An Early Electro-Magnetic Experiment

  • PDF:

For some four years after the first World War, experimental concerts were given in the city of Chicago. In the Chestnut Street home of Lysander Hill, one of the North Side elite, a new instrument had been installed. The wealthy, the great, and the famous came—by invitation—to attend a vegetarian banquet served on fine linens in a large, sumptuously appointed dining hall. After dinner, in the living room, the concert would begin; new sounds would come forth: music from singing aluminum bars, a buggy-spring bass, and a piano played without hammers.

The sound was very beautiful, by all accounts, and many of the illustrious guests bought shares in the company making the instrument. But its mechanism was before its time, beyond the capacity of technicians; even with two engineers in attendance, a concert was likely to involve a break-down, and the technical problems proved too great in the end. The company failed, and the new sounds disappeared.

Even though I have known of this instrument all of my life, I have never seen mention of it in any book of instruments. More than that; I have never seen a statement of its category in any list of instrumental types. It seems time to put it into the record.

The instrument was the result of experiments with electronically generated sound, but its sounding bodies were wood, metal, and glass. It was called the choralcelo (KOR-ÁL-SEL-LOH), which means Heavenly Voices.

The Choralcelo, in its perfected state, was omitted from the standard instrument references, including the new Comprehensive Dictionary.1 It has no entry, nor is its type recognized. The name "Choralcelo" appears on a list at the end of the entry on "electrophonic piano"—"See also: Choralcelo, dynatone, electrochord, etc." And that is all; no reference under the electro-mechanical or the electro-magnetic categories, which in any case do not exactly delineate the characteristics of the Choralcelo as I knew of it. If it was electrophonic (the nearest category in the dictionary), it was an organ, not a piano. And of electrophonic organs, Marcuse says "They have been produced experimentally and commercially since ca. 1930." In view of the ten-year precedence of date for the Choralcelo, the instrument deserves attention.

The Choralcelo was a keyboard instrument with two manuals and a pedal board. At least a half-dozen instruments were built, not all with identical specifications, but all with the same principle of construction. The performer, seated at the console, controlled the various units of the instruments by the engagement and disengagement of levers similar to organ tablets. In addition, there were couplers; four-foot to eight-foot within the manual, and one manual to another. Thus a variety of registration was possible. A reostatic swell pedal provided for dynamic gradation.

The principle of tone production was basically simple. A unit consisted of a set of sounding bodies—bars of wood for example—one for each key of the manual, like a large xylophone. A pair of electromagnets was placed almost on (but not on) each bar—each placed about one sixty-fourth of an inch from its bar and each tuned to the exact frequency of its bar. With the unit engaged, depression of a key caused the magnet of the required pitch to vibrate, causing its bar of wood to vibrate in sympathy. The effect was that of a xylophone played without mallets—but of course the mechanism made it possible to sustain or even increase the amount of sound.

Generally, the Choralcelo had five or six units—hard wood, soft wood, aluminum, steel, and a bass made of buggy-springs—those iron arcs of the Edwardian era. They could sing like a cello, I am told, and produce a short pizzicato effect of clear delineation and great charm!

In addition, there was a machine, generally housed underneath the instrument (i.e., in the basement) and connected to it electrically. This was a rectangular box, about two feet wide and sixteen to eighteen inches in both height and width, containing "eighty or ninety cylinders"—one cylinder for each pitch of the instrument—that controlled the magnets. Mr. Adolf G. Hoffmann, formerly Music Director of WGN in Chicago, who was an assistant to the Choralcelo's chief technician, Charles Donahue, said that the attack was "instantaneous," the method of tone production "ideal," and the tone "beautiful."2

The Chicago demonstration Choralcelo may not have had a glass unit—communications from people who played and heard it differ on this point—but some of the instruments did. The sound of the glass was said to be gentle and luminous.

The Chicago Choralcelo did have a unit of piano strings, however, which attracted a great deal of notice because of its versatility and its dramatic placement. The wood and metal bars were placed behind a curtain at one side of the console; the black buggy-springs were behind the console, mounted on a sound board. A soft-wood unit was set up on the stair landing, from where it could serve as an echo or be incorporated into a full sound. Over the buggy springs, the body of a concert grand Steinway piano had been put on end with the strings exposed. Using the lower manual, the performer could play the piano, with hammers; a pedal lever engaged electro-magnets so that the piano strings could also be sounded without the hammers and the sound sustained or even increased. A feature of the concerts was the performance of the Chopin D-flat major Etude ("The Harp"), begun with combined use of hammers and magnets with the damper pedal, which was controlled with a knee lever. As the crescendo rose, the hammer action was gradually added, so that at the climax the strings sounded forth with percussion and magnets together. Listeners found the effect stunning and without comparison. In addition, the technicians could pre-set the cylinders to emphasize or kill certain partials in the sounding bodies, altering the tone produced by them. Some unusual effects were thus achieved experimentally, but the process must have been difficult, and, at any rate, the mechanism had to be pre-set and nothing in it could be changed by the performer during a recital.

The Choralcelo Manufacturing Company was incorporated in Portland, Maine, on May 29, 1901,3 with capital stock of one million dollars, as 100,000 shares at ten dollars each. (Six shares had been sold—one to each of the six directors—with 99,994 shares unissued.) In 1906 the capital stock was increased to two million dollars4 and in 1914 to ten million dollars.5 In 1912 the name had been simplified to "The Choralcelo Company."6

The Certificate of Organization indicates that the company was, at least at first, devoted to broadly-conceived experimental projects. In the document of incorporation, the purposes of the company are defined as follows:

First: To manufacture, purchase, lease and otherwise acquire and to hold, license, let, sell or otherwise dispose of, musical instruments of all kinds and parts thereof, electric motors, batteries and electrical appliances of all kinds, steam engines, water motors and other prime movers and parts thereof, perforated music, sheets and other automatic music producing devices and goods and merchandise and personal property of every class.

Second: To print, publish, buy and otherwise acquire and to sell, issue, give and otherwise dispose of books, pamphlets, maps, charts, circulars, engravings, photographs, sheet-music, and periodical publications.

Third: To purchase, lease, hire, mortgage, hold, enjoy, let, license, negotiate, sell and otherwise dispose of real estate and buildings, water rights, mining claims, rights of way, patent rights, licenses, franchises, notes, stocks, bonds and other items in action in accordance with the law.

Fourth: To conduct general experimental work and in general to do any and all other business necessary or useful to the proper carrying on of the business of the company.

Early references to the Choralcelo describe it as an electro-mechanical piano. The old Scientific American magazine had short announcements in two supplements of 1909. One comprises a brief announcement entitled "The 'Choralcelo', A New Musical Instrument."7 It states that the instrument had been "recently exhibited in Boston." It described electro-magnets and piano strings, saying "the instant they are in exact accord, the string will respond with a markedly pronounced maximum loudness." The inventors were given as Melvin L. Severy and George B. Sinclair.

The other notice, entitled "Another Electrical Triumph in the Musical World,"8 is concerned with the sound of the instrument, if with a somewhat skeptical attitude. Its entire text reads:

A new musical instrument operated by electricity has lately made its first public appearance in Boston at a concert, in which the Boston Symphony Orchestra also took part. The new device is called the choralcelo, and its essential peculiarity consists of the vibration of piano wires by electro-magnets, resulting in the production of tones of surpassing purity, if the judgment of those who have heard the instrument is to be credited. The working parts of the instrument are housed in a case resembling that of a rather large upright piano, and the instrument may be played as a piano by the ordinary percussion hammers and keys, either separately or at the same time, with the electro-magnetic action. The tones of the instrument are said to resemble those of both stringed and wood equipment for orchestral service, and the organ characteristics are reported to be perhaps the most beautiful of all. Less than one horse-power of electrical energy is required to operate the choralcelo in full harmony.

It is thus as a mechanical piano that the few existing references describe the Choralcelo. The paragraph just cited describes the piano unit of the Chicago instrument, but misses the essential point of variety of units controlled from a central console, with the versatility of registration implied by its diverse sound bodies.

Only one other reference is known to me, an article in the New England Magazine of 1914, called "Absolute Music: Astonishing Possibilities that are Being Realized by the Choralcelo," by Ethel Syford.9 Miss Syford adds to knowledge of the early experiments by saying "From experiments dating back to the late eighties, Mr. Melvin L. Severy, of Arlington, Mass., aided later by his brother-in-law, Mr. George B. Sinclair, has brought to a practical state of perfection an instrument that discards all of the usual methods of originating tone." Her flowery article, however, tells nothing that we need to know. "The tone, in its full purity," she writes, "is of a strangely celestial quality. It permeates the air, and appears to surround the hearer, as though the very air had awakened into song. And why should not this be so? For is it not Nature's own tone that is given forth, obedient to her perfect laws, and therefore harmonious with all her creation?" Not very helpful. But her undefined reference to a "wide range of qualities" may indicate an expansion of the instrument between 1909 and 1914. On the other hand another paragraph says that "by scientifically withdrawing, or killing different series of over-tones and harmonies, all possible variations of pure tone can be produced"; this might suggest experiments in the direction of the Hammond Organ, a very different direction from that of the Chicago Choralcelo, and a decade later.

And so the gap is still unbridged between the Choralcelo in Boston in 1909 and in Chicago in 1918. In that year, Wilber E. Farrington, a promoter—a personable and artistic vegetarian who resembled Elbert Hubbard—then the Treasurer of the Choralcelo Company, went to the American Conservatory of Music, in Chicago to find someone who would be willing to learn how to play the instrument and to give concerts. He hired Marie Bergersen, a prominent pianist, a student of Louise Robyn and Adolf Weidig, and, in Vienna for two years before the war, of Leopold Godowsky—and also my mother.10 She gave the recitals for about four years, from 1918 to 1922. When my father, Ramon Borroff, returned from Navy duty, after the war, he also joined the Choralcelo staff, describing the instrument and introducing the recital numbers.

Mr. Farrington said that the Choralcelo was perfected by Lee deForest, the eminent inventor of the electrode tube. The outline of deForest's career is consistent with such an interest, but I can find no proof of it.

Mr. Farrington was an imaginative promoter. In addition to conceiving the dramatic placement of the instrument in the Hill residence and the luxurious banquet-concerts, he hired "fine singers and men from the Chicago Symphony orchestra"11 for ensemble performances of chamber music. Mr. Adolf G. Hoffmann, a fine cellist as well as a technician, played several cello sonatas (Brahms, Grieg, Rachmaninoff, etc.) with my mother. The list of those who were guests at the banquet-recitals includes such prominent names as Fritz Kreisler, Frederick Stock, Josef Lhevinne, Adolf Weidig, Sir Oliver Lodge, Clarence Eddy, Sir Rabindrinath Tagore, and many others. Mr. Hoffmann recalled that Josef Hofmann, the pianist, came to Chicago to spend two weeks studying the instrument; Hofmann was, of course, a mechanical as well as a musical genius.

It must all have been very grand, very wild, and very much of its day. But although the vision of the banquets seems dated now, the idea of the instrument itself remains tantalizing. Parts of the instrument may still exist. My mother recalls that several installations were made in Chicago (including one at St. Clement's Church on Deming Place), and one in Galesburg, Illinois. Mr. Hoffmann mentioned at least two installations in private homes in Cleveland, Ohio. And a recent correspondent has notified me of one in Englewood, New Jersey, mentioning also that he went as a boy to a Choralcelo showroom in New York City "below Grand Central Station on Park Avenue."12 Of the Englewood, New Jersey, instrument, the son of the owner writes:

I would say that the Chora[l]cello was installed in my Father's house well before the 20's, in fact before the 1st World War, maybe 1910 or 12. I was away at School and the war during those years but I remember it perfectly. It was built into the wall and had an automatic player so, though I was not a musician, I could play it, and often did. The sounds that could be obtained were fantastic. The wires on which the sounds were produced by electric currents or vibrations of some sort were located in the basement and the sounds were delivered to the rooms through a number of ducts. The many stops on the instrument seemed similar to an organ, but sounds were possible that I never heard on an organ, such as those of a violin or cello.

The upkeep on it was rather high and it was often out of order so when my Father did over the house about 1928 he disposed of it. I don't know where but I have an idea he must have given it to some institution.

It was quite an instrument and I'm sure of great interest to a musician, but too expensive and complicated to be of very universal appeal.13

But correspondence has failed to bring any remnants to light.

The Choralcelo deserves at least a footnote in the story of musical instruments. During my childhood I met many people who had listened to the Choralcelo, and I grew up believing in its beauty and its validity. It was frustrating to discover that scholars were oblivious to it and to find it missing even from seemingly exhaustive materials on instruments. The mechanism would be easier to build now, and the failures of individual tones during recitals could be obviated by the use of new electronic parts and techniques.

I never heard the Choralcelo myself, but I still would love to capture the singing tones of the wood, steel, and aluminum bars, the pearly sound of the glass unit, the soaring strings, and the pizzicato of the buggy-spring bass.

1Sibyl Marcuse, Musical Instruments: a Comprehensive Dictionary. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1964.

2I am indebted to Mr. Hoffmann for the description of the machine; he very kindly granted me an interview on June 8, 1965.

3State of Maine. Documents of the Office of the Secretary of State. Received and recorded in Augusta on May 31, 1901 (Vol. 35, p. 315).

4State of Maine. Documents of the Office of the Secretary of State. Received and recorded in Augusta on December 18, 1906 (Vol. 5, p. 485).

5Ibid., November 21, 1914 (Vol. 10, p. 529).

6Ibid., February 7, 1912 (Vol. 9, p. 218).

7No. 1751 (July 24, 1909), p. 62ff.

8No. 1743 (May 29, 1909), p. 35.

9Vol. 51 (May, 1914), pp. 35-38.

10Now Marie B. Scott, of St. Petersburg, Florida. I am naturally much indebted to her for many patient hours of cooperation when I asked for details about the Choralcelo.

11The quote is from my mother; it is substantiated by others who heard the concerts.

12I am indebted for this reference to Mr. E. Hardy Luther; conversation May 8, 1968, and his letter of May 21, 1968.

13Letter from Mr. D. Whitfield Hardy of Delray Beach, Florida, dated December 12, 1968.

Read 1168 times

Last modified on Friday, 09/11/2018

Go to top