway, who lives in Leeds (had I but known that a day or two earlier!) and had a recent book on Gunn. It is now part of my summer reading list.

A Fitting Finish

You can see Sarah's reflection in this image of Mischa Maisky's Recital Poster at The Bowes Museum

You can see Sarah’s reflection in this image of Mischa Maisky’s recital poster at the Bowes Museum. Photo courtesy Sarah Freiberg.

In the evening, we listened to the Maisky father and son team perform—the finale, Casals “Song of the Birds,” had actual birds flying by in the background—it was just magical. Dinner was provided at the Museum, and our visit to all things Merlin came to a close.

My Merlin—A Good Traveler

The following day, cello on my back, it was off to York, where we heard the vocal group the Sixteen perform music in honor of William Byrd at the York Minster. Harry Christophers, their conductor, is the Conductor Laureate of my orchestra in Boston, the Handel and Haydn Society. Suffice it to say he was surprised to see me on the other side of the pond. A bit of sightseeing and an evening in London, and it was back to flying with an upside-down cello. My husband had been jealous on the way over that I napped with my head on the cello case, so he willingly took the middle seat.

The following day, when I took my Merlin out to practice, it was perfectly in tune.


  • Can’t make it to England for this exhibition? Take a virtual tour here.
  • Click here to request a PDF of the sheet music for “The Ugly Bachling” from Brooks Whitehouse.

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