Forte: What's that instrument? It's a celeste

symphony

Anne Schilperoort is principal keyboard for the Yakima Symphony Orchestra.

As keyboardist with the Yakima Symphony Orchestra, I am required to play a variety of instruments, primarily the grand piano but also organ, harpsichord and synthesizer. When original acoustic instruments are not available, electronic simulations are often used.

The second most common instrument played with the symphony always draws this question from audience members: “What was that instrument you were playing?”

This small box-like instrument is called a celeste (or celesta in Italian) and is so named for its celestial tones. It rarely is heard as a solo instrument but is usually paired with other instruments to enhance “color” in a piece of music. Notable exceptions include “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” where the celeste is heard as a solo instrument. Also, “Hedwig’s Theme” from John Williams’ “Harry Potter” score features the celeste in a virtuosic solo.

Both of these pieces have been performed multiple times by the YSO in previous years. In our most recent concert in late February, the celeste had an extended solo in “On the Trail” from Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite.”

This four-octave, one-pedal keyboard instrument has the same action as a piano except that the hammers strike a metal strip instead of strings, thus creating the bell-like quality of the celeste sound. The instrument was introduced to the classical music world by Peter Tchaikovsky in 1892 for the “Nutcracker” ballet, so it is one of the newest orchestral instruments.

I contacted our previous YSO maestro, Brooke Creswell, to determine the history of our current celeste. Ours is a Jenco model, made in Decatur, Ill., in the first half of the 20th century by a company no longer in operation. According to Creswell, the then-YSO manager bought it used in the late 1970s for $400. The board at that time questioned this expense and the manager solved the problem by paying for it himself.

My thanks go to him, for without this instrument I would be required to play an electronic piano’s version of a celeste sound. We are fortunate to own the true instrument.

• Anne Schilperoort is principal keyboard for the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. Learn more about the symphony at www.ysomusic.org.

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