The ‘Clavessin Electrique’ from Jean-Baptiste Laborde’s “Le Clavessin électrique; avec une nouvelle théorie du mécanisme et des phénomènes de l’électricité” 1761.
This instrument was constructed by the Jesuit priest Jean-Baptiste Delaborde in Paris, France, 1759. The Clavecin Électrique or ‘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: “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 1 Davis, Hugh. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians . 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.2De Hen, Ferdinand J. ‘The Harpsichord and Clavichord: An Encyclopedia’ Routledge 2007, p71
“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 ordinary the non-continuous sound weakening; electric organ and harpsichord retains all the strength that the fingers remain on the keys.” 4 De Hen, Ferdinand, J. ‘The Harpsichord and Clavichord: An Encyclopedia’ . Routledge, 2007, p71
- 1Davis, Hugh. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians
- 2De Hen, Ferdinand J. ‘The Harpsichord and Clavichord: An Encyclopedia’ Routledge 2007, p71
- 3Image: gallica.bnf.fr
- 4De Hen, Ferdinand, J. ‘The Harpsichord and Clavichord: An Encyclopedia’ . Routledge, 2007, p71
De Hen, Ferdinand J. ‘The Harpsichord and Clavichord: An Encyclopedia’ Routledge 2007. p71
Durosoir, G., & Guillot, P. (1993). Les jésuites et la musique. le collège de la trinité à lyon (1565-1762). Revue De Musicologie, 79(1), 160. doi:10.2307/947458
Collins, N., Schedel, M., & Wilson, S. (2013). Electronic music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511820540
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.
Rey, Marc Michel”Le journal des sçavans, combiné avec les mémoires de Trévoux”, 1759. Volumes 45-46
Sabatier de Castres, Antoine et Prefort (l’abbe Bassin de Prefort)”Dictionnaire des origines, decouvertes, inventions et …” Volume 1.
Schiffer, M. B., Hollenback, K. L., & Bell, C. L. (2003). Draw the lightning down: Benjamin franklin and electrical technology in the age of enlightenment. Berkeley: University of California Press.
“Mémoires pour l’histoire des sciences et des beaux-arts”, Volume 236; Volume 1759
3 thoughts on “‘Clavecin Électrique’ or ‘Clavessin Électrique’. Jean-Baptiste Delaborde, France. 1759.”
Your work is truly remarkable and a great source of inspiration !
Note that the historically correct spelling here in de Laborde’s book is “clavessin” (not “clavecin”) ; at that time the word does not really mean a “harpsichord” (a plucked strings keyboard instrument) but more generally a keyboard instrument (“Clavier” being any arrangement of “claves” = “keys”) (It seems that de Laborde wanted to come out from the numerous chimes and little bells arrangements which everyone experimenting with electricity owned at that time).
Thanks for your blog, great source of informations.
I published a post on my blog “beyond the coda” around this first electric instrument.
Epic page! tnx for putting effort for us who wants to explore this topics!