In 1814, E. T. A. Hoffmann published his short story, Die
Automate. The story concerns the dealings of two friends and a fortune-telling
automaton, the Turk, whose prophetic utterances seem to reveal a supernatural and psychic ability. Although the story first appeared in the Allegemeine musikalische Zeitung, it has been mostly overlooked by music scholars. In addition to the lengthy passages dealing with artificial intelligence, the story includes an extensive discussion of music performance and music instruments. The instruments they discuss – machines capable of bringing forth the voice of nature – perhaps appear as fantastical creations of Hoffmann’s imagination. However, he refers to real instruments that played an established role in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century musical culture. This period saw the frenzied production of many novel and bizarre instruments such as the euphon, aiuton, aenomochord, xänorphica and the harmonichord. Though these instruments are all but forgotten today, they testify to a widespread preoccupation with timbre and instrumental sonority. The consolidation of the orchestra as a concept, musical body and institution in the eighteenth century went hand in hand with the notion that individual instrumental sonorities had distinct expressive characters. By the early nineteenth century, this idea manifested itself in two distinct traditions: an orchestral one, in which composers increasingly took advantage of the ever-growing palette of instruments, giving rise to the modern concept of orchestration and the romantic symphony, and an instrument-oriented one, in which musicians, scientists and inventors attempted to capture ‘ideal sonorities’ (usually timbres resembling the human voice) in specially designed instruments. These creations offer a missing link between idealist aesthetics of the period and musical practice. Though ultimately ephemeral, they represent a kind of ‘absolute’ music that was founded purely in ethereal sonorities rather than in musical formalism.