All about the celesta
The instrument with the heavenly sound
The celesta (from the French “cèleste” for “heavenly”) is an idiophone with a keyboard which looks somewhat like a piano. The musical instrument celesta, also called celeste, was invented in 1886 by Victor Mustel.
A unique mechanism with a keyboard, felt hammers, sound plates and wooden resonators is crucial for the sound production. Although it is a keyboard instrument, the celesta belongs to the family of percussion instruments, but is usually played by a pianist.
Unfortunately, there are many misleading and incorrect representations of the celesta instrument, its history and its action mechanism in music literature. Even the so-called classical reference works are often incorrect.
- The celesta was invented and patented in 1886 by Victor Mustel in Paris. The name celesta, which Victor Mustel created especially for this instrument, was already evident in the patent.
- The unmistakable sound of the instrument is produced by its special mechanism: by pressing a key on the keyboard a felt hammer is triggered which strikes the top of a sound plate. Beneath the steel plate is a wooden resonator. The celesta has a pedal for damping and, as a transposing instrument, sounds an octave higher than notated.
- Schiedmayer has been producing celestas since 1890 and celebrates 130 years of celesta making in 2020. Since 1975, it is the sole manufacturer that builds celestas according to the inventor’s original specifications.
- Structure of the celesta
- Action mechanism
- Technical features
- Dissimilarity to the keyboard glockenspiel
- Notation and range
- Other brands
History of the Celesta
Preforms of the celesta
An early form of the celesta instrument was already invented in 1788 by Charles Glagetti. His instrument, the “Aiuton”, produced a very “sweet” and soft tone. This experiment consisted of a hollow, wooden sound box in which a row of tuning forks were struck by small hammers triggered by keys.
In 1866 Victor Mustel, who later invented the celesta, constructed the typophone; a tuning fork piano which sounded similar to the later form of the celesta but lacked volume to be convincing enough as an instrument in its own right. It produced sound in a similar manner to the “dulcitone” which was invented at about the same time in Scotland.
Invention and initial success
In 1853 the harmonium and organ maker Victor Mustel opened his own studio in Paris and dedicated himself to building harmoniums of the highest quality. He invented and patented the célesta (or celeste) in 1886. The Celesta No. 1, an orchestral model, was presented to the public for the first time at the world fair in Paris in 1889. The instrument won the „Grand Prix de l’Exposition Universelle de Paris 1889“ and Victor Mustel received the order „Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur“ for the invention of the celesta.
Breakthrough and Reaction
On his way to the opening of the Carnegie Hall in New York in 1891, Tchaikovsky stopped in Paris to visit Victor Mustel personally and see and hear the new instrument with his own eyes and ears. Tchaikovsky was fascinated by the unique sound of the celesta and ordered one on the spot.
Tchaikovsky composed the now world famous solo for celesta, the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” as part of his Nutcracker Suite. The world premiere of this ballet in the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg in December 1892 marked the international breakthrough of the instrument.
J & P Schiedmayer (later to be called Schiedmayer Pianofortefabrik) built the first celesta in Germany in 1890, precisely following the specifications in the patent of the inventor. Mustel terminated production in 1975. All other celesta makers such as Morley (England) and Simone Bros (USA) have also ceased production.
Design and Characteristics
Structure of the celesta
The celesta instrument looks very much like a piano with a characteristic housing, a claviature and a single pedal. The housing contains an impressive mechanical system of felt hammers, special sound plates and wooden resonators.
Victor Mustel states in his original patent:
“The accompanying drawing shows clearly the characteristic components of the system, illustration 1 is a vertical cross-sectional view of the key, the escapement-mechanism and the hammer, whilst illustration 2 shows a cross-section of a resonator supporting the two vibrating metal plates. The sound is produced by a row of metal plates (A and B) which, like a piano, start to vibrate after being struck by a hammer (C), except that the arrangement of the mechanism is very particular as the impact is not vertical, like the piano with vertical strings, nor from below, like the grand piano, but from above, as can be seen in the accompanying illustration.”
Celesta action mechanism according to V. Mustel
The uniqueness of this instrument is due to the way it generates sound.
- By pressing a key the felt hammer is triggered.
- The felt hammer strikes the steel sound plate from above.
- There is a wooden resonator underneath the sound plate.
This mechanism is the only way to produce the famous and unique celesta sound. This is why, in his patent, Victor Mustel expressly points out that the celesta mechanism is fundamentally different from that of a piano (the hammers strike the strings from the side) or of a grand piano (the hammers strike the strings from below).
The original patent with the number 176,530 is in the Institut National de la Proprieté (inpi), Paris. Schiedmayer Celesta GmbH owns a copy of the patent.
The pianist / celestist plays a keyboard, as if playing a normal piano. The wooden resonators are tuned to the respective fundamental pitches of the steel plates and amplify the fundamental pitch and resonating sound of the steel plate. This allows for a particularly warm sound in the low register.
The sound plates and resonators, which increase in size the lower the pitch, are arranged in different levels. It is important for a homogenous sound that the tones with ascending or descending pitch are distributed alternately on the lower and upper level and do not follow a chromatic pattern (not according to the model “low tones below – high tones above”).
For an even warmer sound and more volume, especially for large concert halls Schiedmayer has developed a celesta model Studio ( 5 1/2 octaves) with the sound plates side by side in a larger resonator.
Dissimilarity to the keyboard glockenspiel
The keyboard glockenspiel uses hammers made of metal. This produces a much more metallic and less mellow sound. The felt hammers of the celesta produce a much warmer sound. The ranges of the instruments are also very different: a celesta instrument with up to 5 ½ octaves has much more depth, range and volume, enabled by its resonators and softer action, than a keyboard glockenspiel with 3 1/2 octaves.
Notation and Range
As the celesta is a transposing instrument its notation is written an octave lower than it actually sounds. It is often notated in two staffs with treble and bass clefs, as is the piano, or with both staffs written in the treble clef.
The first model by Victor Mustel had 4 octaves. (c1-c5)
Schiedmayer sets the standard today with 3 different sizes (4 – 5 1/2 octaves) of celesta according to individual requirements of concert halls, opera houses, theaters and music academies, along with the exciting innovation of the built-in celesta for pipe organs.
Schiedmayer is the only manufacturer in the world making celestas according to the mechanism of Victor Mustel.
Other makers (Yamaha and Kolberg) produce keyboard glockenspiels using grand piano mechanisms (the sound plates are struck from below). Therefore, these instruments do not meet the requirements for the celesta mechanism which is explicitly defined in the patent. These instruments are often wrongly and misleadingly sold as celestas, when in fact they should not be classed as such. Instruments with this kind of piano or grand piano mechanism do not produce the characteristic sound the inventor Victor Mustel intended.
Although Schiedmayer uses a standard grand piano claviature for improved playability in his instruments, he does not use the same action mechanism as a grand piano.
The American manufacturer Jenco built a glockenspiel that strikes the sound plates from above with felt hammers, but uses metal tubes instead of wooden resonators as sound amplifiers. Therefore, this is not a celesta either, in the sense of the invention.
Other makers of celestas who have terminated production over the course of the last century:
- Mustel & Companies (Paris, France)
- Simone Bros, Celeste MFGs (Philadelphia/New York, USA)
- Morley (UK)
- Helmes (New York, USA)
Use and literature
The celesta in the orchestra
The celesta is still in wide use today, mainly in orchestras but it is also becoming more popular in pop and film music. It has a dual nature in that it belongs to the percussion section, considering the mechanics of sound production, and to the keyboard instruments, considering the way of playing the instrument. It is therefore usually played by a pianist. Ernest Chausson used the celesta for the first time in a chamber music setting in 1888 in his stage music „La Tempête“.
In 1891 P.I. Tchaikovsky had already written for the instrument in his symphonic ballad “The Voyevoda” before he brought it to fame a year later in his ballet music to the “Nutcracker”. After that, many great composers recognized the possibilities of the instrument and it soon became a permanent member of concert scenes across the globe.
Maurice Ravel used it in his ever-popular “Bolero”, Claude Debussy in his quintet „Chansons de Bilitis“ and Gustav Mahler in his 6th symphony “The Song of the Earth” and in the “Songs on the Death of Children”. Gustav Holst used the celesta musical instrument in 1918 for his famous work “The Planets” in its last movement “Neptune, the Mystic”.
Bèla Bartók immortalized the instrument with “Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celesta” which he wrote in 1936. Likewise, composers such as George Gershwin, Dimitri Shostakovich, and Carl Orff in „Carmina Burana“ appreciated its exceptional sound.
Water, light and magic
Many composers used and still use the celesta to portray the sound of water, light, mystery and magic. When Maurice Ravel arranged his solo piano piece „Une Barque sur l’ocean“ for orchestra, he used the celesta to give sound to the light glistening on the sea’s waves. Richard Strauss also used the instrument in his work “An Alpine Symphony” to portray similar elements.
In the opera
The celesta instrument also quickly found a home in the opera, whether in Puccini’s “Tosca” from 1900, Maurice Ravel’s „L’heure espagnole“ or Benjamin Britten’s “A midsummer night’s dream” from 1945. Richard Strauss gave the instrument more fame in “Ariadne on Naxos” in 1912, in “The Woman without a Shadow” in 1918 and notably in his opera “Der Rosenkavalier” during the presentation of the silver rose.
Additionally, difficult glockenspiel parts are often played on the celesta, for instance in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and Olivier Messiaen’s “Oiseaux Exotiques”.
Use in Jazz
Earl Hines was the first to use the celesta as an alternative instrument to the piano in jazz in 1928. Since Fats Walter brought fame to the instrument in the 30s by simultaneously playing the piano with his right hand and the celesta with his left hand, many jazz pianists such as Keith Jarrett, Willie “The Lion” Smith and Duke Ellington incorporated the new sound into their music. The instrument firmly established itself in the jazz scene owing to songs such as “I’ll Never Smile Again“ and “Close to You“ by Frank Sinatra and “Basin Street Blues” and “Someday You’ll be Sorry” by Louis Armstrong.
Rock & Pop
Even though the celesta is still somewhat inconspicuous in the pop world, it is becoming more popular and has enriched songs by the Beatles and Pink Floyd. Some of the most famous songs are certainly “Baby it’s You” by the Beatles, “She’s a Rainbow” by the Rolling Stones, “Girl don’t tell me” by the Beach Boys and “Mother” by Pink Floyd. The instrument has started to appear in musicals, commercials and is very popular in Christmas Songs due to its brilliant, bell-like sound.
Entering the Movie Theaters
The sound of the celesta was once again presented to a wider audience in the magical music of the Harry Potter films. Almost everybody recognizes the celesta melody from “Hedwig’s Theme” in Harry Potter and other music written by John Williams for this film. John Williams was so taken by the instrument that he used it in many other famous film scores, although none quite as famous as Harry Potter. Other films with the “heavenly” instrument include “Star Wars”, “E.T.” and “Home Alone”. The instrument also enchanted movie-goers in the oscar winning soundtrack from “La La Land”.
The Schiedmayer Celestas
Craftsmanship and a Passion for Music
Schiedmayer began manufacturing celestas in 1890 and has since been improving and evolving the instrument without disregarding the specifications of the patent of Viktor Mustel. The quality of Schiedmayer instruments is world renowned and the result of expert and passionate craftsmanship combined with centuries of experience in the building of keyboard instruments.
Resonators made of German Beechwood
Mustel’s instruments always allocated multiple sound plates to one resonator. For a stronger and improved sound quality, Schiedmayer provides each sound plate with its own resonator. The resonator is the main carrier of the sound in a celesta. It is crafted out of aged beechwood, guaranteeing excellent sonority.
Sound plates made of high quality, tailor-made steel
The celesta sound plates are made of steel specially tailored to our needs which is precisely worked to attain the thickness and length required for the unmistakable sound of the celesta. The standard tuning is 442 Hz but all of our instruments are also available in other pitches.
Playing Experience and Sound
Older instruments (often also called “celeste instrument”) with shorter keys and a heavier action are often not much fun for the pianists / celestists. Since 1996, Schiedmayer has used a keyboard with standard length keys. This facilitates light playing and more nuances of sound.
The celesta pedal is used in the same way as the piano pedal (sustain pedal – pressing the pedal lifts the damper and allows the sound to resonate). In old celestas, this pedal was often placed in the middle of the instrument – a somewhat awkward position for the pianist. Schiedmayer has therefore moved the pedal to the more convenient position right-of-center.
The Celesta Video
This video is a short summary of the invention of the celesta. The video also gives detailed insights into the manufacturing process of the celesta and the expert craftsmanship and tradition involved in production.
Summary and Testimonials
At this point we would like to reiterate that a different mechanism to ours does NOT produce the characteristic sound of the celesta. Other brands such as Yamaha and Kolberg use the name “Celesta” incorrectly and misleadingly for their keyboard glockenspiels. The testimonials of our customers from around the world speak for themselves.
In 2020 we celebrate 130 years of celesta construction – our instruments can be found in the most important concert halls and opera houses around the world. Are you interested in the individual celesta-models? Use the menu to find an overview of our celeste and information about the individual instruments. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions, we look forward to hearing from you!
“I would like to take this opportunity to thank you most sincerely again on behalf of the State Opera House, Vienna for the wonderful instrument we purchased from your company. The dynamic spectrum of your Celesta is incredibly wide and it is especially pleasing that the touch even in piano always is reliable and very well balanced. It is a great joy to play important Celesta parts, for instance like the “Rosenkavalier”, on the new instrument. Thank you very much!”
“We are very happy for the instrument, in fact I have to tell you, we had a player few weeks ago who actually is the former pianist in the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and now the orchestra pianist in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Stockholm, and he said that he never had played on such a good celesta, with so beautiful sound.”
“As a composer, producer, engineer, and recording artist, my entire career has been devoted to bringing music to life through unique and signature sounds. Ever since my first album release on Atlantic records, I have been traveling the world collecting and recording instruments from all genres of music. From the moment I discovered a Schiedmayer celeste, I was transfixed. The hypnotic universe that is created from playing this remarkable instrument is beyond description. It is a completely transportive experience that inspires and invites you on vast musical journeys. The richness, subtlety and intimacy, the precision of the tone, and especially the feel of the instrument is unrivaled. Without question, I consider my Schiedmayer 5 1/2 Octave studio celeste an essential part of my writing and recording process.”
“The instrument arrived safely and the Orchestra as a whole (musicians, directors, conductors etc.) are delighted with the quality and beauty of the Celesta. Me too, since I am proud of working with Schiedmayer.”
“Thank you for all your help. All the keyboard players I spoke with in UK orchestras said that Schiedmayer celestes were absolutely the highest industry standard unmatched by anyone else.”