‘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