A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Piano Mécanique

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PIANO MÉCANIQUE. An invention of the late M. Debain of Paris (died 1877), for the mechanical performance of musical compositions upon a pianoforte without disturbing its keyboard, or its capability for manual performance. To manage this the pinned barrel employed in the street pianos and barrel-organs has to give place to a novel and ingenious apparatus invented and adapted to his 'Piano mécanique' by Debain, about thirty years since. To an ordinary upright piano he supplied a second set of hammers working the reverse way to the ordinary ones, that is, from above. These hammers are set in motion by iron levers, the further ends of which are tempered hard, and project as 'beaks' through a comb of four or five inches long, in which space five octaves of the keyboard are ingeniously compressed. The comb crosses transversely a smooth iron plate fixed along the top of the instrument. 'Planchettes,' or small boards upon which the piece to be played is pinned (as on a barrel), are by simple machinery connected with a handle, made to travel along this plate, the pins doing the work of the fingers upon the levers. The dynamic shades of piano and forte, accent, etc., are produced by varying the height of the pins. In this way a mechanical substitute for expression is obtained. The planchettes may be endless, and are sold by the metre or yard. Perhaps the greatest merit of Debain's invention is that his upper system of hammers has the same 'striking-place' (i.e. measured division of the string for the impact of the hammers) that the keyboard hammers have. This is achieved by moving the latter forward when the mechanical apparatus comes into play. The great defect of the contrivance is the want of damping during performance, but the dampers can be brought down bodily upon the strings by a stop adjacent to the 'beaks' when the playing is over. The additional cost of the planchette mechanism is 25 guineas; it does not disfigure the instrument. When applied by Debain & Co. to the organ or harmonium it is styled 'Antiphonal.'

The mechanical pianos called 'Handle pianos' that are so much used in and about London, come principally from Italy. According to particulars supplied by Messrs. Imhof & Mukle of Oxford Street, London, there are about 400 of these instruments in daily use in the metropolis, ranging in value from £16 to £100. Some are let upon hire by masters who charge from 8s. to 18s. a week for them; but in most instances they are the property of the Italians who take them about, the price having been paid by instalments. These instruments are strongly made, to stand hard work and weather; the felt hammers have leather coating, and there are three, and in the treble often four, strings to each note. The action is of the simplest kind, the pin of the barrel pressing down a crank, which gives the blow; a spring causing the immediate return of the hammer. There are no dampers excepting in a few instances in the lowest bass notes, and no attempt to regulate the pinning of the barrel to produce louder or softer notes. Messrs. Imhof & Mukle make superior mechanical pianos with chromatic scale; the perambulating 'handle-pianos' having at best a diatonic scale, with one or two accidentals.

[ A. J. H. ]