THE CHORALCELOBy C. W. Jenkins
[A substantial treatise was published in the Aug/Sept 2008 AMICA Bulletin
on this instrument. The article you are now reading is only to give you a flavor
of what the AMICA article contains. The following is an encapsulation of the
original, assembled by Terry Smythe - Ed.]
Click HERE to hear a short recording of the Choralcelo - This abbreviated melody line of "Poor Little Butterfly" is extracted from a badly scratched original 78rpm glass master live 1942 recording, hand played by Regene Farrington, wife of Wilber Farrington, President of The Choralcelo Co., recorded in the Choralcelo Studio in New York City. When a restored, operating Choralcelo is found, a better quality music sample will be provided.
My wife and I became interested in the Choralcelo forty years ago when we discovered one in an antique shop. A single manual in a highly figured mahogany case, it was intriguing because of the magnets behind the strings, the electric dampers and sliding contacts, the interesting- looking components in the base, and the high quality of the elaborate hand carving. Later, through a friend, we found that the widow, Regene Farrington, of the president of the company, Wilber Farrington, was living not too far from us, at Cape Cod. It was she who filled us in on the background of the company and eventually helped to locate a complete installation. I was to learn that our own instrument lacked the key component which it required to produce magnetic tone, the interruptor mechanism. Regene Farrington, nee Regene Wyler, had been trained as a Choralcelist in the early days of the company.
Several articles have appeared on the instrument at different times, but as they derived from speculation, second-hand comment, and guesswork, much that has been published has been erroneous. The name, Choralcelo, which means "Celestial Choir", is pronounced CHORAL-seh-low, to rhyme with "SHALL-slow". It was developed by Melvin Severy and George Sinclair, circa 1900-1916 or so. There were about one hundred of them manufactured. They were expensive, the two-manual ones probably in the $250,000 range in today's money, and they were installed in wealthy homes, theatres, hospitals, churches, department stores...there was even one on a yacht.
After about 1916 or so, the company existed for a time in Chicago, and then finally in Port Chester. There was a demonstration studio in New York City as late as the forties. The Farrington's believed there was more to the Choralcelo than just a new instrument. Its hearers spoke of the wonderfully lyrical quality of the music, and mentioned refreshing and renewing of the spirits. Wilber Farrington thus felt there was a higher purpose than just commercialization for the instrument, to the extent of investing his own money in the effort. He did not want to mass produce it and cheapen what was now of the highest quality achievable.
In the two-manual Choralcelos, there was the console itself, and then three or four auxiliary units which were connected via cables and could be placed anywhere desired. There was a motor-generator set, and the heart of the Choralcelo, the interruptor mechanism, which was run by an electric motor of average size. In one version it had nine cylinders geared to rotate at fixed speeds, and each had eight tracks upon which rode sterling silver brushes. The cylinders were brass and sections of porcelain were inlaid in the tracks to make and break the current as they passed under the brushes. There was also a disc version of the interruptor, in which twelve brass discs of five inch width were rotated at the desired speed. Each disc had six tracks about 5/16" wide. There were also typically two cabinets containing the remote relays from the key contacts, and the roller switches operated from the console stop tabs. These items would be placed in the basement usually. They were not overly large and could be housed in the space of a good sized closet.
Following are color plates taken this year of various auxiliary units of the Choralcelo which can be drawn on to add their own distinctive tone quality to that furnished by the piano strings in the instrument's console.
The auxiliary bar units, which produced the sound, could be placed in the living space where the console was, either being housed in harmonizing cabinetry or concealed in grillwork, and would take up the space of a good- sized closet. Or they could be situated in the basement along with the other components and speak through grillwork in the floor. Everything could be customized by the Choralcelo Company as desired. The closest competitor would have been the pipe organ, which was larger, and while the modern electronic organ is much smaller and virtually self-contained, that did not come until much later.
The auxiliary units characteristic of the Choralcelos had either rosewood or aluminium bars of graduated sizes to achieve the various notes, and they had resonators placed to amplify the tones. Usually they were cardboard tubes painted black, or they also used square wooden ones which looked like graduated organ pipes but of course were not. The bars had a small iron armature affixed to respond to the magnets. A few Steel units were made, and glass was also tried. There was one type of unit which had ribbon steel sounding strips...this was called the "orchestral" unit. A particularly interesting bass unit had heavy iron bar components with massive lead weights attached, and five soundboards arranged zig-zag fashion, with soundposts in between. This produced 32 bass notes, and Mrs. Farrington said that it sounded like a "battery of bass viols". Chimes could also be furnished, or a xylophone or glockenspiel if desired. In large buildings remote string units could be furnished for added power. These had detachable keyboards.
There is variation from one installation to the next and it is sobering to think of the vast amount of drafting, experimentation, and machining required to produce such a complete instrument from scratch... and this while not even knowing at the outset just what might be the possibilities waiting to be discovered...they might be endless. The company is reported to have invested sixty million dollars, in today's value, in the vast amount of experimentation and development that took place.
An interesting article written by Edith Borroff appeared in the "College Music Symposium" of 1982. She is the daughter of another of the young women hired to learn to play the Choralcelo, Marie Bergerson. Following are excerpts:
"Correspondence first documented the existence of three installations in the state of New York. One was in a hotel lobby in New York City, evidently a temporary installation for promotional purposes. This instrument had a glass unit which was described as "ethereal." Another person who heard this instrument said that there was "a miraculous sound about it that has never been duplicated." (My mother had also given a recital at Wanamaker's Department Store in New York.)
Mr. Reblitz has been most cordia1, most helpful, and has put me in touch with the owner of the instrument, also providing the photographs which accompany this article. My debt to him is great.
"Two small rooms of the basement are given over to auxiliary units, relays, generators, and other equipment. Lighting conditions were poor and my knowledge of electrical devices minimal. I shall not attempt to describe the units but will show four of them. Figure 3 shows a unit of metal bars (probably aluminium); these are ranked by pitch and have resonating tubes (some of which have been removed). Figure 4 shows a wood unit; figure 5, another metal unit, possibly steel. Figure 6 shows the double bass unit with two piano sound boards connected by soundposts, figure 7. Figure 8 shows a wood unit. There was also a rack where an additional unit had been, but the components were gone. It may have been the elusive glass unit, since it is probable that the sounding elements were hung from it in a manner unlike the positioning of the elements of the other units. This choralcelo was the project. of a wealthy man who had a part.icular love for the instrument, and in building a beautiful home in the Denver area had the ballroom and adjoining area - an entire wing, to be exact - designed specifically to house and display the instrument to best advantage. The console is set into the one interior wall of the ballroom, and is of wood matching the paneling of' the room. Figure 1 shows it without the matching bench. Figure 2 is much clearer and reveals the two manuals very clearly; the upper manual is of 61 organ keys, the lower is a piano keyboard, and the pedalboard is standard. The specifications are given on page 54. No identification is visible when the instrument is closed, but under the keyboard in discreet lettering is the legend "Choralcela, Boston USA." But the tone generator crate bears the label "from Choralcelo Company of America, 561 East Illinois St, Chicago, Ill." Figure 2 also shows the decorative panel above the keyboard removed, with part of the piano action visible behind. Mr. Reblitz adds that "there is supposedly an 88-note roll player built into the console which was moved and then paneled over, but 1 haven't seen it."
In addition to the units were a great many relays and many disconnected cables. Figure 9 shows one of the relay panels (of provenance unknown to me). Figure 10 shows pedal relay switches. How complete is the equipment I have no way of knowing, but it is extensive and may be fairly complete.
Finally, through another correspondent I was led to a surviving Choralcelo in Massachusetts, in the Boston area. I have received a letter detailing the installation as follows:
Mr. Reblitz has given some explanation of the principle behind the Choralcelo instrument.
"The Choralcelo relay is similar to an ordinary unified pipe organ relay, but with the addition of the "interruptor" - it could also be called a "pulse generator" or "frequency generator".
The owner of the instrument has also been most kind and cooperative, generously affording me an afternoon to visit and examine the components during the CMS-AMS-SMT meetings in November of 1980. He also answered the questions which my limited technical competence allowed me to ask.
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