Pleyel grand piano with "Luthéal" mechanism


The Belgian patent no. 278726, granted to George Cloetens (1871-1949) on 28th January 1919, makes reference to the 'luthéal', a 'device that makes it possible to change the timbre of notes produced by string instruments that are activated either by keyboard or by hand'. So it is not an instrument in its own right, but an aid to altering the timbre of a piano. Cloetens eventually took out three more patents on improvements of the luthéal (280282, 292081 & 306002).

Not much is known about Cloetens. He took out 21 patents between 1904 and 1949 and almost all of them were related to musical instruments, including 6 for a simplified organ mechanism, and an organ pipe with several reeds, which might also have been useful for car horns and alarm devices. The only 2 patents that had nothing to do with musical instruments were for a syringe (1949) and the printing of advertisements on toilet paper (1921).

The luthéal is a mechanism made of iron that can be mounted in any modern grand piano. It enables the pianist to change the timbre of the piano by means of four register knobs. 2 bass and 2 soprano knobs can produce the sound of a harpsichord, a harp/lute or, by using a combination, a dulcimer.

The first composer to write music for the luthéal was Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). His Tzigane, Rhapsodie de concert pour violon et luthéal, dedicated to the Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Aranyi, was first performed in the Salle Gaveau in Paris on 15th October 1924. Reactions varied, from '... a hybrid instrument that is most reminiscent of a rattling music box' to '... capable of producing the most varied, exquisite variations of sound'. In 1925 Ravel also used the luthéal in the premiere of l'Enfant et les Sortilèges. The original luthéal used in the performances of these two works went up in flames together with the Salle Gaveau.

Little more was heard of the luthéal for a long time. Few people wondered what the reference to the 'luthéal' on the score of Tzigane meant and simply played the part on an ordinary piano, unaware that they were ignoring the range of timbres Ravel desired. The instrument was in danger of disappearing from the memories of organologists, musicians and composers until, in the second half of the 1970s, the Dutch violinist Theo Olof decided to find out what this luthéal might be.

Olof's research led him to Roger Cotte, then curator of all the musical instrument museums in France, except Paris, who was able to tell him that '... a pile of scrap was rusting away somewhere in a cellar in the Instrument Museum at the Conservatory of Music in Brussels, and this had once been a luthéal.' Theo Olof visited the Instrument Museum with the piano restorer Evert Snel and obtained permission from the then director, De Maeyer, to restore the luthéal and the 1911 Pleyel piano it was mounted on. The whole restoration process was recorded in a documentary by the NCRV and after 600 hours of work and a similar number of setbacks, in April 1979 the instrument was ready to play again. This is the only remaining original luthéal in the world. It is on display on the fourth floor of the MIM and is in perfect condition.

Recordings in which our luthéal was used can be heard on the EMI vinyl record 1A 057-26469, by Theo Olof and Daniel Wayenberg, and more recently on two CDs: the double CD Dans un caractère populaire on Zig Zag Territoires by Patrick Bismuth and Anne Gaels, and the CD by Philippe Graffin and Claire Désert on Avie Records (also downloadable from iTunes). Lastly we should also mention the recording of the semi-improvised work Tessellations, composed and played by Veryan Weston on the luthéal and recorded live at the MIM. This CD can be obtained from Emanem Records. And if you're into creating digital music, you can purchase high-quality samples of our luthéal from (available July 2010).

Just one problem remains: the builder's label says 'Cavaillé-Coll/Paris/l'Orphéal/Brevets Cloetens'. As you see, there is no mention of a luthéal, only of an orphéal, which is also an instrument, one that Cloetens invented in 1910. This can be explained by the fact that the luthéal and the orphéal were built in France and were sold by the Société L'Orphéal, so all their instruments were given a label saying 'Orphéal Cavaillé-Coll, Paris'. The orphéal is a keyboard instrument that can be played in its own right or can be mounted on a grand piano (the luthéal is mounted in the piano). Curt Sachs describes this instrument as 'a combination of a grand piano, an organ and a harmonium'. The orphéal is able to evoke the timbre of such string instruments as the violin, cello, gamba and viola d'amore, and even such wind instruments as the oboe, bassoon, trumpet, horn and accordion, and a church organ. The orphéal and luthéal can be combined to make a sort of super-piano. It is doubtful whether this will ever actually happen. The MIM has an orphéal as well as its luthéal, but it has not been restored.

P3613 Pleyel grand with "Luthéal" mechanism