Instruments | Celesta | Percussion

The celesta is a type of keyboard glockenspiel, with a range of four octaves upwards from middle C, and a damping pedal like a piano. Inside the body of the instrument is a series of chromatically tuned metal bars, which are struck with felt hammers when the performer plays the keyboard.

Creation of the Celesta

The celesta was invented in 1886 by Auguste Mustel, a Parisian instrument maker who also manufactured harmoniums and portative organs. It was created at a time when interest in new keyboard instruments was high. Mustel’s father, Victor, invented the typophone (1865), a tuning-fork piano that used a piano hammer action to play graduated steel tuning forks or prongs instead of bars.

Auguste took the keyboard-operated glockenspiel of the eighteenth century (used for Papageno’s bells in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, 1791), and added a box resonator to each metal bar. He also improved the piano’s hammer action so that the celesta could be played like a pianoforte. This gave the instrument a more resonant and sweeter sound than the glockenspiel, as well as a greater capacity to play complex music.

Celesta Music

The celesta was first used by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–93) to represent the Sugar Plum Fairy in his ballet The Nutcracker (1891–92). It can create a range of ethereal effects, playing runs and arpeggiated chords with great agility. The celesta is used extensively in Bartók’s music, in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony and in ‘Mercury’ from The Planets (1914–16) by Gustav Holst (1874–1934).

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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