The Denis D’Or “Golden Dionysis”, Václav Prokop Diviš. Czech republic, 1748

 Václav Prokop Diviš (1698 – 1765)

Václav Prokop Diviš (1698 – 1765)

The Denis D’or, the “Golden Dionysis”, was an early one-off  keyboard instrument built by the  Czech theologian and pioneer of electrical research Václav Prokop Diviš (1698 – 1765). Described as an ‘orchestrion’ because of its ability to imitate the sounds of wind and string instruments, it is often described as the first electronic musical instrument, yet, due to lack of detailed historical documentation and conflicting contemporary reports this claim remains uncertain.

Several accounts describe the instrument as an electro-acoustic instrument where the strings are vibrated using electro-magnets: “…In 1730 the Moravian preacher Prokop DIVIS generated sound by electromagnetic excitation of piano strings . He called his invention Denis d’or “ (Schiffner 1994 , p 62) and “His experiments were based on the electromagnetic excitation of piano strings , but could not prevail despite initially considerable interest to the public .” (Harenberg 1989, p 26 quoted in Ruschkowski 1983, p 347) yet this seems unlikely as the relationship between electricity and electromagnetism only became understood as late as 1820.

Other accounts suggest that the Denis D’Or was an elaborate joke whereby the performer could be electrocuted at will by the inventor

Denis d’or , an electric “Mutationsflügel” with one pedal , created in 1730 by the Moravian preacher Prokop Diviß of Prendnitz in Znojmo…This instrument was 5 feet long and 3 feet wide, with 790 strings . However, the suspension and the tautening of the numerous metal strings were much more elaborate. The ingenious mechanism, which had been worked out by Diviš with painstaking mathematical accuracy was such that the Denis d’or could imitate the sounds of a whole variety of other instruments, including chordophones such as harpsichords, harps and lutes, and even wind instruments. An untimely anti joke was that the player of the instrument could receive an electric shock whenever the inventor wanted.

(Reallexicon der Musikinstrumente, Curt Sachs1913, p 108)

Denis D’or named by Procopius Divisz , pastor Prendnitz in Znojmo in Moravia , in 1730 he invented keyboard instrument with pedals, which is the time that efforts in the area of instrument making became almost a caricature . The instrument was 1.57 meters long and 0.95 meters wide , and had a reference of 790 strings that could be tuned in  three-quarter hours to 130 notes.  This instrument allowed , among the sounds of almost all known string and wind instruments were represented , and even also loose jokes such that the player were given an electric shock as often as the inventor or owner wished. Apparently only one copy of this instrument was made which was purchased by the prelates of Bruck, Georg Lambeck

(Mendel 1872 , Vol.3 , p.110 )

Diviš charged the strings of the instrument with a temporary electrical charge in order to somehow “purify and enhance the sound quality” leading to the instrument being described as an “electronic musical instrument” ( Johann Ludwig Fricker after witnessing the Denis D’Or in 1753) . However, with intricate practical jokes in the salons of the nobility being fashionable at the time of the construction of the Denis D’or, it seems likely (and also taking into account the historical development of electro-magnetism) that the instrument was just one of the many proto-electrical gimmicks of the Baroque and Rococco period rather than a serious contender for the title of the first electronic instrument.

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Sources:

Reallexicon der Musikinstrumente, Curt Sachs1913, p 108

Peer Sitter. “Das Denis d’or : Urahn der “elektroakustischen” Musikinstrumente?”: Perspektiven und Methoden einer Systemischen Musikwissenschaft, S. 303-305. Bericht über das Kolloquium im Musikwissenschaftlichen Institut der Universität zu Köln 1998

Mendel 1872 , Vol.3 , p.110

SCHILLING , Gustav [ Schilling 1835 ] : Encyclopädie the entire musical sciences or Universal Dictionary of Music , Second volume , Stuttgart 1835/1838 .

Harenberg 1989 : new music by new technology? Computer music as a qualitative challenge for new thinking in music , Kassel 1989.

Schiffner , Wolfgang [ Schiffner 1994 ] : Rock and Pop and their sounds Technology – Theses – Title , Aachen 1994.

Hugh Davies. “Denis d’or”. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 7 Oct. 2009

 

Links:

Memorial page to Prokop Diviš

 

‘Clavecin Électrique’ . Jean-Baptiste Delaborde, France. 1759.

 

Clavecin Électrique

Clavecin Électrique Jean-Baptiste Delaborde, Paris, France, 1759

Built by the Jesuit priest Jean-Baptiste Delaborde in Paris, France, 1759, the Clavecine Électrique or the ‘Electric Harpsichord’ is one of the earliest documented  instruments that used electricity to create musical sound. . Despite it’s name The Clavecin Électrique was not a stringed instrument but a carillon type keyboard instrument using a static electrical charge (supplied by a Leyden Jar, an early form of capacitor invented by the Dutch scientist Pieter van Musschenbroek of Leiden around 1745) to vibrate metal bells – The mechanism  based on a contemporary warning-bell device (1). This method allowed the player to create a series sustained notes from the bells, similar to an organ:

Two metal bells tuned in unison are hung, one with a silk thread, one with a wire onto a metal rod itself both hanging free by means of a silk thread at each end. Based on the principles of static electricity a beater, also hung on a silk thread is alternately attracted and rejected by each bell as soon at is released through holding down a key, n  positive and negative fields being created in the bells.
(“The Harpsichord and Clavichord: An Encyclopedia” Ferdinand J.De Hen p71 Routledge 2007)
Jean-Baptiste de Laborde's book describing the Clavesin “Le Clavessin électrique; avec une nouvelle théorie du mécanisme et des phénomènes de l’électricité”

Jean-Baptiste de Laborde’s book describing the Clavesin “Le Clavessin électrique; avec une nouvelle théorie du mécanisme et des phénomènes de l’électricité”

Delaborde’s misleading name of the instrument was an intentional attempt to elevate his invention above that of a Carillon – a mere musical-box:
“The electrical matter has something of the soul, as air is to the body, the guardian of the bellows globe, and ‘the conductor of the wind-door. The key is in the organ as a brake, with which moderates the effect of the air, I posed the same brake on the electric matter, despite his sensitivity, his agility. The air trapped in the organ there groaning, so long as the organist, as another Aeolus, opened the doors of his prison. If at the same time he took away all the barriers that stop, another would not produce a great confusion and disorder, but he does it Sorting [...] with discernment. The electrical matter abode even as it locked up, and you feel unnecessarily around the bells of the new harpsichord, to the extent that is given the freedom, coll’abbassare the keys: it then becomes with great rapidity, but ceases d ‘ operate, as soon as the keys reassemble. This kind of cymbal hath also an advantage that others do not have, that is that where it ‘cymbals ordinarj the non-continuous sound weakening; electric organ and harpsichord retains all the strength that the fingers remain on the keys. “
Delaborde added that during a performance in a dark room the listener’s “eyes are agreeably surprised by the brilliant sparks” that were produced by the instrument and that “the clavessin became at the same time audible and visible” . This phenomena may have lead to the creation of the Clavecin Oculaire by the fellow Jesuit Louis Bertrand Castel, an early exploration of the relationship between pitch and colour. The Clavecine Électrique was well received by the press and the public but wasn’t developed further. The model Delaborde himself built survives and is kept at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.
The Clavessin électrique at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris

The Clavessin électrique at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris

Description of the Clavecin by Marc Michel Rey, 1759 in his "Le journal des sçavans, combiné avec les mémoires de Trévoux"

Description of the Clavecin by Marc Michel Rey, 1759 in his “Le journal des sçavans, combiné avec les mémoires de Trévoux”

Notes
(1) “The warning bell mechanism was based on an apparently unnamed method used in early electrical laboratories to audibly warn an experimenter of the presence of an electrical charge; it was probably invented by Andreas [Andrew] Gordon in Erfurt in 1741 and was described or demonstrated to Benjamin Franklin in Boston in 1746. An eight-bell instrument based on this principle was developed in about 1747 by Ebenezer Kinnersley, an associate of Franklin in Philadelphia, and the device subsequently received substantial publicity when it was mentioned in Franklin’s publication of his experiments with atmospheric electricity. Nearly 80 years were to elapse before the next sounds were produced by electricity.”
(Davis, Hugh.The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians)
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Sources

Collins, Nicholas. “Electronic Music”  , Margaret Schedel, Scott Wilson

Laborde, Jean-Baptiste de, “Le Clavessin électrique; avec une nouvelle théorie du mécanisme et des phénomènes de l’électricité”. Réimpression de l’édition de Paris, Guérin, Delatour, 1761. Genève, 1997. 1 volume in-16 de 192 pages, broché.

Schiffer, Michael; Hollenback, Kasy; and Bell, Carrie. 2003. Draw the Lightning Down: Benjamin Franklin and Electrical Technology In the Age of Enlightenment. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-23802-2

“Le journal des sçavans, combiné avec les mémoires de Trévoux”, Volumes 45-46

“Dictionnaire des origines, decouvertes, inventions et …”, Volume 1  Antoine et Prefort Sabatier de Castres (l’abbe Bassin de), l’abbe Bassin de Prefort

“Les jésuites et la musique: le Collège de la Trinité à Lyon”, 1565-1762 Pierre Guillot

“Mémoires pour l’histoire des sciences et des beaux-arts”, Volume 236; Volume 1759