(Honoré de Balzac, 1837)

He then displayed the instruments constructed in accordance with his laws, explaining the changes he had introduced into their constitution. And finally he announced that to conclude this preliminary inspection, which could only satisfy a superficial curiosity, he would perform on an instrument that contained all the elements of a complete orchestra, and which he called a Panharmonicon.


Marianna, with some little difficulty, removed the covers from an instrument as large as a grand piano, but with an upper case added. This strange-looking instrument, besides this second body and its keyboard, supported the openings or bells of various wind instruments and the closed funnels of a few organ pipes.

“Will you play me the prayer you say is so fine at the end of your opera?” said the Count.

To the great surprise of both Marianna and the Count, Gambara began with a succession of chords that proclaimed him a master; and their astonishment gave way first to amazed admiration and then to perfect rapture, effacing all thought of the place and the performer. The effects of a real orchestra could not have been finer than the voices of the wind instruments, which were like those of an organ and combined wonderfully with the harmonies of the strings. But the unfinished condition of the machine set limits to the composer’s execution, and his idea seemed all the greater; for, often, the very perfection of a work of art limits its suggestiveness to the recipient soul. Is not this proved by the preference accorded to a sketch rather than a finished picture when on their trial before those who interpret a work in their own mind rather than accept it rounded off and complete? The purest and serenest music that Andrea had ever listened to rose up from under Gambara’s fingers like the vapor of incense from an altar. […]This really angelic strain showed what treasures lay hidden in that stupendous opera, which, however, would never find comprehension so long as the musician persisted in trying to explain it in his present demented state. His wife and the Count were equally divided between the music and their surprise at this hundred-voiced instrument, inside which a stranger might have fancied an invisible chorus of girls were hidden, so closely did some of the tones resemble the human voice; and they dared not express their ideas by a look or a word.

In Gambara, Balzac created a classic example of what is now a familiar archetype: the alienated genius of modern music. In his dedicatory preface to the story, the author refers to Gambara as a “character worthy of Hoffmann, a bearer of unknown treasures and a pilgrim at the gates of Paradise, endowed with ears to hear angelic harmonies and yet no longer a tongue to repeat them, touching the keyboard with fingers deformed by the contractions of divine inspiration, under the illusion he was playing celestial music to stupefied listeners.”
The name and concept of Gambara’s instrument were taken from a real invention of the time. Johann Nepomuk Maelzel invented his Panharmonicon in 1805, an elaborate mechanical instrument intended to recreate the varied timbres of the orchestra. This model of a “universal” mechanical instrument, generally called an “orchestrion,” was pursued by a number of inventors around the turn of the 19th century. In 1813, Beethoven wrote a “battle symphony” entitled Wellington’s Victory as a showpiece for Maelzel’s instrument, which was destroyed in World War II. The composition survives in an orchestral arrangement.
Unlike Gambara’s version, the historical Panharmonicon was an automatic instrument, meaning that it produced music from pinned cylinders as opposed to the impassioned gestures of a human musician. Gambara’s fantastic invention, like many in our collection, thus occupies a twilight zone between history and fantasy. Fittingly, the artist’s illustration places the bulk of the instrument outside of the frame, leaving the appearance of the Panharmonicon, like its sound, to the reader’s imagination.
Text:  Gambara, translated by Clara Bell and James Waring
Image: Eugene Decisy, after a painting by Pierre Vidal. From The Human Comedy: Philosophic and Analytic Studies, Volume IV (Philadelphia: George Barrie & Son, 1899).