Theo Olof remembered that Maurice Ravel wrote his
'Tzigane for violin and piano' originally for violin and
'Luthéal' to imitate the effect of a Gypsy cymbal. What
is a Luthéal actually? The answer requires digging in the past.
It is not
known exactly how Ravel got to know about the instrument
but in any case the premiere of the 'Tzigane' was performed
in the Parisian Salle Gaveau by the violinist Samuel
Dushkin and the 'Luthéalist' Beveridge Webster in
Apparently Ravel used the same instrument for the composition
L' Enfant et les Sortilèges.
The instrument used for this premiere has probably been lost in
a big fire in Paris that also reduced the Salle Gaveau to ashes.
of the Museum for musical instruments in Brussels houses remarkable
and rare instruments.
Here a Luthéal grand piano was found.
When the dust was swept off, it appeared to be a grand piano prepared
to change the timbre of the instrument.
Under the top of the grand it looked like a bizarre ragbag of
parts of a typewriter, or registers of an organ, all joined with
the strings of a Pleyel grand piano.
It produced unusual sounds, something in between a harp, a harpsichord
and a Forte piano.
The instrument designed in 1922 by the Belgian George Cloetens
was however in a very bad shape. The Brussels museum requested
the Dutch piano technician Evert Snel to restore the Pleyel
Especially the Luthéal part was very difficult to repair as there
is no literature available about the design. Nowadays there is
an adapted Fazioli on which one can hear the Luthéal effect.
pianist Verian Weston was very good on a Luthéal
.He wrote a special composition for it. It is a series of 52 themes,
called Tesselations acting as a base for his improvisations.
Weston was invited to perform these in the Brussels museum where
the pieces whizzed around the ears of the audience at great speed.
This recital earned Weston a place in the list of 'piano
linguists' together with composers like Nancarrow
has four registers that can be used in different combinations,
so it works a bit like a church organ.
If you disconnect the registers the grand piano still sounds like
For the register
of the harpsichord steel pins hang one millimetre above the strings.
The pins touch the strings only when played louder than mezzo
forte and this makes the instrument sound like a harpsichord but
still retaining the dynamics of a piano.
harp register on, thin pieces of felt lay on all the different
unisons, exactly in the middle of the length of the string, which
make the instrument sound an octave higher and flageolet tones
registers connected one can hear the typical sound of the Hungarian
a few composers who, not satisfied with the possibilities their
piano offers, start 'tinkering 'with their instrument as if it
is a car or scooter. And like a car that has been tinkered with,
it will produce a different sound!
squeezed pieces of paper in between the strings, for his composition
´Le piège de Méduse´(1914)
One can see
pianists crawling under ` the bonnet ´of their piano to play the
strings with their fingers instead of properly using the keys.
Cowell called the piece composed this way `Piece for a
piano with strings´. ('Pièce pour piano avec cordes', 1924)
One wonders if a composer has ever tried to write a piece for
piano without strings?
composer John Cage needed more noise and prepared
his Grand with items from his kitchen cabinet.
Erasers, isolation tape, screws and spoons were rattling happily
along with the music. It sounded like a Gamelan orchestra under
the influence of drugs or a drunken carilloneur, but that was
what Cage wanted.
Cages most famous piece for prepared piano is called `Sonatas
and interludes´(1946/1948) It consists of sixteen `sonatas` and
four intermezzos. Little 'gems' of sound, each taking not longer
than four or five minutes.
klap op de vuurpijl `a new years performance of the Willem
Breuker Kollektief in Amsterdam the pearl necklace of a female
The pearls fell into the grand piano and skipped happily along
with the music between the strings.
This sound effect is later added to the score, but sadly one has
to imagine the surprised face of singer Pauline Post to
go with it!
One can listen
to the different sounds of the Luthéal performed by pianist Carlos
Moerdijk and violinist Emmy Verhey.
They play pieces written for violin and prepared piano written
by different composers like Kodály, Granados, Bartók,
Often traditional music is the source of inspiration of these
composers hence the whimsical, contrasts, passion, melancholy
The Luthéal offers extra possibilities to express those different
moods in this kind of music.