Period Instruments and satisfaction

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Ever since the baroque revival with the 1970s, there has been much discussion of the use of so-called period instruments. Many people have argued how the music of the baroque composers, as well as that of the classical composers, is not performed properly on modern instruments. What reasons would someone have for saying this? What follows is a discussion of the instruments of the orchestra and the way they changed drastically in the nineteenth century. Let me leave out any discussion from the piano because I am limiting this discussion to instruments that became standard within the orchestra, and because the evolution of the piano is such a massive topic by itself.

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In the center of the nineteenth century there were a great revolution in instrument making. Actually, several of these changes had been slowly happening over the course of a century roughly, especially with the string instruments. However, design for music in the late eighteenth century probably had some impact on the evolution with the instruments of the orchestra. Extreme contrasts of dynamics were necessary in the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Although, that has been, no doubt, an important factor behind the drive to manufacture louder instruments, with an increase of dynamic range, I believe that it was not the only factor.

There is another reason for the nineteenth century preoccupation with helping the dynamics of instruments. Audiences were getting larger and concert halls were getting larger in order to accommodate these larger audiences. Orchestras were required to produce a greater amount of sound to fill the new concert halls. Making orchestras larger was not the answer. Larger orchestras have trouble playing fast tempi with precision. This is the reason Beethoven preferred a forty-piece orchestra for his symphonies while he could have had them completed by a sixty-piece orchestra. The choice between using a big or small orchestra to perform a given composition, needless to say, boils down to how big the string section is. The number of woodwinds and brass depends on the score, nevertheless, you can have as big or as small a string section as you desire. The standard orchestra with the late eighteenth century includes: first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, string basses, two oboes, two bassoons, two kettle drums, sometimes 2-3 horns, sometimes a trumpet or even two, and 2 flutes. By 1800 two clarinets had also turn into a standard part of the orchestra. Below is a discussion difference between modern orchestral instruments and their earlier counterparts, by having an emphasis on the development of the string instruments.

The Violin

The first thing I would like to discuss may be the violin bow. The main violin bow, in the event the instrument was fist invented by Amati, in 1550, was shaped approximately like a hunting bow. It a pronounced arch into it, and the hairs were rather slack. The tension of the hairs was controlled by subtle movements with the bowing hand. This made it easy to bow all 4 strings at the same time, a treadmill at a time when necessary. When the player wanted to bow three to four strings, he would slacken the bow hairs a bit. When he wanted to bow one or two, he would increase the tension a little. This type of bow had changed little within the time of Bach.

Another thing that made it easier to bow all 4 strings at once, was the reality that the bridge has not been quite as arched as a modern violin, thus putting the strings closer to being in the same plane. On the modern violin, you can bow three strings simultaneously, however it is difficult to do this without giving greater pressure, and therefore greater loudness, on the string in between the opposite two. Modern violinists have to sort of fake it, when they play Bach's sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin. When Bach demands four notes to be played simultaneously, the gamer of a modern violin will rapidly slowly move the bow, one string during a period, causing the notes to get heard in rapid succession, one after the other, closing approximating the sound that one would get from bowing all four notes at once. For the violin of Bach's day, this technique wasn't necessary, since the bow could be moved across all 4 strings simultaneously.

The violin bow underwent a gradual change throughout the eighteenth century, becoming less and less arched. At the end of the eighteenth century a person named Tourte created a new design of bow. This bow actually curved slightly toward the hairs, as opposed to away from them. This new bow could play much louder as opposed to old baroque bow. Also, unlike the baroque bow, this new bow could provide an equally loud volume along its entire length. With this particular new bow, a talented violinist could make the change from upbow to down bow almost imperceptible. It turned out perfectly suited to the newest style of music, featuring its broad, sweeping melodic lines. The same reasons that make the Tourte bow so well suited for nineteenth century music make it somewhat unsuitable for eighteenth century music, especially early 18th century music.

The old baroque bow produced a robust sound in the middle of its length, the sound getting much weaker since the string was approached by either end of the bow. This is actually a bonus when performing baroque music, using its highly articulated phrasing and lean texture. That old baroque bow allowed more nuances of shaping a note. Using the Tourte bow, it is challenging to shorten a note without which makes it sound chopped off. With most baroque music, it can be advantageous to make the up-bow sound distinctive from the down-bow. The old baroque bow is way better suited to the lean, transparent textures of baroque music. In polyphonic music, it really is easier to hear every one of the individual lines if each player will not smoothly connect their notes, but allows a certain amount of "space" between them. This is possible on the modern violin, but comes naturally which has a baroque violin.

The body with the violin went through major alterations in the middle of the nineteenth century. A chin rest was added by Louis Spohr at the outset of the nineteenth century, providing a whole new technique of playing. The strings were created thicker, and eventually were wound with metal, the sound post appeared thicker, the bass bar is made thicker and stronger, and much more tension was placed on the strings. Together with the thicker strings, the bow should be drawn over the strings with considerably more pressure in order to get these to vibrate, but the sound is really a lot louder. The neck, as an alternative to coming straight right out of the belly, was glued on at an angle, which makes the angle with the strings across the bridge more acute.

These changes resulted in a tremendous loss of overtones, resulting in a much dryer sound. This is the reason the old baroque violin has a real sweet, pretty sound, compared to a modern violin. This is actually the price that was paid to be able to increase the volume of the instrument. Together with the new instrument, dynamics took over as dominant means of achieving various expression, while nuances of articulation were the key means of achieving expressive variety together with the baroque violin. Also, a musician playing a modern violin, as a way to compensate for the inherently dry sound, could make almost constant utilization of vibrato, a technique, which was only used sparingly, and just for special effect, in the eighteenth century.

Eighteenth century books on violin playing, including the one by Leopold Mozart, show that vibrato should be used to add spice to a note. Vibrato is the daily bread and butter of the modern violinist. It is used almost constantly. Without one, the sound will be dull and dry. I ought to mention here that I am speaking of the fingered vibrato, not the bowed vibrato. The bowed vibrato is produced by a rapid pulsation from the bow across the strings. This effect was rather common from the baroque period and is intended to imitate the tremulant in organs.

In the center of the nineteenth century great instruments built with the great masters of old, such as Stradivari, Gaunari, and Stainer, to name the 3 most important, were taken apart and rebuilt to help make them like the newer violins. Some of them literally broke by 50 percent from the strain. There isn't any instruments built from the great masters, which have not been rebuilt, a number of them many times over. In my view this is a great tragedy.

Precisely what has been said above regarding the violin is also largely the case with the viola and cello. The bass violin had a somewhat different history. In Germany, three hundred years ago, a three stringed bass was widely used. The Germans found that a bass with only three strings, had a beautiful, more pure sound than a with four. However, the greater versatile four string bass become the norm and the three string bass became obsolete.


The woodwinds also underwent an entire makeover in the nineteenth century. The taper of the internal bore also was changed. This ended in a louder instrument which has a different timbre than the old ones. The old baroque woodwinds had 7 or 8 holes. Six holes were closed directly by the fingers and the others were closed by keys. Nowadays in this woodwind, all of the holes are closed by keys. Due to the nature of the arrangement of the holes, and mostly because of the fact that they are closed directly through the fingers, each woodwind is definitely playable in one certain key and is also progressively more difficult to play in keys which can be more and more distantly related to the fundamental key of the instrument. Present day woodwinds, with the key mechanisms accustomed to cover the holes, instead of being covered directly by the finger tips, are just as effortless to play in one key as in another. Besides equal simple playing in all keys, another significant difference it that many note on a modern woodwind has pretty much the same timbre, while on a baroque woodwind, particularly the flute, each tone will have a noticeably different timbre.

Within the clarinet and oboe the internal bore was widened. The final bell of the clarinet became less flared. This led to a different sound. The bassoon in the eighteenth century was constructed differently too, the gap being the walls of the instrument were thin enough to vibrate. It is deemed an important difference. The laws of acoustics dictate how the timbre of a wind instrument is not affected by the material it really is made from as long as the walls from the instrument are too want to vibrate. The thinness of the wooden tube of that the old bassoons were made gave it a sweeter sound, though the new bassoons were much louder.


The key change in the brass instruments was the invention of valves which can be operated by pressing levers with the fingers. This made the instruments far more versatile. With the old brass instruments the player had to change the tension of his lips to generate different notes, the only real notes being available to be the ones of the harmonic overtones. Horn players employed short lengths of tubing called crooks. So that you can play in a different key, the horn player removed one crook and inserted another. This became a bit cumbersome and composers rarely asked for horn players to change crooks inside a movement, though they usually had to change crooks between movements.

Horn players in Mozart's day had determined that they could change an email by a semitone by inserting their fist carefully into the end bell and holding it just right. This gave them the opportunity to play things that they could not otherwise play, however, this technique was used sparingly due to the difference in timbre of the not thus produced. The invention of valves gave every one of the brass much more versatility. Within the late eighteenth century the trumpet was outfitted with one valve, that has been controlled by the thumb. This enabled the trumpet player to play a lot more notes. It absolutely was this type of trumpet for which Josef Haydn composed his famous trumpet concerto. From the nineteenth century three valves which control the airflow through sections of tubing were added to the trumpet, allowing the player much more versatility. The trombones, obviously did not need to be outfitted with valves because they always had a slide which changed the length of the vibrating column of air, thus changing the note.

Small internal bore of the old brass instruments gave them, well, no pun intended, a brassier sound. The trumpets had a greater portion of a bite with their sound. The horns were somewhat harsh compared to the smooth sounding modern horn. The trombones were built with a slightly harsh edge to their sound compared to modern trombones.

Pros and cons

So which is better, that old baroque instruments of modern ones? I would not think either is better. They are only different. The existing instruments have a sweet sounding quality which will come through even in recordings. They may be perfectly suited to the music of Bach and Handel. These are great on recordings nevertheless they will never have an important devote the modern concert world as their sound is too weak to fill a major concert hall. While it's possible to do justice towards the music of Bach and Handel on modern instruments if your musicians have an intimate knowledge of the style, it would be sheer madness to try out Strauss or Debussy on baroque instruments.

When it comes to music of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, it is possible to make the argument that it should be played on the same type of instruments they'd in their time, and perhaps certain aspects of their music found through more clearly for the old instruments. But it is also easy to believe that their music pushed the instruments of their time to their limits, as well as beyond. Their music was revolutionary. It had been ahead of its time in lots of ways, especially the music of Beethoven. Why should we have to put up with the limitations that were forced to them when we can hear their music played very effectively with modern instruments?

Ultimately, it does not take skill, understanding and sensitivity of the musicians to the design of music that they are playing which makes the biggest difference, not the type of instruments they are playing.

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