The ‘Clavecin Magnetique’. M. l’Abbé Bertholon. France, 1785

M. l'Abbé Bertholon's 'Clavecin magnétique'
M. l’Abbé Bertholon’s ‘Clavecin magnétique’ of c1870

The ‘Clavecin Magnetique’ was an early acoustic carillon type instrument operated by magnetic attraction. The instrument was the result of an experimental enquiry into the nature of magnetism and electricity – much in vogue at the time – by Abbé Bertholon de Saint-Lazare (1741–1800) a Jesuit priest, mathematician and ‘natural scientist’ in Montpelier, France. Bertholon’s invention was a simple instrument which produced sounds by attracting metal clappers to strike tuned bells by raising and lowering magnets operated by a keyboard. Bertholon wrote and published many booklets regarding the phenomena of electricity and magnetism and their potential medical use. In ‘Du Clavecin magnétique’ (Paris, 1789) Bertholon referenced and praised two other keyboard instruments as influences on his design; the ‘Clavecin Électrique’ of Jean-Baptiste Delaborde (France. 1759) and Louis Bertrand Castel’s ‘Clavecin Ocular’ or ‘Colour Organ’ (Paris, France 1725) and then proceeds to explains the function of his instrument:

Frontispiece of 'Du Clavecin magnétique'. by M. l'Abbé Bertholon - Bertholon, Published in Paris 1789.
Frontispiece of ‘Du Clavecin magnétique’. by M. l’Abbé Bertholon – Bertholon, Published in Paris 1789.


Extract fromM. l’Abbé Bertholon’s ‘Du Clavecin magnétique – extrait de La nature considérée sous ses différents aspects, ou Journal d’histoire naturelle’

“Those things that really excite curiosity are often likely to be the subject of greatest utility. The history of science & art could provide several examples of this truth: when the Philosopher Thalès of Miletus, six hundred years before our era, discovered the property that when amber was rubbed it attracted small objects, no-one was tempted to believe that this discovery was anything but a vain & useless phenomenon; & we were far from understanding that this property, so small in appearance, may one day lead the bold race of Prometheus, to drop at will his fire from heaven, to divert lightning, and to master it in many ways.

With what was haughty scorn would some of the ignorant contemptibles have shown to this illustrious philosopher, the founder of the Ionic sect, when they saw him busy and seriously rubbing amber to attract small straws? This however is the first phenomenon of electricity, we will need to use all of our  knowledge on the subject to achieve the art of  preserving lightning and even to provide the cure of some chronic diseases until now have rebelled against remedy.

The first discoveries of aeriform fluids, known as Gas, have also seemed strange and yet they led us to the knowledge of certain mineral waters, the art of how to cure cancer & dissolve [kidney] stones etc.

Could the first person to observe that magnets attract iron & have conveyed to him their virtue, have imagined that one day, using an iron or steel needle, that he would brave the fury of this treacherous element and the needle, by flying from one pole to another allow him to strike out on unfamiliar roads.

Those who are involved in the search for truth, must ignore the curses of blasphemous people, and continue to question with a stubborn confidence the oracles of nature, because all knowledge is related to each other and interlinked.

The discovery of the magnetic harpsichord would always some interest, when she was only an object of curiosity, since all the truths are valuable, and that they lead almost always has benefits far at least, whatever the weak eyes can glimpse.

But it’s not just the degree of usefulness provided by the magnetic harpsichord, there are others that immediately arise. Everything that is capable of producing movement in the universe and can effect different bodies either immediately or delayed, and move without visible touch if necessary, unquestionably cannot be ignored.

We know several different types of Harpsichords [‘Clavecin’]; the ‘Ordinary Harpsichord’, the Ocular Harpsichord, & the Electric Harpsichord [‘Clavecin Électrique’]. The first is a purely acoustic stringed instrument; the second one once created quite a stir. Pére Castel [Louis Bertrand Castel  -15 November 1688 – 9 January 1757 French mathematician and inventor of the ‘Clavecin Ocular’ ], is famous for the products of his brilliant imagination, compared the seven colors to the seven tones of Music.

The natural or diatonic order was according to him:

  •  ut; Blue,
  • Re; verd,
  • Mi; yellow,
  • Fa; fawn,
  • Fol; red,
  • Le; purple,
  • Si; gray,
  • Ut; blue.

When two [of these] instruments are played and run in parallel it would create a new harmony, a melody of sounds corresponding to their colours.

This famous Jesuit [Pére Castel] does this purely to give the deaf the same pleasure that we feel from music. We would have been able to play music, using only colours, the same tunes we have heard on an ordinary harpsichord – there would be sonatas for the eyes as there are for the ears: the soul of the blind could have experienced the same enjoyment from the sounds as deaf by the eyes; &  both experience the same piece of music, since it could have played to the eyes a Piano, an andante, a presto, a prestissimo, as we play to the hearing.

The third harpsichord which I previously mentioned is the ‘Clavecin Électrique’ of Pere DeLa Borde[the Jesuit priest Jean-Baptiste Delaborde of Paris, France, inventor in 1759 of the Clavecin Électrique ] . It consisted of a single rod of iron on silk cords [the beater], with bells of different sizes for different tones. Two bells were combined in unison for a single note, one has suspended the iron rod with a brass wire, and the other with a silk cord. The beater is suspended by a silk thread and falling between two, etc. by electrifying the lever, the machine was put into play if each key meeting its lever, and each lever to its timbre.

The new harpsichord that I have imagined for some time is the ‘Clavecin Magnetique’, which has nothing in common with, and a very different structure from the preceding instruments. The whole machine is based on magnetic attraction of the physical spirit; that is – it attracts, & shakes iron battens hanging in balance with a range of tuned bells between them. You can hear tones that have known relationships, and suites of tones that form a nice melody.

For this effect, simply press the keys, lowering the end of a few levers which raise the other end on which is placed a bar magnet held in position by two parallel & perpendicular frames pierced by holes for receiving the bar magnets: the upper end of each bar, rising for each corresponding pitch, attracts the batten which is hanging out & to the side: This attractive force  knocks the bell & creates it’s own sound. . If two bells are played in unison, the third, the fourth, fifth or octave, being struck by the movement of the lever, we will hear these corresponding tones, and therefore we, can play different tunes, that is to say, we hear, singly or in succession, a series of tones that will have a definite relation between them. The soul of the movement that produce sounds in the harpsichord, the physics engine is the magnetic attraction, which have not yet been used to produce this effect we will have a magnetic harpsichord.

The physical engine and the soul of the movement that produces the sounds in the harpsichord is magnetic attraction, which has never before been used to produce the effect that we have in this magnetic harpsichord.

Let’s get into some detail, and show some experiences that can be seen as the foundations of the magnetic harpsichord;

A magnet attracts a piece of iron or steel. The distance of the magnet is proportionate to the attractive force of the magnet. This experience is very well known & not contested. The iron is presented and the magnet attracts until a meeting takes place. We can create a magnetic property very easily in steel bars  & this property is strong. Physics has prescribed several ways to magnetise the iron & steel

The action of the magnet exerts itself, as experience shows, despite the interposition of all objects except iron: and the attraction takes place, whatever has been put between the attracting object & attracted object; gold, silver, copper; or any other metal that does not contain iron, even though there is between them glass, wood, stone and other animal products, vegetable or mineral.

What are the facts which form so undeniable experiences. Let us assume now that a patch of glass or copper & a clapper of metal are suspended near each other, it is clear that bar magnet, which rises in the interior of the bell at the height of the clapper attracts it & the clapper will hit the bell, which will result in a sound, and that this effect will still take place, where distances can not be too large, but proportional to the attractive forces.

If two bells are played in unison, we hear that each of them will resonate; they are likely to have an effect each other, such as the octave, the third, the fourth or the fifth, we hear the formation of a regular harmony when played at the same time or a nice melody if they are played successively. And it can make all sorts of sounds, it will be able to play all the tunes that you will want, if it was a series of bells in the key of ‘tri’ & stored in the order of succession & natural tones sharps & flats, in a manner similar to that of different Musical instruments, it will result in a true magnetic harpsichord.

Bertholon's engraving of the workings of the 'Clavecin Magnetique' referred to in the text.
Bertholon’s engraving of the workings of the ‘Clavecin Magnetique’ referred to in the text.

The first figure represents the bell F G with the clapper G, suspended on I rope or rod H K. The magnetic bar is carried by the end C of the lever CD , and the lever, which is supported by its axis A & its fulcrum, is pivotable, when a finger is pushed on D: The whole thing is supported by the pivot BA; & as soon as we stop this pressure, the weight of the bar makes the lever fall, and there is no more attraction.

We see in the second figure that the same magnetic bar AB, placed horizontally, may, when it is high in C, D, attract. at the same time the clappers F, E, which then hit the bells C D. To produce this effect, simply lower the G end of the lever.

Since it can be very difficult, and consequently very expensive to find a large number of silver bells or even copper or brass, which give different tones in desired relations, one can order the base of the cups as in B, 3, and select a number that can give several series of octaves. To explain more perfectly, we can put more or less water in those cups that would render the desired tones. Then, by raising the tip of the bar magnet C at the height of the clapper A, the tone that one wants will be made.

Figure 4 corresponds to Figure 2, and show that the AB bar being placed horizontally, it may, by a single movement G, raise the bar to the level of the two clappers C, D & pull together to sound two tones in unison, octave, or third, or fourth, & , accordingly the base of the cups will be selected.

The arrangement as seen in Figures 2 and 4 give the complete instrument dimensions that by their size would hit awkwardly. To make this more readily understood, we represented the length of the bars in a position parallel to the width of the body of the man who plays the instrument; but if we place the bars in one direction always parallel to the horizon, and perpendicular to the direction of Figures 2 & 4, then the portion of the instrument; between D & C, in Figure 4, we have, instead of the whole length, the width of the plank upon which the cups lie, is perhaps equal only to these. In this case you can store quite a large number of bells or cups in size equal to the extent that one can easily browse with both hands to press the buttons D, G, G, G.

Figure II of the board is a line or row of bells in the simplest arrangement, to avoid confusion it is a series of bells, such as one sees one in Figure I, Plate I. It is understood that one can play a simple tune, if you have a diatonic or chromatic series of bells. Two planks drilled with corresponding spaced holes always retain the perpendicular position of the various magnetic bars.

We can, according to this arrangement and that of  figure2 and 4, design a third engraving where the same bar would move at the same time. two clappers would hit each bells in agreement.

It can be seen in the second diagram that each clapper is closer to one than the bells neighbouring bell, so that when the clapper returns after attraction, we can not hear a second sound.

If we still assume that the bells & clappers are arranged in parallel lines between them, but gradually higher than the first line of bells & clappers of the second board, we can, in a small space whose depth is increased , have a double, a triple, a quadruple row etc. of bells, if there are two, three, or four of these lines. In this way it will be easy to place several corresponding levers in a very confined space, so that there are some keys in rows above the other; & then the harpsichord be no larger than the ordinary instruments of the same name, it will be easy to play the harpsichord, and even to make it portable.

When the bar magnets have lots of energy, their attraction is very strong, and because the distance between them and the clappers are small, it sometimes happens that after the first shock & after oscillation or vibration, the clapper can still hit the bell.

To turn it off you can use a type of damper or shock absorber. For this purpose, between the node 1  &, Figure I, there is a pulley on which is passed a small wire or cord attached at one end to a point between A & D, while the other end of the wire will be armed with a small piece of cloth with a lead ball for ballast. This being so, it is obvious that every time we push down the rocker lever D, it will raise the shock-absorber, and the shock will be made; but once you press the more preferred key, the weight of the bar by the action of the lever in opposite direction, the shock-absorber descends & will be between the clapper & the bell; it will then ascend, and allow free play.

I then found a way to make a more accurate alternative to the rise and fall movement of the damper, by fixing a wire or cord that passes over the pulley, so that one of its ends is attached between A & D, and the other end between A & C, and that a piece of cloth is placed positioned at the corresponding part of the cord between the bell and the clapper when the C lever is lowered.

A few years ago, after several tests & attempts and after many preparatory experiments, I finally came to build the magnetic harpsichord as I have described; & I was satisfied, as were those who saw the first performance of the instrument. There is no doubt that we can still simplify and perfect it, as normal for all inventions.”


‘Du Clavecin magnétique – extrait de La nature considérée sous ses différents aspects, ou Journal d’histoire naturelle’. Par M. l’Abbé Bertholon – Bertholon, Pierre ; Aubert pp. 321-332 + 332-359 + 361-362. Paris 1789.(translated: Simon Crab 2015)

The ‘Groupe de Recherches Musicales’ Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry & Jacques Poullin, France 1951

Console at GRM Paris
Console at GRM Paris showing the EMI mixing desk and parts of the Coupigny Synthesiser c1972

The GRM was an electro-acoustic music studio founded in 1951 by the musique concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer, composer Pierre Henry and the engineer Jacques Poullin and based at the RTF (Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française) buildings in Paris. The studio itself was the culmination of over a decades work into musique concrète and sound objects by Schaeffer and others at the ‘Groupe Recherches de Musique Concrète’ (GRMC) and the Studio d’Essai. The new studio was designed around Schaeffer’s sound theories later outlined in his book  “Treaty of Musical Object – Traité des Objects Musicaux”:

“musique concrète was not a study of timbre, it is focused on envelopes, forms. It must be presented by means of non-traditional characteristics, you see … one might say that the origin of this music is also found in the interest in ‘plastifying’ music, of rendering it plastic like sculpture…musique concrète, in my opinion … led to a manner of composing, indeed, a new mental framework of composing” (James 1981, 79). Schaeffer had developed an aesthetic that was centred upon the use of sound as a primary compositional resource. The aesthetic also emphasised the importance of play (jeu) in the practice of sound based composition. Schaeffer’s use of the word jeu, from the verb jouer, carries the same double meaning as the English verb play: ‘to enjoy oneself by interacting with one’s surroundings’, as well as ‘to operate a musical instrument’
(Pierre Henry. Dack 2002).

Along with the WDR Studio in Germany, the GRM/GRMC was one of the earliest electro-acoustic music studios and attracted many notable avant-garde composers of the era including Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Jean Barraqué, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgard Varèse, Iannis Xenakis, Michel Philippot, and Arthur Honegger. Compositional output from 1951 to 1953 comprised ‘Étude I’ (1951) and ‘Étude II’ (1951) by Boulez, ‘Timbres-durées’ (1952) by Messiaen, ‘Konkrete Etüde’ (1952) by Stockhausen, ‘Le microphone bien tempéré’ (1952) and ‘La voile d’Orphée’ (1953) by Pierre Henry, ‘Étude I’ (1953) by Philippot, ‘Étude’ (1953) by Barraqué, the mixed pieces ‘Toute la lyre’ (1951) and ‘Orphée 53′(1953) by Schaeffer/Henry, and the film music ‘Masquerage’ (1952) by Schaeffer and ‘Astrologie’ (1953) by Pierre Henry.

The original design of the studio followed strict Schaefferian theory and was completely centered around tape manipulation, recording and editing. Several novel ‘tape instruments’ were built and integrated into the studio setup including the phonogène (Three version were built; the phonogène Universal, Chromatic & Sliding) and the Morphophone.

The phonogène

The Phonogene

The Phonogène was a one-off multi-headed tape instrument designed by Jacques Poullin. In all, three version of the instrument were created;

    • The Chromatic Phonogène . A tape loop was driven by multiple capstans at varied speeds allowed the production of short bursts of tape sounds at varying pitches defined by a small one-octave keyboard.
    • The Sliding phonogène created a continuous tone by varying the tape speed via a control rod
    • The Phonogène Universal allowed transposition of pitch without altering the duration of the sound and vice-versa obtained through a rotating magnetic head called the ‘Springer temporal regulator’ (a similar design to VHS video tape recorders)

The morphophone

The Morphophone circa 1955

The Morphophone was a type of tape loop-delay mechanism, again designed by Jacques Pollin. A tape loop was stuck to the edge of a 50cm diameter rotating disk and the sound was picked up at varying points on the tape by ten magnetic heads (one recording, one erasing and ten playback heads). The resulting sound was passed through a series of bandpass filters (for each playback head) and amplified.

 Images from the GRM Studio


GRM Archive

The ‘Orgue des Ondes’ Armand Givelet & Edouard Eloi Coupleux, France. 1929

Organist Charles Tournemire at the Orgue Des Ondes in the église de Villemomble 1931
Organist Charles Tournemire at the Orgue Des Ondes in the église de Villemomble 1931 (Image: 1931 / A. Boukelion)

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 Lampe 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 vacuum tube technology but implemented the RC oscillator design rather than the heterodyne principle of the the Theremin, Ondes-Martenot  and others. Uniquely for its time, the Orgue des Ondes 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 Orgue Des Ondes installed at the Poste Parisien, Paris, France c 1928
The Orgue Des Ondes installed at the Poste Parisien radio station, Paris, France c 1928

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.

Multiple vacuum tubes of the Orgue Des Ondes
Multiple vacuum tubes of the Orgue Des Ondes

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.

Marshal Pétain reviews the inauguration of the Orgue Des Ondes at the Poste Parisien radio station. Image; 'Le Petit Parisien' 27 October 1932.
Marshal Pétain reviews the inauguration of the Orgue Des Ondes at the Poste Parisien radio station. Image; ‘Le Petit Parisien’ 27 October 1932.

Le Petit Parisien 27th October 1932

Le Post Parisien soon to inaugurate the “Wave Organ”

The organ which has been installed at the Post Parisien will be inaugurated in a few days, on 26 October. The organ, not a typical orchestral instrument used by numerous radio broadcasters, is the result of the latest perfections of technology. This organ, whose powerful voice will soon be broadcast on the waves, has little resemblance to the monumental organs of Notre Dame, Saint-Eustache and Saint-Etienne du Mont. One searches in vain for the forest of pipes which previously would show the instrument’s personality. Instead, two mahogany chests flank the organ, which, pierced with loudspeakers resembling portholes, replace the hundreds of slender colonnades of pipes, evoking the appearance of a harmonium.

This revolution however is not just decorative. The ‘Orgue Des Ondes’, which has just been installed in the large auditorium of the Post Parisien on the Champs Elysees, can be considered one of the most remarkable contributions of current science.

Eloy Coupleux, its inventor and manufacturer (with Armand Givelet) gave me a description of the instrument which, today can rival the the most venerable consecrated instruments. To establish his instrument, Mr. Coupleux started from the principle that every note was to be a transmitter, creating an oscillation at the same frequency of each note. Each of these positions corresponds to a key keyboards or pedal which when pressed trigger an oscillating circuit corresponding to an oscillating frequency of the note and the sound – thus creating all the vibrations of the musical scale. As for sounds, which in the classical organ, are dependent on the shape, length and mouth of the pipes, they are here created by and electrical circuit. The instrument, which has many advantages (over a classical organ. ed ), has three keyboards, pedals and seventy-six stops. The organ is insensible to temperature changes – unlike a classical organ – and is perfectly flexible, offering the possibility of indefinite virtuoso repetitions of high-speed lines. Similarly, the sound can, thanks to the amplified speakers, reach everywhere at the same time – and with radio transmissions of the movement of the keys, at a speed of 300,000 kilometers per second, an organist could play the organ of the Poste Parisien perfectly to the borders of Japan.

Rejuvenated by the miracle of the waves, the instrument will generate new interest in organs due to the vast increase in it’s abilities.
Maurice Bourdet.

1 Le Petit Parisien : journal quotidien du soir, 27 Octobre 1932,1.

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 pipe 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.2La Nature 1930, ‘Nouveaux instruments de musique Radio électriques, piano et orgue radioélectriques Givelet-Coupleux’, Cinquante huitième année, deuxième semestre – n. 2836-2847, 258-262.

The Orgue Des Ondes installed at the Poste Parisien radio station, Paris, France c 1928
The Orgue Des Ondes installed at the Poste Parisien radio station, Paris, France, 1932

It is unclear how many of the instruments were built – sources put the number at four or perhaps eight, however, the first Orgues Des Ondes was installed at thr Église de Villemomble in the Parisian suburbs of Saint-Denis – inaugurated by the famous organist Charles Tournemire on the 6th December 1931. The second and more famous instrument was installed at the Poste Parisien radio station and auditorium on the Champs Elysees, Paris, inaugurated on 25th of October 1932.3Science et monde : tout pour tous : des idées, des faits.1932-11-17, 8. The high-profile inauguration event  was lead by the famous organist and composer Maurice Duruflé who’s repertoire of the evening included:

    • Mendelssohn: ‘6th Sonata’
    • Bach: ‘I cry to you Lord’
    • Buxtehude: ‘modal Fugue in C’
    • Vierne: ‘Allegrro perennial of the 1st Symphony ‘
    • Duruflé: ‘Sicilian’
    • Gigout: ‘Toccata ‘
    • Franck: ‘Pastorale’ Schumann ‘Canon in B Minor’

Duruflé thereafter performed every Sunday from August 1932 to January 1933. Both instruments seem to have later been removed and replaced with more modern organs.

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.”4 Bush, Douglas and Kassel, Richard, The Organ, An Encyclopedia, Taylor & Francis, 2004, 165.

Despite its initial warm reception, the Orgue Des Ondes eventually succumbed to the practicality and portability of the American built Hammond Organ which also targeted the religious market as well as domestic music making. This competition bankrupted the Givelet-Coupleux partnership in 1935.

Images of the Orgue Des Ondes and othe Coupleux-Givelet instruments.

The Coupleux brothers, Paul, Leon and Eloi
The Coupleux brothers, Paul, Leon and Eloi

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 eventually launching their own radio station ‘Radio Flanders’ in 1923 – five years before the existence of French national state radio.

Coupleux brothers working at their fathers watchmaking shop c1900
Coupleux brothers working at their fathers watchmaking shop c1900

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.

The Coupleux shop at 24 bis, rue Esquermoise, Lille France c 1920
The Coupleux shop at 24 bis, Rue Esquermoise, Lille France c 1920

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.

Workers at the Coupleux frères piano and organ workshop at 100 rue du Moulin-Fagot, Tourcoing, Lillle, France c1920
Workers at the Coupleux frères piano and organ workshop at 100 rue du Moulin-Fagot, Tourcoing, Lillle, France c1920

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.

Louise Coupleux (sister of Eloi) playing an amplified Télépiano in c1922
Louise Coupleux (sister of Eloi) playing an amplified Télépiano in c1922

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 lampe 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. 5 Carpentier, Oliver. L’Aventure industrielle des frères Coupleux, 1900-1935, Préface de Douglas Heffer, éditions de l’Inoui, 2004.

Sheet music book and the Orgue Des Ondes
Sheet music book and the Orgue Des Ondes


  • 1
    Le Petit Parisien : journal quotidien du soir, 27 Octobre 1932,1.
  • 2
    La Nature 1930, ‘Nouveaux instruments de musique Radio électriques, piano et orgue radioélectriques Givelet-Coupleux’, Cinquante huitième année, deuxième semestre – n. 2836-2847, 258-262.
  • 3
    Science et monde : tout pour tous : des idées, des faits.1932-11-17, 8.
  • 4
    Bush, Douglas and Kassel, Richard, The Organ, An Encyclopedia, Taylor & Francis, 2004, 165.
  • 5
    Carpentier, Oliver. L’Aventure industrielle des frères Coupleux, 1900-1935, Préface de Douglas Heffer, éditions de l’Inoui, 2004.


‘La Croix Sonore’ Nicolai Obukhov. Russia – France, 1929-1934

Modern reconstruction of the Croix Sonore at the musée de L'Opéra, Paris.
Modern reconstruction of the Croix Sonore at the musée de L’Opéra, Paris.

Nicolai Obukhov was a Russian composer who, after studying  at the Moscow and St. Petersburg Conservatories with  Maximilian Steinberg and Nikolai Tcherepnin, left Russia on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution in 1918. Obukhov settled in Paris in 1919 where he studied orchestration with Maurice Ravel and Marcel Orban while supporting his new family by working as a bricklayer. 

Marie-Antionette Aussenac-Broglie plays the Croix Sonore. Image; ‘Comoedia’ Paris 5th March 1934.

Obukhov, who signed his name “Nicolas l’illuminé” (Nicholas the visionary), was a deeply religious mystical Christian and profoundly influenced by the new theosophical cult of the Salon de la Rose + Croix which became popular with artists and musicians in the early 1920s. These beliefs were expressed in his compositions which, like his fellow countryman Alexander Scriabin, were intended as a means of attaining a transcendent state and a bridge to the world of the spirit – rather than just an aesthetic creation – Obukhov was driven by the idea that there was a higher reality to which art could reach. He attempted to achieve this spiritual goal through, for the time, unconventional means; a “total harmony” of 12 tone composition, unusual rhythm, experimental methods of notation, new invented instruments and expressive vocal directions –Obukhov was probably the first composer to   require a singer to make ‘non musical’ vocal sounds:

 ‘I forbid myself any repetition: my harmony is based on twelve notes of which none must be repeated. Repetition produces an impression of force without clarity; it disturbs the harmony, dirties it.’1 Schloezer op. cit, p 47.

“…music enjoys decided advantages which endow it with possibilities of insinuation into the depths of the soul, and the mind, of emotions inaccessible to other arts. This faculty resides in the fact that music is hindered less than any other art in the realisation of its aims by material conditions.” 2Manuscript MS 15226, music department, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

In order to achieve this musical ‘insinuation’ Obukhov supplemented the traditional orchestra with new instruments of his own invention. These included the “Crystal” a piano type instruments where hammers hit a row of crystal spheres and the “Éther” an electronically powered instruments where a large rotating paddle wheel created various, apparently inaudible infra- and ultra-sonic humming sounds that ranged from approximately five octaves below to five octaves above human hearing. This sound was intended to have a mystical effect on the listener – though the effect was probably physiological, depending on the volume and frequency of the instruments sound. Low frequency infra-sound is known to have a physical effect on the human nervous system causing disorientation, anxiety, panic, bowel spasms, nausea, vomiting and eventually unconsciousness (supposedly 7-8 hz is the most effective being the same frequency as the average brain alpha wave). The effect is unintentionally generated by the extreme low frequencies in church pipe organ music, instilling religious feelings and causing sensations of “extreme sense sorrow, coldness, anxiety, and even shivers down the spine.” 3‘Organ Music Instills Religious Feelings’ by Jonathan Amos, 9/8/2003

The film actor Georges Colin presents Obukhov's "Chants Des Spheres " with the chorus and the Croix Sonore. Photo; L'Ouest-Éclair March 6th 1936.
The film actor Georges Colin presents the “Le Chant Des Spheres” with the Croix Sonore. Photo; L’Ouest-Éclair_03_06_1936_02

Obukhov’s only purely electronic instrument was “La Croix Sonore” or “Sonorous Cross” which was essentially one of several Theremin type instruments developed in Europe after Leon Termens departure to the USA in 1927 (others included the “Elektronische Zaubergeige” and the “Elektronde“). The Croix Sonore was designed and built in Paris by Michel Billaudot and Pierre Duvalier to Obukhov’s instructions in 1929 and was the result of several years experimenting with beat frequency/heterodyning oscillators probably after witnessing Termen’s demonstration of the Theremin while on tour around Europe. As with theTheremin the Croix Sonore was based on body capacitance controlling heterodyning vacuum tube oscillators. To suit Obukhov’s mystical and theatrical style, the circuitry and oscillators were built into a 44 cm diameter brass orb and the antennae disguised by a large 175 cm high crucifix adorned with a central star.

The Sonorous Cross was played in the same way as the Theremin – using the bodies capacitance to control the oscillators frequency, in this case moving the hands out from the central star on the crucifix altered the pitch and volume of the instrument. The ritualistic gestures made while playing this most unusual looking of instruments complemented the occult and mystical nature of Obukhov’s music and life.Obukhov continued to develop the instrument and produced an improved version, completed in 1934.

Nikolay Obukhov composed numerous pieces using his instrument as well as several using the Ondes-Martenot, culminating in his major work; “Le Livre De Vie” which exploited the glissando effects the Sonorous Cross could produce. The performances of these pieces were intended to be more like an occult church ceremony rather than an orchestral performance; Obukhov insisted that here were no spectators at his concerts – everyone would play their part in the mystical ritual which would take place in a circular ‘temple’:

“When the ‘Book of Life’ is performed, by which I mean when it is lived, the spectators, the participants will be arranged in spirals, in the interior of a circular and raised scene. The ‘terrestrial’ orchestra will be coiled up around the scene. A dome will contain the ‘celestial’ orchestra. Lighting changes will intervene in the ‘Sacred Action’, a synthesis of cult and orgy (the latter meant symbolically). Such is the ritual where science and religion are married.4Music of the Repressed Russian Avant-Garde, 1900-1929 p. 107. By Larry Sitsky, .Greenwood Press, Westport Connecticut and London, 1994.

“…some like priests will take part directly in the action, the others witness it, participating mentally like the faithful in church.” 5 ‘ de Schloezer, Boris , “Nicolas Obukhoff”, La Revue Musicale, 1, part 3, Nov. 1921, pp 38-56.

These performances received mixed reviews from the puzzled critics:

A Paris concert audience was stirred. and while it squirmed and tittered. tonight when Nicholas Obouhoff’ presented parts of his “Book of Life” and hitherto unknown “Annunciation of the Last Judgement.” to the accompaniment of the new electric musical instrument, the croix sonore.

Henry Prunieres introduced the concert. warning the audience that it was going to hear chords played on the piano. notes sung by a human voice and sounds drawn from an instrument such as it had never heard before. Even this warning. however. did not prepare the listeners for the sudden “shriek” – there is no other word for it-of Suzanne Balguerie on the opening note of one of Obouhoff‘s liturgic poems. There was no warning, either. when the singer suddenly began to whistle instead of sing. Some members of the audience thought it was one of their number expostulating in the classic manner and began to cry, “Hush! hush!“

Prunieres had praised the courage of the singers, Mme. Balguerie and Louise Matha. in attempting music so new, and as they produced strange note after strange note many felt that this praise was well merited. if only because their mastery of their effects prevented the audience from tittering more loudly.6 ‘Titters Greet Music of Obouhoff in Paris: Singers’ Strange Performance Accompanied by Electrical Instrument, Causes Stir’, 1. New York Times, May 16, 1934, p. 23.

“In “Annunciation of the Last Judgement” the singers stood together, one gowned in white. the other in red. while Obouhoff and Arthur Scholossberg played two pianos. and Princess Marie Antoinette Aussenac de Broglie, apart and sacramentally gowned in black, blue and orange, drew from the croix sonore notes that throbbed like twenty violins or at times sang like a human voice. In all this, it was the instrument that had the most success. Obuhoff’, it is said, dreamed of it long before the invention of the radio made application of the principle possible. He wrote music for it, calling it “the etherphone.” Out of it, by moving the hand back and forth, the Princess de Broglie drew an amazing sweetness or the most dreadful note, like the knocking of fate, to give Obouhofifs strange religious music far more power than his two pianos or even the distortions of his singers’ voices could produce.”7SHAW – MILLER, S. (2002). Visible Deeds of Music: Art and Music from Wagner to Cage. Yale University Press, p81 

Nicolas or Nicolai Obukhov ( also Obouchov, Obuchov, Obouhow, Obuchow), Born April 22, 1892 in Ol’shanka, Kursk, Moscow – died, June 13, 1954 in St. Cloud, France

Nikolay Obukhov studied counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatory from 1911 and later at the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1913 (with Kalafati, Maksimilian Steinberg and Nikolay Tcherepnin). His first published works date from this period, and were published as ‘Quatre mélodies’ by Rouart et Lerolle in Paris in 1921.


In 1915 Obukhov developed his own idiosyncratic form of musical notation (similar to one invented in Russia by Golïshev during the same period) using a 12-tone chromatic language highly influenced by the mystical Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. The only performances of his music in Russia took place at this time. A report of the performance describes Obukhov as ‘a pale young man, with gazing eyes’ who ‘confused the audience’. Obukhov left Russia during the revolution with his wife and two children; they eventually settled near Paris a year later. In Paris he encountered financial hardship until helped by Maurice Ravel who found Obukhov a publisher allowing him to devote his time to his music.

The 1920s saw a handful of performances, most notably that of the ‘Predisloviye knigi zhizni’ (‘Introduction to the Book of Life’) under Kussevitzsky. During this and the next decade he put into practice ideas for electronic instruments Obukhov had conceived as early as 1917: the ‘efir’ and ‘kristal’ (‘ether’ and ‘crystal’) he had described in Russia eventually gave rise to the croix sonore, and even though he built and wrote for the ether, it was with the croix sonore that he gained most attention. He found an exponent of the instrument in his pupil Marie-Antoinette Aussenac-Broglie who had also performed some of his piano music; she demonstrated the instrument around France and Belgium. Similar to both the theremin and the ondes martenot in that pitch production is reliant upon the distance of the performer’s arm from the instrument, the croix sonore was the subject of a film of 1934. During the mid-1940s his notation again provoked heated discussion, this time in Paris; a book containing works from the 18th to the 20th centuries in Obukhov’s notation was published by Durand. In 1947, his ‘Traité d’harmonie tonale, atonale et totale’ ‚ which had already interested Honegger ‚ was published, while a year later he lectured on this subject in the Russian Conservatory in Paris. Obukhov spent his last years incapacitated by a mugging in 1949 where the final version of  ‘the Book of Life’ was stolen; he composed only a few works after this incident.


Commentary on Obukhov’s work by Jonathan Powell 8

Obukhov’s output is dominated by vast works of which the most notorious ‚ notwithstanding the gargantuan ‘Troisième et dernier testament’ and ‘La toute puissance’ ‚ is the ‘Kniga zhizni’ (‘The Book of Life’) on which he worked from around the time he left Russia until at least the mid-1920s. Described by the composer as ‘l’action sacrée du pasteur tout-puissant regnant’ it was intended to be performed (or ‘accomplished’) uninterruptedly every year on the night of the first and on the day of the second resurrection of Christ. Obukhov did not consider himself the composer of this work; instead, he saw himself as the person permitted, by divine forces, to ‘show’ it. Parts of the score, one version of which is nearly 2000 pages in length, are marked in the composer’s blood.9 Powell: “This is now regarded as not true (see Pol’dyaeva, 2006)” The music is preceded by a lengthy exposition in archaic Russian, while the work concludes with one section the score of which unfolds into the form of a cross and another, taking the shape of a circle, which is fixed onto a golden and silver box decorated with rubies and red silk. (Nicholas Slonimsky, in his memoir ‘Perfect Pitch’ relates that the composer’s wife, driven to despair by Obukhov’s obsessive behaviour regarding this piece, attempted to burn ‚ or ‘immolate’, in the composer’s terminology ‚ the manuscript but was interrupted in her crime.) Much of the instrumental writing is characterized by the alternation of chorale-like material (often ornamented by filigree arppegiation) with tolling patterns, building to textures of considerable rhythmic and contrapuntal complexity. The vocal parts ‚ as with his writing for the voice in most of his other works ‚ have huge tessituras and are bespattered with glissandi and instructions for screaming or whispering. The style which is consistently applied in this magnum opus is prevalent in all of his mature works and has its roots in the songs and piano miniatures written in Russia.


Taking as a starting point the language employed by Skriabin in his mid- and late-period works, Obukhov evolved a harmonic technique based on the systematic configuration and manipulation of 12-note chords or harmonic areas. The sonorities resulting from this ‘total harmony’ are often broadly octatonic and frequently have a quasi-dominant character due to the prevalence of diminished fifths in the lower elements. Although longer structures appear to unfold in a schematized yet organic manner, the detail of musical procedure is curiously static. Obukhov saw his work as a musical articulation of his strongly-held religious beliefs and would sometimes sign his manuscripts ‘Nicolas l’illuminé’ or ‘Nicolas l’extasié’. Possibly inspired by Vladimir Solov´yov’s idea of ‘sobornost´’ (collective spiritual or artistic experience), Obukhov sought to abolish the traditional performer-audience polarity in favour of a merging of these previously mutually exclusive groups into one of participants. Obukhov mostly used his own texts which are frequently inspired by the Book of the Revelation or the Apocrypha. It is thus no coincidence that the only poets whose work appealed to him spiritually and compositionally were Solov´yov and Bal´mont, since it was the former’s orthodox mysticism that significantly informed the apocalyptic vision of the latter. In addition to these sources, mention should be made of Obukhov’s use of two verses by Musorgsky; it is between his work and that of Messiaen that Obukhov’s visionary language can be placed.


  • 1
    Schloezer op. cit, p 47.
  • 2
    Manuscript MS 15226, music department, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.
  • 3
    ‘Organ Music Instills Religious Feelings’ by Jonathan Amos, 9/8/2003
  • 4
    Music of the Repressed Russian Avant-Garde, 1900-1929 p. 107. By Larry Sitsky, .Greenwood Press, Westport Connecticut and London, 1994.
  • 5
    ‘ de Schloezer, Boris , “Nicolas Obukhoff”, La Revue Musicale, 1, part 3, Nov. 1921, pp 38-56.
  • 6
    ‘Titters Greet Music of Obouhoff in Paris: Singers’ Strange Performance Accompanied by Electrical Instrument, Causes Stir’, 1. New York Times, May 16, 1934, p. 23.
  • 7
    SHAW – MILLER, S. (2002). Visible Deeds of Music: Art and Music from Wagner to Cage. Yale University Press, p81 
  • 8
  • 9
    Powell: “This is now regarded as not true (see Pol’dyaeva, 2006)”

Further Reading:

Hugh Davies. “Croix sonore.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online

E.Ludwig: “La Croix Sonore” ReM, nos 158-9(935),96 ReM,nos 290-91 (1972-73)

Consciousness, Literature and the Arts. Archive. Volume 1 Number 3, December 2000 “Skriabin and Obukhov: Mysterium & La livre de vie The concept of artistic synthesis”. By Simon Shaw-Miller
‘Nikolay Obukhov and the Croix Sonore’ Rahma Khazam. From: Leonardo Music Journal,Volume 19, 2009, pp. 11-12


The ‘Ondes-Martenot’ Maurice Martenot, France, 1928

Ondes Martenot
Ondes Martenot

Maurice Martenot a Cellist and radio Telegraphist, met the Russian electronic engineer Leon Termen in 1923, this meeting lead him to design an instrument based on Termens ideas, the first model, the “Ondes-Martenot” was patented on the 2nd of April 1928 under the name “Perfectionnements aux instruments de musique électriques” (improvements to electronic music instruments). His aim was to produce a versatile electronic instrument that was immediately familiar to orchestral musicians. The first versions bore little resemblance to the later production models: consisting of two table mounted units controlled by a performer who manipulated a string attached to a finger ring (using the bodies capacitance to control the sound characteristics in a manner very similar to the Theremin) this device was later incorporated as a fingerboard strip above the keyboard.

Female Ondes Orchestra
Female Ondes Orchestra

Later versions used a standard keyboard.The Ondes-Martenot became the first succesfull electronic instrument and the only one of its generation that is still used by orchestras today, Martenot himself became, 20 years after its invention, a professor at the Paris Conservatoire teaching lessons in the Ondes-Martenot. The Ondes-Martenot’s success was the Theremins loss, although both used the vacuum tube oscillator as a sound source and were both monophonic, where the Theremin had a sliding scale and no fixed preset notes the Ondes-Martenot had a keyboard and a strip control for glissando and vibrato, organ like stops for preset timbres and an appearance that was familiar to any keyboard player.

Pre-set sounds on the later Ondes Martenot were:

  • Onde (O): A simple sine wave timbre. Similar in sound to the flute or ocarina.
  • Creux (C):  A peak-limited triangle wave. Similar in sound to a clarinet in high registers.
  • Gambe (G):  A timbre somewhat resembling a square wave. Intended to be similar in sound to string instruments, as the French title would suggest.
  • Petit Gambe (g): A similar but less harmonically-rich timbre than Gambe. The player can control the number of harmonics present in the signal by using a slider situated in the control drawer.
  • Nasillard (N): A timbre resembling a pulse wave. Similar in sound to a bassoon in low registers.
  • Octaviant (8): A timbre with a reinforced first harmonic whose intensity in the signal can be controlled by using a slider. This setting is analogous to the 4 foot stop in organ terminology.
  • Souffle (S): A timbre often described as white noise, but in fact pink noise of indefinite pitch.

The sound from the instrument could be output to a number of speakers or ‘Diffuseurs’ who’s physical properties further coloured the sound, the were:

  • ‘Principal’ A traditional, large loudspeaker.
  • ‘Résonance’ A loudspeaker which uses springs to produce a mechanical reverb effect.
  • ‘Métallique’ A small gong is used as the loudspeaker diaphragm to produce a ‘halo’ effect rich in harmonics.
  • ‘Palme’ An iconic lyre-shaped loudspeaker, using strings to produce sympathetic resonances.
loudspeakers or Diffuseurs of the Ondes Martrnot: the Métallique, the palm and the Principal

The instrument also had a bank of expression keys that allowed the player to change the timbre and character of the sounds. A later (1938) version of the instrument featured microtonal tuning as specified by the Hindu poet Rabindranath Tagore and the musician Alain Danielou. The Ondes-Martenot was quickly accepted and became one of the few electronic instruments to be admitted to the orchestra (at least in France) and had a wide repertoire by prominent composers such as Edgard Varèse, Olivier Messian (The “Turangalîla Symphonie” and “Trois Petites Liturgies de la Presence Divine” amongst others ), Darius Milhaud , Arthur Honegger, Maurice Jarre, Jolivet and Koechlin.


The ‘Ondium Péchadre’ Henri Camille Robert Péchadre. France, 1929

The Ondium played by
The Ondium played by the Pianist Gaston Wiener. (‘L’Ouest Eclair’ 1931)

The Ondium Péchadre was developed in France by  Henri Camille Robert Péchadre in 1929. The instrument was a monophonic heterodyning vacuum tube oscillator based instrument built into a light and portable heart shaped box, in performance the base of the instrument rested on the players knees and the instrument was supported against a table.

The seven octave range of the instrument was controlled – in a way similar to Jorg Mager’s Sphäraphon of 1924 – by moving a pointer around a circular calibrated dial while the left hand controlled the volume of the sound with a velocity sensitive push button device. This allowed the instrument to create a continuous pitch similar to a violin or cello, or by using the volume control, the sound wave’s envelope could be altered to give a more staccato effect.

The indium described in 'Le Menestrel' in 1933
The Ondium as described in ‘Le Menestrel’ in 1933

As with other similar instruments, The Ondium output sound to an amplifier and loudspeaker but, uniquely, was also able to transmit sounds directly via radio waves to a radio receiver or network.

“The Ondium we can report, is of the family of radio-electronic instruments similar to developments by Martenot and others. It differs however in by some points, in particular by this one; The Ondium is the only device of this kind that can be picked up  by radio.”

Gaston Wiener quoted from ‘L’Ouest-Éclair’ 1935.

Péchadre toured with the Ondium throughout France in the 1930s where, accompanied by an orchestra, he commissioned well known musicians (Gaston Wiener, pianist, Jacques Serres, cellist and Georges Hugo, pianist)  to perform popular classical works by Saint-Saëns, Mozart, Delibes and others as well as surprising the audience with the instruments versatility by imitating bird song.

The Ondium Péchadre played by it's inventor Msr Péchadre in 1930 (from 'Un appareil de musique radioélectrique; l'ondium Péchadre' by E.-WEISS.)
The Ondium Péchadre played by it’s inventor Msr Péchadre in 1930 (from ‘Un appareil de musique radioélectrique; l’ondium Péchadre’ by E.-WEISS.)
The Ondium with back cover removed showing control levers and tone generators. (from 'Un appareil de musique radioélectrique; l'ondium Péchadre' by E. WEISS.)
The Ondium with back cover removed showing control levers and tone generators. (from ‘Un appareil de musique radioélectrique; l’ondium Péchadre’ by E. WEISS.)


Telecoms Minister M. Mallarmé in front of boxed commercial versions of the Ondium at the ’21st Radio Salon’ Paris, 1934. Image: ‘Paris Soir’ September 1934.


‘Le Ménestrel’ Paris 1933.

‘L’Ouest Eclair’ Rennes. 29/10/1931 number 12775.

‘Un appareil de musique radioélectrique; l’ondium Péchadre’ by E. WEISS. La Nature N° 2837 – 15 juillet 1930 Pages 64-65

The ‘Sonothèque’. Léonce Lavallée, France. 1936

Léonce Lavallée’s ‘Sonothèque’ or “sound library” was a  “coded performance electronic instrument using photo-electric translation of engraved grooves”. The instrument was capable of reading music and sounds encoded graphically with conductive ink sensed by a set of electrically charged brushes – a graphic encoding method that was used a decade later by John hanert with the Hanert Electric Orchestra .

The instrument was patented (FR806076) in 1936 as ‘Dispositif pour la reproduction sonore d’une partition de musique avec utilisation d’enregistrement de sons élémentaires’ or ‘Device for the sound reproduction of a musical score using the recording of elementary sounds’ and, according to Le Caine was demonstrated in Paris in 1929:

“The first public demonstration of “synthetic music” made by electronic devices was at the Paris Exposition of 1929, where a roll-operated device consisting of four monophonic electronic oscillators was shown with great success. Following the basic patent covering this device,*” there are other similar French patents. In one of these,“ a number of different devices are described, that allow the composer or arranger to draw by hand the sound envelope. In one form of the invention, the arranger engraves a groove in a suitable support which varies either in depth or in position at right angles to the time axis. When the music is reproduced, a needle following the groove operates an optical wedge to control the light passing through a sound-on-film recording to a photocell. In another form of the invention, the arranger draws by hand in conductive ink, a mark of varying width or position which is read by a series of brushes to set up the sound envelope. As a sound source, the inventor uses a “sound library” (sonothéque) consisting of suitable supports on which are recorded by any known method the various notes of the various instruments, in addition to vocal sounds and other noises. As an alternative, synthesis from pure tones is mentioned.”


Thomas LaMar Rhea. ‘The Evolution of Electronic Musical Instruments in the United States’ 1972

Hugh Le Caine, ‘Electronic Music’, Proceedings of the IRE, 44 (1956), pp. 457–78.


The ‘Ondioline’ Georges Jenny, France, 1940

George Jenny's 'Ondioline'
Georges Jenny’s ‘Ondioline’

By the late 1930’s with the advent of reliable vacuum tubes and octave divider techniques it became possible to create small, portable electronic instruments that could, despite their size and simplicity, deliver a complex and variable sound. The  Ondioline was part of this new family (which includes the Clavioline, Tuttivox, Univox and others) and was designed as an affordable, versatile piano-attachment that could extend a solo pianists tonal range and repertoire – as such, the Ondioline became hugely successful with pianists, dance bands, light orchestras and cabarets  throughout the 1940’s and 50’s.

The first version of the Ondioline was created by Georges Jenny in 1938 whilst undergoing treatment in a tuberculosis sanatorium. Jenny continued to re-design and build new versions of the instrument at his Paris company “Les Ondes Georges Jenny” (later known as “La Musique Electronique”) until his death in 1976. The instruments were individually built by Jenny himself or supplied in kit form, eventually over a thousand instruments were sold in the USA alone. In an attempt to keep production costs low (Ondiolines originally sold for a mere $400) poor quality components were often used, and after a few years, the instrument became unplayable if not maintained.
The Ondioline was, like many other instruments of the time, a monophonic vacuum-tube instrument, but rather than relying on the heterodyning principle the Ondioline used a single multi-vibrator oscillator which gave the instrument a tone much richer in harmonics. The Ondioline was played using a small eight octave (switch-able through six octaves and tune-able via an octave transposer) touch sensitive keyboard mounted on internal springs that allowed the player to bend the notes using sideways pressure. Via a series of fifteen filters switches It was possible to create complex waveforms and additionally the sound wave could be shaped with the use of a touch wire, effecting the attack with a vertical finger movement or adding glissando or modulation by horizontal movement; this enabled the Ondioline to reproduce a wide range of sounds from soft strings to drum-like percussion. The overall volume of the machine was controlled by a knee lever allowing the player control the overall envelope of the instruments output.
The Ondioline was marketed in Germany as the “Pianoline” and in The Netherlands as the “Orcheline” and made a notable appearance during the Brussels World Fair (1958) when it was played on top of the Atomium building. A microtonal version of the instrument was built for the composer Jean-Etienne Marie during the sixties consisting of a four octave keyboard which could be tuned to a variety of microtonal systems.

Videos of the Ondioline


‘Ondioline’ Book. Georges Jenny  1957


G.Jenny: “L’initiation à la lutherie électronique” , Toute La Radio (1955) Jean Jacques Perrey.