Peter Donhauser
Sound Track from Inside the Piano

Emerich Moses Spielmann (*1873), an architect living in Vienna, succeeded in applying the principle of optical sound to a musical instrument. Others, however, had already begun working on this principle: it was first patented by Arthur French St. George in London in 1883 and became widely known through the sound-on-film motion pictures, which were first screened in Europe at the Alhambra cinema in Berlin in 1922. Numerous patent applications were filed for similar inventions. Spielmann’s instrument, which has survived to the present, was dubbed the “Superpiano” and was presented for the first time at a concert organized by the Österreichische Kulturbund on January 9, 1929. On this occasion, the composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold played a conventional piano with one hand and the new instrument with the other. The press covered the event in detail, reporting that Spielmann had conceived of an instrument like this 20 years previously but hadn’t been able to realize his ideas until major advances in radio technology were made, and that this invention would open up undreamed-of possibilities. It was described as a “ghost piano” and its sound as the “mysterious singing of electrowaves,” but according to the papers the acoustic impression didn’t differ substantially from the airwave music of Professors Theremin and Martenot. They also speculated that in the future a single player would be able to reproduce the entire instrumental range of an orchestra, and that it would not be long before composers would be mixing electrotone with conventional instrumental sounds.

Superpiano: Geschwärzte Zelluloidscheiben zur Ergänzung teiltonreicher (links) teilnonarmer Klänge (rechts). Um 1935A few weeks later, on February 14, 1929, Spielmann presented the Superpiano as part of a program on the Vienna radio station RAVAG featuring lectures on the theme of Das Licht spricht, das Licht musiziert [Light speaks, light makes music]. He described his invention as an organ, harmonium and piano wrapped into one but with added expressive possibilities: continuous notes of any timbre plus transposition freedom (accomplished by changing the rotation speed of the disks, which was regulated by a kind of built-in tachometer). In addition, the instrument was to cost no more than a conventional piano. Since this instrument could record any sound source, it would also be possible to reproduce “Kreisler’s violin or Caruso’s voice” on the Superpiano, and even in different registers (Kreisler on double bass or Caruso as a bass) – at least this is what an advertisement promised and, indeed, today’s sampling techniques and soundfonts now make this a simple process. Then, after the radio feature, nothing more was heard about the Superpiano until 8 p.m. on April 8, 1933, when the Austrian radio aired a Superpiano duo concert, the instrument’s last documented sign of life.1

Spielmann seems to have built several instruments: one of them consisted of two parts, with a detached keyboard and a separate cabinet to house the disks, the one shown is a unique model in the form of an upright piano which was sold by the pianomaker Hofmann to the Museum of Technology in Vienna in 1947, where it survived World War II. As to Spielmann’s whereabouts we have no further details. He was reportedly headed for London in 1939, but then he disappears without a trace.

The next European-made optical sound instrument was presented in Berlin as late as 1936: Edwin Welte from the dynasty of the well-known manufacturers of player pianos and organs worked on his instrument for six years and finally built a model ready to go into serial production, but it never did because Welte’s wife was Jewish, which meant he was classified as “politically unreliable.” The instrument was destroyed during the war and all that survived were disks and design drawings. The Optigan, developed 40 ears or so later, is another variation of an optical sound instrument that also uses disks with sounds encoded on concentric tracks.


1 See Peter Donhauser, Elektrische Klangmaschinen, Vienna 2007.