© 2005 P. Missin - Details

French Patent 1194090

When I began serious research into the harmonica, one of the first books I checked out of my local library was a 1980 English translation of Alexander Buchner's Colour Encyclopedia of Musical Instruments. In the section about free reed instruments, the author mentioned the concertina, the reed organ, the accordion and various common types of harmonica. However, the following paragraph caught my attention:

A Czechoslovak invention is the polyphonic consisting of two chromatic harmonicas joined together by a fixture and permitting four part harmony in all keys. The instrument is so small that it almost disappears into the player's hands.

For several years, I was unable to find any other source that mentioned this special harmonica, then one day as I was browsing through some French patents, I found a patent granted to a Czech company, with the title "Harmonica Chromatique Polyphonique" ("chromatic polyphonic harmonica". Sure enough, this 1959 patent covered the mystery instrument from Buchner's book. (I later discovered that it was also covered by Austrian patent 216318, granted in 1961.)

The inventors are named as Vlastimil Holata and Jan Krikava, of a company called Harmonika Národní Podnik ("národní podnik" meaning "national enterprise" and designating a state owned company). As the Buchner paragraph suggests, the instrument is a pair of fairly normal 12-hole chromatic harmonicas mounted one above the other, each one with four slides in an otherwise normal mouthpiece assembly, with four buttons each controlling two of the slides, one on the upper harmonica, one on the lower. The harmonicas are tuned in a diminished pattern - blowing in the upper harmonica gives a C dim7; drawing on the upper harmonica gives a D dim7; blowing on the lower harmonica gives a C# dim7; drawing on the lower harmonica gives an Eb dim7:

Pushing button one raises by one semitone the notes in holes 1, 5 and 9 on both the upper and the lower harmonica. Pushing button two raises by one semitone the notes in holes 2, 6 and 10; pushing in button three raises by one semitone the notes in holes 3, 7 and 11; pushing in button four raises the notes in holes 4, 8 and 12. More than one button may be pushed at any one time. Pushing buttons one and two raises by one semitone the notes in holes 1, 2, 6, 5, 9 and 10; pushing in buttons two and four raises by one semitone the notes in holes 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12; etc.

The upshot of all of this is that as well as single note melodic playing, this instrument is capable of playing all of the following chords types in each key - major and minor triads, dominant sevenths, diminished triads and diminished sevenths, major and minor sixths, minor sevenths, as well as a few odd clusters that are difficult to categorise. By using standard tongue blocking techniques, harmonised lines of two, three or more notes are possible.

There must be, of course, several disadvantages. For a start, certain sequences would require very quick shifts from the upper instrument to the lower, or vise versa, making legato playing a challenge. Perhaps more of a problem, this harmonica has FOUR slides! Chromatic players are constantly complaining of how leaky their single slide instrument is and how often their slide gets stuck - quadrupling the number of slides is going to worsen these problems dramatically.

However, this was a fascinating instrument and I'm sure that someone with some basic skills could build one for themselves. Unfortunately, I have never found anything to suggest that they were commercially made, so I suspect that the one that Buchner saw and heard was merely a prototype.

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