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Symphonium by Charles W. Wheatstone, London, ca. 1829

NMM 10877.  Symphonium by Charles W. Wheatstone, London, ca. 1829

NMM 10877. Symphonium by Charles W. Wheatstone, London, ca. 1829. No. 18. Stamped: BY HIS MAJESTY'S LETTERS PATENT / C WHEATSTONE, / INVENTOR / 20, Conduit St. Regent St. / LONDON. Nickel-silver body; 12 ivory touchpieces (studs); 12 silver reeds. Oval embouchure hole lined with ivory bushing. Height: 55.4 mm; width: 55.5 mm; depth: 22.5 mm. Of the estimated 200 symphoniums made by Wheatstone, only a dozen have been preserved. Purchase funds gift of Alan G. Bates, 2005.

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The symphonium was the object of Charles W. Wheatstone's (1802-1875) British patent No. 5803, "A Certain Improvement or Certain Improvements in the Construction of Wind Musical Instruments,"awarded June 19, 1829. According to the patent text, "These improvements are applicable to instruments in which the sounds are produced by directing a current of air against metallic springs or tongues fitted over and vibrating freely within or over corresponding apertures formed in plates. Several of these springs being placed in apertures arranged parallel to each other, sideby [sic] side in a plate, and tuned to the notes of a common chord, consitute one of the simplest forms of a wind musical instrument, known in Germany under the name of the Mundharmonica, and in England by that of the Æolina. Finger keys have also been added to such instruments, somewhat similar to those of flutes, but always placed at such distances apart as to allow space for the fingers to apply themselves to each key, when the instruments are held in such positions as for the hands to apply themselves thereto in the manner of fingering the flute or flageolet. In these improved keyed wind instruments, the springs are brought so close together that they occupy little more space than in the Æolina before mentioned. In fact, eight springs may be placed in the space of an inch-and-a-half, and their corresponding keys may also be brought much closer together than hitherto, and the wind chest made much smaller than has yet been done for a similar number of notes. Several forms of this instrument in one of which the wind chest is superseded by portable bellows, are given."

Charles W. Wheatstone

Charles W. Wheatstone


Symphonium in its Original Case

Symphonium in its case

Original fitted case lined on the interior with red velvet and white silk. Black leather exterior.

 

The symphonium was, in effect, a cross between a harmonica and the nascent concertina (introduced to the public by Wheatstone in 1830). The relationship with the harmonica stems from the fact that both instruments are mouth-blown. The symphonium's connection with the developing concertina relates to the buttons or studs on the sides. According to Wheatstone's patent, "The sounds or notes . . . are arranged in a diatonic scale, but so that its successive notes are placed alternately on each side of the instrument. The notes produced by touching two adjacent studs in parallel [vertical] rows are fifths to each other . . . ." Wheatstone stated in his 1829 patent that a chromatic symphonium could be produced simply by adding two more rows of buttons [and reeds] to each side of the instrument.

According to an article published in 1831, the symphonium is described as ". . . a remarkably pretty instrument, in size and shape resembling a silver snuff-box, such as may be carried in the waistcoat pocket, and possessing capabilities of a very extraordinary nature . . . a vast improvement on all the things of the kind recently imported from Germany and France." (I. P. [John Parry?], "On the Accordion and the Symphonion [sic]," Harmonicon 9 (January 1831): 56-57.)


Side and Back Views of Symphonium

Player's left side view of Symphonium
Back view of Symphonium
Player's right side view of Symphonium

Pitch Designations
Player's Left

C  
 A  F#
F 
 D
B 
 G

Pitch designations, stamped into the body beside each ivory touchpiece (stud), reveal that the player must alternate fingering between the left and right sides of the symphonium in order to produce a diatonic scale. When depressed, eleven of the twelve buttons open a valve that activates a reed inside the body. The twelfth button (F-sharp) opens a valve on the outside of the body, to the player's left.

Pitch Designations
Player's Right

B  
 G
E 
 C
A 
  


Top and Bottom Views

Top of Symphonium Bottom view of Symphonium


Lit.:  "Recent Acquisitions," National Music Museum Newsletter 34, No. 2 (May 2007), p. 7.


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