The orphica is a portable forte-piano instrument originally built in the 18th century. One could consider it a crossbreed between piano and guitar since it can be held on a shoulder strap. This instrument boasts the title as the forerunner of the modern keytar.
Carl Leopold Röllig, a prolific inventor, musician, and librarian from Hamburg, invented the orphica. His abilities led him to work as a librarian at the Vienna Court Library, and as Kapellmeister at the Hamburg Ackermann Theater Company. The orphica was one of Röllig’s many inventions.
According to a booklet created to promote the instrument, the shape inspired its name. It reads: “bears some resemblance to the lyre of Orpheus.”
The orphica saw a short period of popularity, but relatively few ever existed. Ludwig van Beethoven was one of the few composers to write for this instrument. According to a letter from Beethoven’s friend, Franz Gerhard Wegeler, the latter had two small pieces for the orphica. Beethoven had composed them for his wife. This refers to the two pieces of 1798, WoO. 51, formerly incorrectly titled Leichte Klaviersonate.
Loss and reappearance of the orphica
Surviving examples of the instrument rest in museums around the world. These include the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali di Roma, the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Museum für Musikinstrumente der Universität Leipzig.
Recordings rarely surface, so our only source of information is Röllig himself. He described the sound as: “created for calmness and gentleness-for the night, friendship and love.” Whether these qualities were merely an advertisement or a true reflection of the instrument is now debatable. However, we can be sure that Beethoven found the instrument acceptable. With this in mind, it is appropriate to conclude that its disappearance is regrettable. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting chapter in the history of music.
In recent years, a company named Realsamples had an opportunity to get one of the remaining orphica’s from a famous collection of ancient instruments by Professor Andreas E. Beurmann. They have successfully resampled the instrument and offered it to the public as a sample library. Judging from the makers, the orphica used sounded like a mix between a dulcimer and a “mellow” harpsichord, with some other unique sound properties.