(J. J. Grandville, 1844)

We have just witnessed the first humano-mechanical concert of the incomparable Dr. Puff. It would require a style as entrancing as Mozart and as majestic as Gluck to do justice to this grand event.  Thanks to this admirable invention, we need no longer worry about singers catching cold, coming down with bronchitis, or losing their voice. The voice of the tenors, basses, baritones, sopranos and contraltos is safe from all accidents; the steam-powered instruments produce effects of surprising accuracy; the great composers of the age have finally found interpreters equal to their melodies. In this century of progress, the machine is a perfected human being.

Grandville - Steam harpGrandville - Rive gauch et rive droit

Words could not describe the excitement elicited by each piece played by the virtuosi of Dr. Puff. His orchestra could rival that of any conservatory in the world. In the grand diurne Right Bank and Left Bank, Mademoiselle Tender attacked the low A of the bass octave with a fullness of voice and steam that won bravos from the entire audience. A young virtuoso of 22 months, six days, and one night, who has out of modesty chosen to remain anonymous, executed the most difficult variations on the vapor-harp without for a single moment going off the railway of harmony, with an emotional warmth and delicacy of touch which place her at once among the ranks of the most celebrated performers. […]

Grandeville - OphicleideGrandville - 200 trombones

An accident marked the end of the concert. During the fireworks in D, where the fugue ended smorzando in a sweet and dreamy melody, an ophicleide, overloaded with harmony, suddenly exploded like a bomb, launching aloft the black and whites notes and the grupetti of sharps, eighth- and sixteenth notes. Clouds of musical smoke and flames of melody were dispersed into the air. Many dilettantes had their ears blown out, while others were injured by the shrapnel of the F and G clefs. Measures have been taken to ensure that such an accident does not happen again.

This fantastic-satirical vision of “mechanical music” gone wrong is the product of the 19th-century French caricaturist Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard, alias J. J. Grandville (1803-1847). It features in his 1844 book Un autre monde (Another World), a collection of drawings and stories exploring the author’s proto-surrealist visions of France during the July Monarchy.
Grandville’s vignette begins when one of the book’s three protagonists, the impresario Dr. Puff, discovers a dozen “cast-iron musicians” stowed away in his inventory of mechanical oddities. Then and there Puff conceives of a sensational “steam concert,” exclaiming that “the sole means of satisfying the musical demands of the public [is] to invent singers with palates of bronze, to operate an orchestra of vapor!”
The program for Dr. Puff’s “instrumental, vocal, and phenomenal mechano-metronomic concert” is a paradoxically parodic celebration of the over-the-top grandiosity of the age. It features such movements as “The Explosion: a melody for 200 trombones,” “The Locomotive: a low pressure symphony with 200 horsepower,” and “The Self and the Non-Self: Philosophical Symphony in C.” The above account was written by Dr. Puff himself, whose name was perhaps inspired by the English term “puffery” that had long attended such manufactured publicity. The concert was reported to have taken place on April 1, 1850.
Text and images: J. J. Grandville, Un autre monde (Paris: H. Fournier, 1844)