An Overview of Yamaha Celestas

An Overview of Yamaha Celestas

The colors and finishes shown may vary from those on the actual products.

The name celesta has many pronunciations as well. It may be pronounced as Celeste, Celesta or Cheleste. All are appropriate.

It is believed that musicians first attempted to use keyboards to produce bell sounds sometime during the 17th century, driven by the inclusion of bell towers and pipe organs in churches. Then when Mozart wrote the Magic Flute in 1791, he included a keyboard glockenspiel. Mozart's usage suggested to future generations how a keyboard approach might allow bell-like sounds to be used both for complex performance and for effective chordal accompaniments. It should be noted, however, that these early instruments of this early period produced sound using glass plates rather than metal.

In 1886, or almost a century after the Magic Flute, the Paris organ maker Mustel was granted a patent for a keyboard instrument whose keys drove felt hammers into thick copper plates to produce sound. He named this instrument celesta. The instrument included resonance boxes to amplify the sounds generated by the plates.

The celesta was probably not the first instrument of its type. Tuning forks and glass "sound boards" were already known in 1886, and it is likely that similar instruments had already been devised. But the celesta was the first such instrument to become established, thanks to it usage by Tchaikovsky.

Tchaikovsky first encountered the celesta in 1891 when stopping in Paris on his way to a tour through the US. Impressed with the instrument's sound, he immediately sent one to Russia and incorporated it into his Nutcracker Suite. Following this introduction, the instrument gained popularity with the Impressionists and with subsequent composers.

Within the Nutcracker, the celesta is used not only for solo play in Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy, but also in areas where the libretto was marked for "fountain-like" sound. Richard Strauss used the celesta to produce waterfall imagery in his Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), and Ravel and Toru Takemitu similarly exploit the instrument's captivating timbre and its ability to stimulate the imagination. And of course the celesta has also found its way into many performances of the Magic Flute.

Mustel's celesta suffered from a number of limitations. His design tended to be very simple as the hammers were suspended by springs and propelled downward to produce the sound. Moreover, there was no piano-type action. The musician had to hit the keys fairly hard to get the sound out and therefore it was quite difficult to play rapid passages. Effective control of volume was also quite difficult. Performers may also have had problems to maintain smooth dynamics as they moved across the keyboard.

The Mustel workshop in Paris ceased all manufacture of celestas in 1970's. In 1989, Yamaha was requested to repair a Mustel-celesta by a musical instrument rental firm in Tokyo. This prompted Yamaha's Percussive Design Dept. and Piano Development Division to embark on a joint effort to develop a new celesta design. The result is a celesta that incorporates grand-piano action and overcomes all of the problems previously associated with celesta play. Yamaha began production of these instruments in 1992.

The noun celesta has one meaning: A musical instrument consisting of graduated steel plates that are struck by hammers activated by a keyboard. The celesta looks much like a harmonium, that is, it consists of a case with a keyboard and pedal. The case contains the metal bars, the resonators and the complicated striking mechanism. The sound of the celesta is akin to that of the glockenspiel, but with a much softer timbre. This quality gave rise to the instrument's name, celesta meaning "heavenly" in French.

Celesta's are mainly purchased by college and university schools of music for use with their symphonic orchestras. National and community orchestras will also purchase a celesta. Although treated as a member of the percussion section in orchestral terms, the celesta is played by a pianist, the part being normally written on two bracketed staves.

Celesta's are made to order and take approximately 3 to 4 months upon placing an order.

Yamaha celesta's offer many advantages. First, the action is the same as on a grand piano. The instrument also offers a wide dynamic range, allowing for soft balanced chords, loud expressive play, trills, glissandos, and other play techniques that are typical of grand pianos but were never before available on celestas.

Secondly, the Yamaha celesta offers full piano-size keys. White keys have Ivorite surfaces and the damper pedal is aligned as a pianist would expect, slightly right of center.

Third, the remarkable presence of the instrument comes out of Yamaha's long experience in developing percussion instruments capable of asserting themselves within orchestral environments. The instrument uses high-carbon tempered steel plates tuned to high precision, as well as original maple resonance boxes designed to make effective use of Helmholtz resonance.

Lastly, the adjustment of action and hammers is essentially the same as on a grand piano. Any problems that occur just before a performance can be quickly corrected by a piano technician.

The sound by Yamaha-celesta is produced by steel bars which rest on felt rails under hollow wood resonators. The steel bars are struck from below by felt-covered hammers which are connected to a keyboard by means of a complicated mechanism. Unlike the piano though, the celesta's hammers vary in size and weight. The lower notes are produced using larger hammers with a thicker felt covering, which results in a particularly warm and rich timbre.

The hand-made resonators, that are actually hollow boxes of maple, are fixed above the metal bars and fashioned to correspond exactly to the pitch of the bar below. The resonators serve to amplify the fundamental and resonance of their particular bar. This is especially important because steel bars produce a high proportion of inharmonic partials. The resonator amplifies the fundamental and suppresses the inharmonic partial ensuring a clearly identifiable pitch.

Double wheel locking casters are also included with each Celesta allowing the instrument to be transported easily for rehearsal hall to stage with little effort.

It is important to know that the celesta is a relatively quiet instrument and cannot make itself heard in an entire orchestra. The resonance of its notes is similar to that of the piano in the same registers, though a little shorter. Lower notes resound longer than high notes.

Its sound characteristics mean that the celesta's main tasks are the addition of color rather than melodic, harmonic or rhythmic parts. In combination with other instruments it brightens the overall sound. It combines most effectively with the harp, the high strings and the woodwinds, especially the flute. The warm sound of the celesta is less apparent in sound combinations than that of the glockenspiel.

Yamaha celestas are well known for their excellent playability, and are actively used by the Vienna Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the NHK Symphony Orchestra, and by many other orchestras throughout the world.

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