It was invented and constructed by the Czech theologian Václav Prokop Diviš (1698 - 1765) — his surname is pronounced "Deevish" [ɟɪvɪʃ] and often spelled "Divisch" — at his parish in the Moravian town Přímětice near Znojmo in the south-east of what is now the Czech Republic. He was also a pioneer of research into electricity, first its use for medicine, then about prevention of thunderstorms.
His passion for music was crowned by the construction of a musical instrument he named "Denis d'or", with the French "Denis" etymologically going back to "Dionysus", whose Czech counterpart is "Diviš" — hence the name.
The earliest written mention of the Denis d'or dates from 1753, but it is likely that it already existed around 1748. Some sources even date its existence as far back as the year 1730, but this claim is historically untenable and not supported by any available information on Diviš's biography and work. Unfortunately, after Diviš's death in 1765 the unique instrument was sold and eventually brought to Vienna, where it vanished without trace. Surviving documents about the Denis d'or are short and very few, so very scarce facts are known.
The Denis d'or had 14 registers, most of which were twofold, and its complex mechanism fitted in a symmetrical wooden cabinet equipped with a keyboard and a pedal. It was about 150 cm long (5 ft), 90 cm wide (3 ft), and 120 cm high (4 ft). Basically, it was a chordophone not unlike a clavichord — in other words, the strings were struck, not plucked. The suspension and the tautening of the allegedly 790 metal strings was described as more elaborate than a clavichord. The mechanism which had been worked out by Diviš was such that the Denis d'or could imitate the sounds of a variety of other instruments, including chordophones such as harpsichords, harps, lutes and wind instruments. This was mainly owing to the responsiveness and combinability of the stops, which permitted the player to vary the sound in multiple ways, thereby generating far more than a hundred different tonal voices altogether.
Finally, the novelty instrument produced electric shocks as practical jokes on the player. When the German theologian Johann Ludwig Fricker (1729-1766) visited Diviš in 1753 and saw the Denis d'or with his own eyes, he referred to it in a journal of the university of Tübingen as an "Electrisch-Musicalische[s] Instrument" - the literal translation of which is "electric musical instrument".
It is disputed whether the Denis d'or sounds were also produced by electricity or if it was an otherwise acustical instrument like the clavichord. Allegedly, Diviš could charge the iron strings with electricity in order to enhance the sound quality. This would be a possible explanation for temporary sound effects in the instruments and might have been achieved with Leyden jars or similar equipment commonly used in early research on electricity.
Diviš is claimed to be the first person to foster the idea of an aesthetic connection between music and electricity. Before him nobody had sensed the aesthetic potential of electro-acoustic effects. In the face of electrical research still being in its early infancy in the middle of the 18th century, this revolutionary idea could then, of course, only be technically realized by Diviš in the most primitive way. But, nevertheless, those historical circumstances cannot belittle the fact that the Denis d'or can justifiably be regarded as the forefather of all electrophones, at least from the idealistic point of view.
- Hugh Davies. "Denis d'or". Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 7 Oct. 2009
- Tübingische Berichte von gelehrten Sachen, XXX, July 1754, p. 395.
- Prokop Diviš Memorial
- Denis D'Or Denis D'Or on 120 Years Of Electronic Music
- Peer Sitter: Das Denis d'or: Urahn der 'elektroakustischen' Musikinstrumente? (The Denis d'or - ancestor of electro-acustical instruments?) (collection of descriptions of the instrument in German)