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The dream of a “heavenly” sound: early experiments

In 1788 the Irishman Charles Glaggett invented an instrument called an aiuton, the sound of which was said to be sweeter and warmer even than that of a glass harmonica or a stringed instrument. To achieve this sound Glaggett mounted a row of tuning forks or metal prongs on a hollow box which were struck by small hammers operated by the keys of a keyboard. The instruments had a range of three to six octaves and never evolved beyond the experimental stage.

80 years later, in about 1860, Victor Mustel, the father of the man who was later to invent the celesta, came up with the typophone or dulcitone. This was another instrument with a keyboard and a row of tuning forks as the sound generator. While its timbre was said to be very similar to the celesta’s, it could not produce anything like the same volume and for this reason failed to gain acceptance. It was only rarely used.

The breakthrough: a “heavenly” sound is achieved

The old 18th century idea of attaining a timbre that was at once as soft and warm as possible but could nevertheless reach a satisfactory volume ultimately led to the invention of the celesta 100 years later. The idea of combining a metallophone with a keyboard was already known from the keyed glockenspiel.

In 1886, in Paris, the harmonium maker Auguste Mustel developed an instrument called the “celesta”, which met all the requirements and rapidly found acceptance in the orchestra. Mustel’s celesta was already constructed on the same pattern as the modern celesta with a keyboard, metal bars, resonators and a pedal, and it also possessed the required “sweet” sound. It had a range of five octaves, from C3 to C8 (concert). However, the sound of the lowest octave was unsatisfactory and the second generation of celestas only had four octaves, starting from a concert C4.

It is only relatively recently that the construction of instruments with a larger range in the lower register has been resumed. The compass begins with C3, and the timbre from C3 to C4 has been improved. Some instruments even boast a range of five and a half octaves (C3–F8). For touring purposes, smaller instruments with three octaves are usually quite sufficient. Nowadays, then, instruments with a range of three to five and a half octaves are in use and modern composers can write celesta parts over five and a half octaves if they so wish.

Initial reactions from composers

The first celesta part for orchestra was probably written by Ernest Chausson in 1888.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky first heard the celesta in Paris and immortalized the instrument in The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in his ballet The Nutcracker (1892).

In his opera Der Rosenkavalier (1911) Richard Strauss accompanies the presentation of the silver rose in Act 2 with the celesta’s heavenly tones.

The celesta has symbolized the romantic, the mythical, the mysterious, the lustrous and the dream-like in ballets and operas ever since. Dream sequences are conjured on stage by the sound of the celesta, as are other seemingly unreal levels of reality that are as fragile as the celesta’s music itself. A favorite is nocturnal scenes in which the moonlight glints on the water like silver.

Today, complex glockenspiel parts that were originally written – also in chords – for the keyed glockenspiel (e.g. in W. A. Mozart’s Magic Flute and Olivier Messiaen’s Oiseaux éxotiques) are played by the celesta.