Vole, Petite Abeille

"Vole, Petite Abeille" — Scott's Last Known Phonautograms (1860)

First Sounds
These recordings were converted into sound as part of the ongoing work of the First Sounds initiative.
The collaboration's official releases may be found here, and here is an explanation of how the "playback" was accomplished.

In September 1860, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville made a series of changes to the phonautograph, centered on the introduction of an artificial chain of ossicles made of ivory, copper, and other materials. His last known innovation was an "amplifying lever" attached to the end of this chain, and there's only one known phonautogram labeled as recorded in this way, preserved as plate 7 in a group of papers Scott deposited with the Académie des Sciences in July 1861 (a facsimile, transcription, and English translation of the whole deposit is available through First Sounds). Because this is the only phonautogram that incorporates Scott's last design change, it's presumably also his latest known phonautogram—the most "advanced" or "mature" example of his work we have.

It is one of two recordings of a song called "Vole, Petite Abeille" ("Fly, Little Bee"). The other is plate 6, recorded without the amplifying lever (and therefore probably earlier) on September 15.

When this recording was unveiled in May 2009, the selection was still unidentified, except that the closing words seemed to be "vole, petite abeille," the same as the inscribed title. It turns out to be "La Chanson de l'Abeille" from the comic opera La Reine Topaze by Victor Massé, first performed in 1856. Thanks to Peter L. Goodman for his help in the search, as well as to David Lasocki of Reference Services at the William & Gayle Cook Music Library at Indiana University.

La Reine Topaze

Listen to Vole, Petite Abeille as recorded on a phonautograph with an amplifying lever, probably in late September 1860, but definitely before the end of July 1861: .

(Plate 7 before speed correction:  .)

For comparison, here is a MIDI file I created from the original score for piano and voice. The part corresponding to the phonautogram starts at 1:16. The differences between the "official" version and the phonautogram are intriguing and a subject of ongoing study.

Update, Oct. 9, 2009: I unveiled a playback of plate 6 at a meeting of the Indiana University Mediated Sound Group on September 30, 2009: . From this we learn that (1) the changes Scott made to his signal chain made a difference and (2) the two renditions of the same piece show nearly identical abridgements and adaptations.

(Plate 6 before speed correction:  .)



  • The latest examples of phonautograms by Édouard-Léon Scott known to exist, representing the culmination of his work in phonautography.
  • Recordings of a lively, exuberant renditions of song, as much performance as experiment—complete with tuning-fork "time code" that lets us correct for fluctuations in recording speed. So far, this combination remains unique, making the two takes of "Vole, Petite Abeille"—in my opinion—the most aesthetically valuable phonautograms played back to date.
  • The oldest recovered recordings of a song from an opera.
  • The oldest "alternate takes" of a single selection we've heard—revealing that a consistent fifteen-second adaptation of the song had been devised for recording purposes.

Leon Scott
Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville




Original content copyright © 2009, Patrick Feaster.