The Incredible Hupfeld Phonoliszt Violina

Marina McLerran

Editor, McLerran Journal

Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX


Fresh off of the heels of the Industrial Revolution, inventors like Ludwig Hupfeld found a niche creating innovative new ways to present music to the public. The Phonoliszt Violina was a groundbreaking invention with the capability to play three violins and a piano keyboard simultaneously and unassisted.

What is a Phonoliszt Violina?

The Phonoliszt Violina was first presented to the public as part of the 1910 World’s Fair Exhibition in Brussels by the German-based manufacturing firm of Ludwig Hupfeld. The machine, part of the orchestrion family, stands approximately eight feet tall, is about six feet across, and three feet deep (M.S. Rau Antiques). A circular rotating bow, “made of 1300 threads of horse hair,” combined with a series of (fingerboard) keys, “powered by small bellows,” plays the three stationary violins (Classic FM). The automatic piano, or pianola, portion of the instrument functions similarly to a simple music box. A sort of “pneumatic vacuum” is created by the pressing of the instrument’s pedals (either manually or electronically) and is responsible for turning the music roll located inside of the instrument (The Pianola Institute). These perforated rolls determine the pitches and timing of the keys being struck while the amount of air pressure being provided determines the volume of the notes (The Pianola Institute).

As a direct result of the growing understanding and use of electricity, this machine was fitted with an electric engine and was therefore incredibly expensive to produce. For this reason, the Phonoliszt Violina was primarily manufactured for the purposes of entertainment in upscale hotels, restaurants, etc (M.S. Rau Antiques). These prehistoric jukeboxes were likely operated by the insertion of coins and came equipped with approximately 900 interchangeable rolls of music (Speelklok Museum). Shockingly, these machines were even built with the ability to create a tender vibrato and large range of dynamic contrast when playing the instruments, something that the majority of orchestrions could not do, and were therefore hailed as the musical marvel of the age (Speelklok Museum). Currently, only 63 of these instruments are still in existence today and sell for an estimated $900,000 each (M.S. Rau Antiques).

Who was Ludwig Hupfeld?

Born in 1864 in Marberzell, Germany, Ludwig Hupfeld is remembered as “an accomplished musician, mechanic, and businessman (M.S. Rau Antiques). Little is known about his personal education besides that he studied at the Royal Academy in Fulda, Germany and completed a three-year apprenticeship in Köln. In 1892, at the age of only twenty-eight, Hupfeld purchased the musical instrument manufacturing company J.M. Grob & Co, renamed it Hupfeld Musikwerke, and decided to turn the firm’s main attentions towards the invention and production of automatic instruments (M.S. Rau Antiques). After several successful versions of small orchestrions and pianolas, Hupfeld decided to attempt an automatic violin at the turn of the millennia and premiered his Phonoliszt Violina at the World Fair of 1910 in Brussels (M.S. Rau Antiques). Hupfeld’s already successful company quickly became “the world’s largest distributor and manufacturer of ‘self-playing’ automatic musical instruments with multiple factories and thousands of employees (Mechanical Music Press). The popularity of automatic instruments unfortunately experienced a massive dip in the 1920’s with the invention of more advanced music-listening devices like the phonograph and the radio (Mechanical Music Press). This sudden change in the demand for orchestrions, paired with the onset of World War II in the 1930’s, resulted in the Hupfeld factories being transformed primarily into military manufacturing sites (Mechanical Music Press). After the war, the firm had been renamed the VEB Deutsche Piano Union and resumed instrument manufacturing, but only of plain pianos and on a significantly smaller scale (Mechanical Music Press).


Watch the Hupfeld Phonoliszt Violina in Action


Visit the Speelklok Museum in the Netherlands to view an original Hupfeld Phonliszt Violina and other mechanical instruments of the same time period.





Carl Ronisch Pianoforte Manfacturer. (2019). History. Hupfeld Piano. Carl Ronisch Pianoforte

Manufacturer. Leipzig, Germany. <>


Classic FM Editors (August 2018). This Antique Machine Plays Three Violins at Once and We

Cannot Stop Watching It. Classic FM. Classic FM Radio. 30 Leicester Square, London, UK.  



Mechanical Music Press. (2019). Hupfeld Orchestrions and Violin Players.



M.S. Rau Antiques. (2019). Hupfeld Phonoliszt-Violina Model B Music Cabinet.



Museum Speelklok. (2019). Orchestrions. Utrecht, Netherlands.



Pianola Institute, The. (2019) History of the Pianolo- An Overview. The Pianola Institue Ltd.

United Kingdom. < >