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“428 Millions of Quadrilles for 5s. 6d.”: John Clinton's Combinatorial Music Machine

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Braguinski, Nikita 


Quadrilles were a popular genre of group dancing in the nineteenth century. Existing melodies were normally used to accompany the dancing sessions, but the monotony of their repetition and the cost of a professional piano player capable of improvising were an issue. Thus, the idea of a “machine” that would be able to endlessly produce quadrille music at no cost was suggesting itself. The Quadrille Melodist, a paper-based system for the generation of piano pieces, was published in nineteenth-century Victorian London by John Clinton, a “professor in the Royal Academy of Music.” Already in 1650, Athanasius Kircher proposed in his Musurgia Universalis a device consisting of stripes with short snippets of music that could be used to create combinatorial pieces and variations. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, a whole genre of quasi-algorithmic compositions was emerging, spurred by the popularity of such works as the Musikalisches Würfelspiel, a piece attributed to Mozart. In this article, I analyze the Quadrille Melodist against the background of the history of combinatorial music. I contrast its unique features with other predigital, as well as later digital, music systems and discuss its design with respect to the phenomenon of predictability in dance music. Additionally, I discuss reasons for the circumstance that the historically advertised number of possible quadrilles, 428 million, is much smaller than the real number of combinations.



3603 Music, 3604 Performing Arts, 36 Creative Arts and Writing

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19th-Century Music

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University of California Press


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European Research Council (638241)