In 1929 the radio engineer Armand Givelet began a long collaboration with the organ builder Edouard Eloi Coupleux with the ambition to build on his experience with the ‘Clavier à Lampes‘ to create a popular electronic organ for use in churches, cinemas and concert halls. The resulting instrument, the ‘Orgue des Ondes’ or ‘Wave Organ’ was based on the same vacuum tube technology as the Theremin and Ondes-Martenot. Uniquely, the “Wave Organ” had an oscillator for each key therefore the instrument was polyphonic, a distinct advantage over its rivals – despite the amount of room needed to house the huge machine.
The organ had over 700 vacuum oscillator tubes to give it a pitch range of 70 notes and ten different timbres – for each different timbre a different set of tubes was used. The Organ may have used as many as 1,000 tubes in total for oscillators and amplifiers. These tubes were housed in a separate rack ten feet long and six feet wide, out of sight of any audience.
The sound of the organ was said to be particularly rich due to small variations in the tuning between each note creating a chorus like effect – in fact, the organ was capable of an early type of additive (addition of sine or simple waveforms) and subtractive (filtering complex waveforms) synthesis due to its number of oscillators and distortion of the sine waves produced by the LC oscillators.
The organ was controlled in the usual way with two manual keyboards, drawbars or stops and foot pedal controls for volume and expression. The instrument was said to accurately reproduce the sound of a large pip organ as well as flutes, brass, and woodwind. The amplified sound from the organ was fed into a large array of thirty loudspeakers spaced around the performance room.
The ‘Orgue Des Ondes’ was met with praise from the scientific community and some musicians – including a young Olivier Messiaen – but also came under fierce criticism as being a frivolous invention or ‘fairground toy’ competing in the serious world of religious music (even the President of the
Republic, Albert Lebrun joined in the critical affray). Part of the problem was that Coupleux and Givelet had created a futuristic instrument but placed it in a ‘traditional’ and conservative environment unwilling to countenance the replacement of the ‘sacred’ and timeless pipe organ with a synthetic newcomer. For example, it was only in the 1960s that The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church admitted the use of electronic organs in sacred music but emphasised the preeminence of the pipe organ;
“with the knowledge and consent of the competent territorial authority, provided that the instruments are suitable for sacred use.”
Despite it’s initial warm reception, the “Wave Organ” eventually succumbed to the practicality and portability of the American built Hammond Organ – designed for the Jazz age and home user rather than the limited religious market –which bankrupted the Givelet-Coupleux partnership in 1935.
Images of the ‘Orgue Des Ondes’
Eloi Coupleux Biographical notes
The Coupleux piano manufacturing business was founded in 1865 originally as a modest watchmaking workshop based in Rue Carnot, Tourcoing, Lille, France by Pierre Coupleux . On Pierre’s death in 1904 the Coupleux sons – Eloi, Paul and Leon took over the business and, extending their knowledge of watchmaking, they began to manufacture music boxes, phonographs, devices for optical illusions, fairground equipment and early cinema equipment. The Coupleux’s soon began selling Pianos and other stringed instruments fired by the new middle class demand for the instrument. The Coupleux fuelled this fire by giving promotional concerts around France and Europe, recording their own records and eventualy launching their own radio station ‘Radio Flanders’ in 1923 – five years before the existence of French national state radio.
In 1908, having secured the French monopoly of imported American Pianolas, Paul Coupleux, by then an established piano dealer and tuner, opened a second shop in one of Lille’s most affluent shopping street 24 bis, rue Esquermoise, Lille selling their own manufactured pianos.
During the First World War Lille was occupied by the Germans and much of the Coupleux brothers shop and warehouse was destroyed. However in 1919 they realised that there was a new demand for church organs; most of the churches of Northern France and Belgium had been destroyed or damaged and soon their order books were full due to the demand for Coupleux pipe Organs. By 1923 the business was thriving with 150 staff and a production of 150 pianos per month.
The Coupleux company continued to thrive until 1935 when the simultaneous and combined forces of the commercial failure of their electronic musical instrument and the economic crisis of the 1930s closed the business. The rue Esquermoise shop continued as a music store until 1997 long after the closure of the instrument manufacturing business.
Eloi Coupleux was a self taught engineer, he had left school at fifteen and began working in his father’s watchmaking shop where he soon discovered his mechanical talent. His inventions included a dual disk phonograph for stereo audio, the’ Télépiano’ (1922) – a device for transmitting piano vibration magnetically down a telephone wire and numerous audio reproduction machines. And it was this obsession with new technology that lead him to meet the physicist and engineer Armand Givelet in 1927.
This meeting was the beginning of a long collaboration between the duo designing new electronic musical instruments. Their first device was a larger, polyphonic version of Givelet’s ‘Clavier à lampes‘ designed for use as a large church organ. The resulting instrument the ‘Orgue Des Ondes’ was premiered at the 1929 exhibition in Paris and was one of the first electronic organs. Despite international publicity only four of the huge instruments were sold – all to churches in Northern France. In 1930 Coupleux and Givelet designed and built another electronic organ christed the ‘Givelet’, this time controlled by a punch-paper pianola style cardboard roll but still using the multiple radio-valve sound generators.
Olivier Carpentier Olivier Carpentier L’Aventure industrielle des frères Coupleux, 1900-1935 Préface de Douglas Heffer, éditions de l’Inoui, 2004.
La Nature > 1930 – Cinquante huitième année, deuxième semestre – n. 2836-2847 p.258-262
‘L’ Orgues des Ondes’ Bulletin de la Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale 1933
The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW – 1842 – 1954), Wednesday 15 August 1934, page 6.
‘The Organ: An Encyclopedia’. Douglas Earl Bush, Richard Kassel
Psychology Press, 2006 – p679.