Instruments of Death

“The Torture Garden: It’s where the Devil calls the tune . . . to play a concerto of fear!”

–Trailer for Torture Garden, 1967


In honor of Halloween, it’s time to look at the spookier side of musical instruments, specifically the roles some have played in mystery and horror fiction.  On the one hand, the organ has the most sinister reputation of any instrument through its association with the Phantom of the Opera and his fictional descendants: there’s just something about the full organ’s portentous sound and the gloomy atmosphere of the Gothic cathedral that goes hand in hand with cobwebs and candlelight, so expect to hear many renditions of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (or at least the opening bars) during October.  The organ, nicknamed “the king of instruments,” also fits nicely with the popular association of criminal masterminds with classical music: we like our villains to have refined taste, whether played by Vincent Price or Anthony Hopkins.  In the same way, the organist seated at his instrument, surrounded by ranks of keyboards, pedals, and organ stops ready at his command, is a neat visual shorthand for a master manipulator, sitting at the center of a web, controlling everything around him.  (In at least one case, the direct-to-video Disney sequel Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, the organ is the villain, conniving to make others to do its will even though it cannot move from its place.)

Lon Chaney, Sr. in the 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera

Lon Chaney, Sr. in the 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera

Brian De Palma's 1974 update, Phantom of the Paradise

Brian De Palma’s 1974 update, Phantom of the Paradise

The violin, on the other hand, is often associated with the Devil, as in such pieces of music as Danse Macabre, L’Histoire du Soldat, and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”  In folk tales, the Devil enjoys wagers, betting his own gold fiddle against the souls of his opponents.  He may also bestow musical talent in exchange for a soul, a prominent part of the myth surrounding Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata. Later, the great Italian virtuoso Niccolò Paganini was the subject of lurid rumors that he had sold his soul, and worse: Theosophy founder Madame Helena Blavatsky included Paganini in her story “The Ensouled Violin,” and graphically embroidered on the notion that the strings of Paganini’s violin were made from human intestine, and that his uncanny ability to mimic the human voice with his playing actually came from a spirit trapped within the instrument.

A similar story is part of the mythology of the Blues: Robert Johnson was supposed to have met the Devil at a crossroads at midnight, where he traded his soul for his legendary guitar-playing ability.  The legend formed the basis of the Ralph Macchio film Crossroads and was parodied on Metalocalypse (in the episode “Bluesklok”).  Interestingly, Elijah Wald, in his book Escaping the Delta, has shown that the same story was originally attributed to a Tommy Johnson and then transferred to Robert when his legend outpaced Tommy’s.  Naturally, the whole thing has roots in folklore: Wald points out, “When Harry Middleton Hyatt collected stories of musicians going to the crossroads to gain supernatural skills, as part of a vast study of Southern folk beliefs in the late 1930s, he reported as many banjo players and violinists as guitarists,” as well as an accordionist.

Why is there such a connection between fiddling and death?  In the Middle Ages, instrumental music was considered both profane and frivolous, closely associated with itinerant, always-suspect actors and minstrels and the drunken singers in taverns.  In depictions of Death (usually as a skeleton, the same as now), musical instruments were often a symbol of the sinfulness, vanity, and futility of all human activity, not just music.  (The popular image of Nero “fiddling while Rome burned” probably owes much to this symbolism, as the violin had yet to be invented in Nero’s day; likewise, contrast the supposed indolence of grasshoppers with the industry of ants.)   The image of a grinning skeleton “playing” his victims into the grave may have struck the medieval viewer as cruel irony, a just punishment, or as a warning.

The medieval dance of death.

According to one author, the connection between the violin and mortality was more than just poetic: in 2006, Rohan Kriwaczek published An Incomplete History of The Art of Funerary Violin.  According to Kriwaczek, there had once been a Guild of Funerary Violinists, whose work, repertoire, and indeed their very existence had been suppressed by the Vatican during the Great Funerary Purges of the 1830s and ‘40s.  After 1846, the few remaining members of the Guild went underground, and Kriwaczek, eventually entrusted with their legacy, was able to piece together this secret history and bring it to the public. Kriwaczek describes the Funerary Violinist as playing a potent intercessionary role:

In his tone the violinist must first convey the deep grief that is present in the gathering, and then transform it into a thing of beauty.  By the time he is finished, a deep and plaintive calm should have descended, and the bereaved should be ready to hear the eulogy. . . . The violinist’s is a position of great responsibility, akin in many ways to that of a priest or shaman, and should not be taken lightly.

Alas, the book was a hoax, supposedly concocted by Kriwaczek to increase his bookings as a violinist at—you guessed it—funerals.  Still, I can’t help but feel that Kriwaczek’s story, with its dueling Funerary Violinists, buried secrets, and cameos from outsized characters including composers, Popes, and virtuosi, would make a smashing TV program, a historical saga with more than a touch of gothic intrigue.

Sometimes the instrument is cursed: in the short “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” by the master of the English ghost story M. R. James, it’s an ancient bronze whistle (proving that another James title, “A Warning to the Curious,” could equally apply to almost all his stories):

He blew tentatively and stopped suddenly, startled and yet pleased at the note he had elicited. It had a quality of infinite distance in it, and, soft as it was, he somehow felt it must be audible for miles round. It was a sound, too, that seemed to have the power (which many scents possess) of forming pictures in the brain. He saw quite clearly for a moment a vision of a wide, dark expanse at night, with a fresh wind blowing, and in the midst a lonely figure–how employed, he could not tell. Perhaps he would have seen more had not the picture been broken by the sudden surge of a gust of wind against his casement, so sudden that it made him look up, just in time to see the white glint of a sea-bird’s wing somewhere outside the dark panes.

Just as frequently it’s a MacGuffin that activates the plot: a Stradivarius is as valuable as a van Gogh, and serves as well as any other objet d’art as the motivation in a murder mystery.  An example is the three-quarter sized Strad, the Piccolino, at the center of Gerald Elias’ mystery Devil’s Trill, the first of a series centered on violinist-sleuth Daniel Jacobus.  And despite its unusual varnish, the titular instrument of the 1998 film The Red Violin is haunted more by tragedy and human foibles than by any supernatural evil.

The weaponized instrument is an infrequent literary device, but there are a few examples: the murder in Dame Ngaio Marsh’s Overture to Death is accomplished by a revolver hidden inside an upright piano, rigged to fire when the pianist plays the third chord of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor, a Rube Goldberg arrangement that sounds about as practical in real life as this:

Likewise, it doesn’t seem that it would be that hard to escape the vengeance meted out by the grand piano in “Mr. Steinway,” a section of the 1967 anthology film Torture Garden, based on stories by Robert Bloch.  In the story, the piano in question belongs to a prominent virtuoso, a gift from his mother, and his devotion to it is tested when a young lady (played by Barbara Ewing) enters his life.  The black wing shape of the piano is a looming presence in the film version, always in the background or casting its shadow over the doomed couple, and the Oedipal implications of the pianist’s relationship with his mother, never seen but personified by the piano, are left as unspoken subtext.  So far, so good, but by the time the piano lurches into motion and pushes the intruding girl out the window, we’ve entered the realm of delirious high camp.  The lesson: music is a jealous mistress.

Finally, as a bonus, I present one of the most bizarre (and gratuitous) examples of this trope, from the 1976 film The Town That Dreaded Sundown: death by trombone.  Happy Halloween!


Play (virtual) Ball!

In honor of the World Series—go Cards!—I thought I’d take a look at a few ways the game of baseball has been translated into America’s other national pastime: video games!  There have been so many different adaptations of baseball that I’m limiting myself to a very unscientific survey of a few baseball video games I happened to already have in my collection (what, you expect research?).  If you want more, check out the link at the end of the article.

Intellivision Lives! gave me two opportunities to play that console’s baseball games, but they turned out to be very similar: World Championship Baseball was an upgrade of Intellivision’s original Baseball of 1978, reprogrammed to take advantage of the increased memory on the system’s later cartridges.  The original version only supported two-player games, so I played a few innings with both controllers in hand, pitching, hitting, fielding, and running the bases like a chess player taking both sides of the board.  The later version allowed one-player games, with the computer taking a side; it even allowed zero-player games, so I could watch the computer take on itself, endlessly running its routines, just like in WarGames. 

Intellivision Baseball

Intellivision Baseball

The superiority of Intellivision’s version to Atari’s was a cornerstone of Intellivision’s ad campaign, and it does look good: the entire field can be seen, and the players are recognizably humanoid, with little running legs (and a catcher’s squat when at rest).  If anything, the player is given too much control, down to the catcher’s responsibility to return the ball to the pitcher after a play, and with the entire field on screen, the player controlling the pitching team has to be able to switch control quickly from one fielder to another, while the runner has the advantage of a much narrower range of options.  Unsurprisingly, the batting side ran up the score quickly, but at least I could take credit for both sides’ performance.  (Playing with the Intellivision’s controllers surely would have helped: this was one of several games that came with inserts that could be placed over the number pad, so instead of remembering which number to press for a given play, you could press “Bunt” or “Second Base” or whatever was needed.)



Several different baseball games were available for the Atari 2600, from the very primitive (the inspiration for the parody box cover Every Sport Ever in Pong Form) to games that squeezed every last drop of power out of the console. An example of the latter is Pete Rose Baseball (1988, very late in the Atari’s lifespan; okay, a little research went into this) for the Atari by Activision, a company formed by Atari programmers who went off on their own when they became disillusioned with the inequality between Atari’s profits and their own small paychecks and low status within the company.  As soon as they established there was no legal or technical barrier to releasing their own third-party software they were off (incidentally opening the door to dozens of other companies flooding the market with games).  (I played the Gameboy Advance port, retitled simply Baseball for obvious reasons, found on the Activision Anthology.)

Pete Rose? Never heard of him

Pete who? Never heard of him.

A challenge for any version of baseball is the independence of the players on the field.  There are routines, and patterns, but not formations: each player has a role and must be able to execute it, and in addition to the challenge of computer A. I. there is the question of giving control of these independent actors to the player.  Activision’s Baseball (programmed by Alex DeMeo: crediting programmers with a byline was both part of the company’s marketing and a contrast to the anonymity of Atari’s practice) gets around this problem by not showing the entire field at once.  Six different “TV-like” views of parts of the field are shown, allowing close-up control of the pitcher and batter and limiting the fielders onscreen to only four at a time.  When fielding, the player can choose which team member to control by aiming the joystick and pressing the fire button: it takes a little getting used to but becomes automatic quickly, and strikes me as a reasonably elegant solution given the limited control scheme of the Atari.  The pitcher and batter have quite a few options, and the player has enough control that skill really matters: the first inning I pitched, the computer scored thirteen runs off me—suddenly I was the Dodgers, and the computer was the Cardinals.  (I should also note the sound effects: the game begins with the last few notes of the national anthem, and a square-wave “organ” periodically plays between at-bats; after a play, the “crowd” roars, actually modulated white noise similar to the countdown to Armageddon heard at the end of every Missile Command game.)  Over all, it’s not a bad effort for a console with well-known programming constraints.

Neither the Intellivision nor Atari games offer any variety in the lineup, just interchangeable hitters and fielders.  Jumping ahead a few console generations (I told you this wouldn’t be comprehensive!), the increased power gave players the chance to manage by assembling a dream team and maximizing the effectiveness of the batting order.  I wouldn’t call it realistic, but Mario Superstar Baseball for the Gamecube has both character and strategy in spades.  Like all the Mario sports spin-offs, it’s a somewhat simplified version of the real sport with Nintendo’s extensive cast of characters as the players, and with the addition of power-ups and hazards from the Mario platformers. For example, when Mario is pitching, he has the option to throw a fireball; Chain Chomps and Piranha Plants catch unwary outfielders, and so on.  In Exhibition Game mode you’re free to choose your roster from all the available characters, each of whom have their own strengths and weaknesses (as designated everyman, Mario is the best all-around player; “name” characters have their own personality and specialties, with goombas, shy guys and other background characters filling out the rosters.) In Challenge Mode, you start as one of five team captains (Mario, Peach, Donkey Kong, Yoshi, and Wario) and play the other captains’ teams in succession: beating them gives you the option to recruit players from their line up, something that is essential to beat Bowser in the championship game. There are six different ball parks, reflecting the personalities of the team captains; only Mario’s could be considered “standard:” Princess Peach’s park includes floating question mark boxes which, if hit by the ball, reveal bonus stars (which in turn can be used for power-ups); Bowser’s park is set inside an active volcano, so outfielders can be thrown off by periodic earthquakes or follow a ball into open lava pits.

Donkey Kong unleashes his "Banana Ball" pitch in Mario Superstar Baseball

Donkey Kong unleashes his “Banana Ball” pitch in Mario Superstar Baseball

Unlike the other baseball games covered here, the outfield has an advantage, although the computer A. I. still sometimes makes baffling misdirections.  Just as in the real game, pitching makes a big difference in MSB, so I like to use Peach and Waluigi, the two best pitchers; they’ll even get tired if you keep them in too long, so you have the option to swap positions mid-game.  As you can tell, this is one I come back to frequently; it has a great soundtrack and they get the characters right, and the game is just streamlined enough, but the bottom line, I guess, is that I like my sports simulations to have a touch of fantasy.  Mario Superstar Baseball was followed by Mario Super Sluggers for Wii, and a sequel for the Wii U has been announced.

And if that’s not enough, here’s three and a half minutes of virtual baseball over the years:

Maybe I’ll get to some of them in a follow-up column; in the mean time, share your favorite video baseball in the comments!

The Ups and Downs of the “Fashionable Foghorn:” Orphans of the Orchestra, Part Two

In 1925, violinist Ernest LaPrade wrote a charming children’s book entitled Alice in Orchestralia, in which a young girl travels to a magical land of talking musical instruments.  Although obviously modeled on Alice in Wonderland, the book is in the didactic tradition of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, introducing young readers to the standard instruments of the orchestra and their roles.  (In fact, one could easily imagine Alice in Orchestralia being turned into a narrative concert piece like Peter, with the only drawback being that the book features even less plot than the similar Tubby the Tuba.)

At one point, Alice encounters a lonely outsider camping at a fork in the road between the villages of the woodwinds and brasses:

“Why do [the brass] turn you out?” she asked.

“They claim I’m a wood-wind instrument, because I’ve got a reed like a clarinet, and they say I ought to go and live in Panopolis.”

“Then why don’t you?”

“Oh, I’ve tried to, time and again, but it’s no use.  The wood-wind instruments say I belong in Brassydale, because my body is made of brass.  So at last I got this tent and pitched it here, halfway between the two villages.  It’s damp and rather lonely, but at least they can’t turn me out of it.”

After a little more discussion, the loner reveals that his name is Saxophone.

Alice in Orchestralia, illustration by Carroll C. Snell

Alice in Orchestralia, illustration by Carroll C. Snell

Nowadays, there is little dispute that the saxophone is a genuine woodwind instrument (using historian Curt Sachs’ terminology, a “single reed aerophone,” like the clarinet), the method of sound production being more important than the material from which the body is made.  In fact, if the saxophone’s metal construction were truly disqualifying, one would also have to evict the metal clarinets and oboes that have been experimented with over the years, not to mention the flute.

There is also no question that the saxophone (or rather saxophones, in several sizes) has earned its place as a recognizable and easily available instrument, at least the sizes in common use.  Unlike the ophicleide it is hardly obscure, and unlike the harpsichord it has never really gone away since its invention.

Still, the saxophone’s dual nature has been problematic since Adolphe Sax patented it in Paris in 1846.  Most texts point out that Sax combined the clarinet’s single reed with the oboe’s conical bore, resulting in an easy-to-blow woodwind with a simplified fingering (the clarinet’s cylindrical bore causes it to overblow at the twelfth rather than the octave, resulting in a more complicated fingering pattern); historian Anthony Baines, however, speculates that Sax may have hit upon this combination by attaching a bass clarinet mouthpiece to an ophicleide—both instruments were specialties of his shop—creating a true woodwind-brass hybrid.  Likewise, its brass construction and wide bell give it a powerful tone that blends equally well with brass or woodwinds, so it’s not unreasonable to consider it a bridge between the two groups.

The saxophone was initially developed with the military band in mind, and it was quickly adopted by the French authorities for that use.  However, the qualities that made it perfect for bands—its volume, its distinctive timbre—have made it only an occasional visitor to the orchestra as a special color, despite Hector Berlioz’s enthusiastic prediction that it—or rather, an entire section of them—would become a regular part of the orchestra of the future.  (It’s often forgotten, in fact, that Sax’s original design included two families: a group in the “band” keys of B-flat and E-flat, and a group in C and F for orchestral use.  Of the second group, the C “melody” saxophone, a tenor that allowed sax players to read from scores in concert pitch, survived the longest but was out of production by the middle of the twentieth century.)

One could easily be led to believe that the saxophone’s adoption by jazz bands in the early twentieth century led to its increased popularity, but the opposite appears to be true, at least in the earliest days of jazz.  Concurrent with the rise of jazz was a fad for saxophones (and other “novelty” wind instruments) on the Vaudeville stage, led by such groups as the Six Brown Brothers (who were active from about World War I until 1933). The saxophone became (along with the banjo) a symbol of student life, as necessary to depictions of 1920s college students as the raccoon-skin coat and football pennant, and a musical shorthand equivalent to the bongos in the beatnik ‘50s or sitar in the psychedelic ‘60s.

Bringing Up Father, 1936

Bringing Up Father, 1936

Manufacturers responded to the instrument’s popularity with a number of short-lived saxophone variants, some (like the slide saxophone) little more than novelties and others simply straightened out standard saxes.  Of greater interest is the “Conn-O-Sax,” a straight F alto with a resonating bulb on the bell, and clearly positioned as a single-reed alternative to the English horn.  The Conn-O-Sax was only made in 1929 and 1930, and examples are now very rare and highly collectible, but it has been adopted by some jazz players and shows like Saxophobia, which specializes in demonstrating a wide variety of old and new saxes.  It is a unique instrument, and it seems that there would be a market for a modern reproduction, or perhaps even a revival by the Conn company.


When the saxophone was heard in jazz of the 1920s, it was most frequently a soprano replacing clarinet or cornet, or bass, replacing the tuba or string bass.  There just wasn’t room for the alto or tenor to play in the improvisatory New Orleans style without stepping on either the cornet or trombone line.  (It is for this reason that the tenor saxophone included in much post-World War II “Dixieland” sounds especially inauthentic.) It wasn’t until jazz migrated to Chicago and New York that a fad for oddball instrumental combinations, at least on record (including such eccentricities as the “goofus,” a kind of melodica*, and even “swing harp”—orchestral harp, that is, not harmonica), made room for the saxophone as a lead instrument.

Exceptions include the larger bands fielded by King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson and the “symphonic jazz” of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, but in those groups arrangements became more necessary to corral the larger numbers of players.  The differentiation between soloist and accompaniment is clearer, foreshadowing the swing style of the 1930s.  The saxophone’s presence thus became a dividing line between “hot” and “sweet” players, and between New Orleans purists and fans of the coming swing era: some of the harshest criticisms come from jazz historian Rudi Blesh, who as late as 1946 bemoans the replacement of the trombone with the saxophone in the Chicago style in his New Orleans-centric history Shining Trumpets: “For even an inferior trombone breathes new life into the music which the fashionable foghorn, the saxophone, had murdered.”

The saxophone fad eventually gave way, as all fads must, but not before the association between the saxophone and jazz had become permanent.  Even before its versatility and technical fluency made it a natural vehicle for such giants as Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane, the saxophone became an internationally recognized symbol, embraced by energetic youth and reviled by totalitarian governments.  It’s no wonder: the saxophone may have started out with the body of an ophicleide or bass clarinet, but its shape is unique: in profile it makes a perfect logo.  As Czech novelist Josef Škvorecký writes in his essay Red Music, both the Nazis and the Soviets sought to root out the saxophone (replacing it with the cello in most cases), but for opposite reasons: to the Nazis the saxophone’s association with an African-American musical form made it musically suspect (even before that, Germany had been one of the few nations to exclude the sax from its military bands); to the Soviets the hybrid nature of the instrument was somehow “bourgeois,” not of the people.  Ultimately the saxophone has outlasted both of them.

* A favorite solo instrument of Adrian Rollini, who was also known as the “Wizard of the Bass Sax.” Rollini was truly a renaissance man of offbeat instruments.

Orphans of the Orchestra, Part One


Pictured above is an ophicleide, an obsolete wind instrument from the early nineteenth century.  It was played with a cup-shaped mouthpiece like a modern brass instrument, its length comparable to that of a trombone or euphonium, but instead of valves it had fingerholes and mechanical keys like a woodwind.  The ophicleide was just one of several instruments built along these lines, including the keyed bugle and the picturesque serpent (which predated the ophicleide as the bass member of the family: “ophicleide” actually means “keyed serpent,” in fact).  They filled the need for loud brass instruments that could play chromatic pitches instead of the limited range of notes available to “natural” brass like the bugle or hunting horn, especially in outdoor settings.  Before the invention of valves in the nineteenth century, only the trombone had such a capability.  The keyed brass filled that niche, but imperfectly: when the side-holes were opened, the acoustics of the instrument were compromised, and the sound was something like a tuba springing a leak.  Once valves were perfected and widely manufactured, it was all over for the keyed brass: the ophicleide gave way to the tuba, the keyed bugle to the cornet.

The nineteenth century was a period of great upheaval in instrument design.  In general, the era was dominated by both invention and improvements to existing instruments, sometimes defined as updating historical instruments to fit the demands of new music and the giant concert halls in which it was performed.  Violins dating from the seventeenth century were frequently rebuilt with longer necks and fingerboards to increase the string tension (and thus volume); bridges were raised; the square bow replaced the old curved bow, again in the name of greater focus and projection; gut strings were replaced with more reliable metal wound strings.  Changes like that were largely invisible if one were only examining scores; the advance of musical technique on the players’ part would be obvious, but it was still possible to play the music of Bach or Corelli on the updated strings. In the case of Bach, his music had been largely unknown until its revival by Felix Mendelssohn and others in the early nineteenth century, so there was little concern that modern performances wouldn’t sound like they had in his day.  In any case, it was common to rationalize that Bach would have taken advantage of modern developments if they had been available to him: it wasn’t called the century of progress for nothing.

Still, as tempting as it was (and often still is) to think of music in evolutionary terms, “survival of the fittest” didn’t always mean what its proponents thought it did.  Technological superiority didn’t always lead to success in the marketplace or long-term artistic change.  We often describe the sections of the orchestra as instrumental families, and a historical chart of instruments’ development very much resembles a family or evolutionary tree. In the case of music, however, the “environment” to which technological innovations respond include cultural attitudes, aesthetics and in some cases the whims of artists.  It can take years for new inventions to find a foothold, or perhaps they never do at all.  As with any other technology, the history of musical instruments is one of invention and innovation colliding with social use and craft tradition.  Change is often slow, and the repertoire composed for an instrument may be enough to keep it in use despite acknowledged difficulties.  Just as some argue that Betamax was superior to VHS, or that the QWERTY keyboard wasn’t necessarily the best arrangement for typewriter keyboards, instruments are adopted and thrive for reasons that sometimes go beyond their utility.

The double chromatic harp, a design that failed to catch on. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

The double chromatic harp, a design that failed to catch on. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is especially true in the orchestra.  New instrumental technology is sometimes rejected for being too radical; I won’t generalize about the conservatism of musicians, but suffice it to say that most classical musicians have a deep, lifelong investment in the traditions of their instrument, as well as the literature and institutions of concert music.  Changes in the way those instruments are played do occur, but only after long and careful evaluation, sometimes over generations, and frequently dividing performers over the worth of competing methods.

More importantly, styles change, and sounds that are valued in one era become tiresome or obnoxious to the next.  During the middle ages in Europe, for example, double reed instruments and bagpipes were very prominent.  Trumpets, their bells decorated to look like dragons or other beasts, often had tongues soldered into the bell that would vibrate when played, giving an extra buzz to the sound.  Some of the prominence of double reeds is due to their relative volume—even into the classical period they were among the loudest instruments available, especially for outdoor performance—but there was clearly an aesthetic that favored the bright and nasal, and the use of sympathetic vibration fit well with simple drone-based harmonies.

It’s unwise to count an instrument out too soon: by the end of the nineteenth century, the harpsichord was considered dead, replaced by the piano, and there was nothing unusual about performing the music of J. S. Bach on a twelve-foot grand piano.  Gradually, the harpsichord returned to prominence as the “early music” movement took hold, and not only as a vehicle for historically correct performance: new works were composed for it that took advantage of its dry, tinkling sound (a sound which, not coincidentally, now fit the reigning neoclassical sound better than it had fit the sumptuous and overpowering orchestration of the romantic era).  Even so, the earliest proponents of the harpsichord carried with them assumptions born of the nineteenth century.  Wanda Landowska, a vocal proponent of original intent (“You play Bach your way, and I will play it Bach’s way,” she once said) performed on an iron-frame harpsichord built for her by piano manufacturer Pleyel, and the sound is correspondingly huge, fit for the kind of large concert halls that Bach never knew, but which were standard by the beginning of the twentieth century.

In the end, one of the few composers to use the ophicleide extensively was Hector Berlioz, who included them in his Symphonie Fantastique and other scores.  (Berlioz was an early adopter, enthusiastically seizing on new and improved instruments to expand his orchestral palette; perhaps tellingly, Berlioz was one of the few Romantic composers who was not himself a virtuoso with a strong investment in the established order; like Wagner, he made the entire orchestra his instrument.) The parts are generally played on tubas without sacrificing much of Berlioz’s vision.  However, hearing the Dies Irae section of the Symphonie played on ophicleides, as in this recording made by John Eliot Gardiner with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, makes it clear that there is still a difference.  Such instruments may be historical curiosities, but they need not be forgotten entirely.

In my next installment, I’ll take a look at an instrument that exemplifies many of my above points about invention and tradition: the saxophone.

Piano-Playing Pair Provides Powerful Performance: I review the Wichita Symphony

Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2; Poulenc: Concerto for Two Pianos; Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring


I’m happy to say that there were quite a few younger people at Saturday’s Wichita Symphony Orchestra concert, but there were enough empty seats that there is room for more. Perhaps they were persuaded by the WSO’s aggressive new ad campaign (I’m particularly taken by the suggestion that activities like jai alai will help audiences prepare for the heart-pounding excitement of a symphony concert); I saw several take advantage of the WSO’s $5 student rush tickets (one of the best-kept entertainment secrets in town).  Either way, I’m not inclined to blame them for the repeated interruptions from cell phones during the concert; in my experience, older concertgoers are equally likely to forget to turn them down.  I don’t believe the concert hall should be a mausoleum: Century II has already made the decision to allow food and drink in the hall during performances, probably in the interest of creating a more welcoming environment, and I’m sure it helps the bottom line.  Even so, one could sense the audience’s frustration when Maestro Daniel Hege waited for the ringtones to stop before beginning The Rite of Spring (the concert’s second half), and one still started chirping during the lightly scored woodwind introduction.  At best it’s an annoyance to other patrons; it worst it can interfere with the performance itself. It’s not a lack of education, or the influx of newcomers to the Symphony, it’s simple mindfulness: if the Warren Theatres can police cell phone use at the movies for the sake of a better experience, surely a live music venue can do the same.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote for The Wichita Eagle.

What shape is a trumpet? (and other questions)

The real question is, where I am going to find cases for these things?


The instrument at the top is a mellophone, a simplified substitute for the orchestral horn, once commonly used in bands to play the alto part.  (Instruments nowadays called “mellophones” are acoustically similar but wrapped differently, more like a bugle, or as we used to joke in high school marching band, “a pregnant trumpet.”)  The second instrument was once shaped like the one on the left, but was converted to its current bell-front configuration by a family friend.  It belonged to my uncle, a trumpet player, and was passed on to me.

The outward forms of brass instruments can be changed like this because of the simplicity of their construction (compared to the mechanical keywork of a woodwind instrument, for example) and because, acoustically, the tubing can be curved in many different ways without changing the basic sound of the instrument (up to a point: in general, the more bends there are in the tubing, and the tighter they are, the “stuffier” the horn will sound; unless there is a compelling need for a more compact shape, instrument manufacturers try to use an “open wrap” with as few bends as necessary).  The malleability of brass (not a single metal, but an alloy of copper and zinc, usually combined with smaller amounts of other metals such as nickel or gold) also makes it possible to be worked by hand with the right tools.

I’ve known a number of instrument technicians (repairmen), and converting or otherwise customizing horns is something most of them have done.  Like auto mechanics, it’s hard for them to resist the temptation to soup up or experiment on cast-off parts in hopes of building a hot rod.  Boredom can also be a factor: one technician I knew who served in the armed forces told me that a favorite prank on the base was to get the lead trumpeter’s instrument and surreptitiously remove its support braces, then slip it back in to his case.  It wasn’t impossible to play, but much less stable and comfortable, and it was always a memorable break from dull routine, especially if it was before a performance or review!

What really affects the tone of a brass instrument is whether the tube is mostly the same diameter (cylindrical) before expanding into the bell, or widens gradually throughout its length (conical).  This is the “bore profile” of the instrument, and it is the same no matter what shape the tube is bent into.  Brass with a cylindrical bore, like trumpets and trombones, are more penetrating in sound; conical-bore instruments, such as horns and bugles, are mellower.  Cornets, which are partially cylindrical and partially conical, have a sound that falls somewhere in between.  (The width of the bore also plays a role, and is in fact the primary difference between the three B-flat instruments marked “Tenor,” “Baritone,” and “Bass” in the following illustration–they are the same length but sound and play somewhat differently; there is no room for discussion here, but the nomenclature of low brass instruments has always had the potential for confusion.)

Brass available in both configurations, from The Music Men by Margaret Hindle Hazen and Robert M. Hazen

Brass available in both configurations, from The Music Men by Margaret Hindle Hazen and Robert M. Hazen

During the nineteenth century, the “golden age of brass,” a wide variety of different forms were tried out, some born of functional necessity and others out of the search for novelty.  Brass instruments were often designed in “families” that followed the same pattern, from the high E-flat cornet to the BB-flat “monster” bass tuba.  One of the most famous images of Civil War music is the “over the shoulder” brass band, with instruments that literally pointed backward, so that marching soldiers could hear them when the band marched or rode on horseback at the front of a formation.  After the war, over the shoulder horns continued to be used, but were gradually displaced by “bell front” or “bell up” instruments closer to the forms in use today.  (Note the use of rotary valves on the over the shoulder instruments; rotary valves are rarely seen on American instruments nowadays, with the obvious exception of the orchestral horn.)

Another pattern that was once widespread is the “helicon” or circular wrap, which went around the musician’s shoulder or wrapped around their torso like the modern Sousaphone, the only helicon instrument still in common use. (Contrary to popular belief, Sousa’s innovation was not the wrap-around shape, but the decision to enlarge the bell, at first pointing straight up, and later angled to point forward, for a more directed sound.)

One of the more eccentric shapes was conceived by Louis Schreiber of New York, who formed his “Schreiber horn” into a teardrop with an S-shaped bell.  (According to Schreiber’s 1867 patent, he justified his new shape partially on ergonomic grounds, with the weight of the bell resting on the player’s shoulder.)  Again, an entire family of Schreiber horns was created, although it didn’t last long and examples are now quite rare.


Musician with Schreiber horn, ca. 1870, from The Music Men

Musician with Schreiber horn, ca. 1870, from The Music Men

And that’s to say nothing of the famous double-bell euphonium, another innovation that has come and gone.  Such experimentation is now the exception: as far as the big instrument companies go, there is less room for innovation in the basic shapes of the instruments, even as a great deal of research (including computer modeling) and quality control that would have been unimaginable a hundred years ago goes into refining acoustic and mechanical properties.

David G. Monette has been a notable example of the artisanal approach, designing and building custom trumpets (most famously for Wynton Marsalis and other jazz greats) while pouring the fruits of his custom work into his instrument lines, much in the same way innovations in concept cars eventually turn up in the regular models.  Monette’s innovations include the “integral” or built-in mouthpiece and his instruments have an organic, art nouveau-influenced form.  Monette has also continued the nineteenth century tradition of crafting beautiful instruments to honor great musicians, or in the case of the Elysian Trumpet for New Orleans, to memorialize tragedy.  While Monette’s designs are available to a wider market than they once were, even expanding to a student line of mouthpieces, Monette remains a boutique brand when compared to the industry giants.

Elysian Trumpet by David G. Monette and Tami Dean

Elysian Trumpet by David G. Monette and Tami Dean

On the real fringes are the experimentalists who aren’t concerned with perfecting or customizing existing instruments at all, but use them as raw material for art in which the instrument and the performance are one.  As an example, jazz musician and horn sculptor Mark Southerland of Kansas City builds his own instruments (as well as work which is purely sculptural) from scrap parts for use in live performances that include elements of improvisation, ritual, and multimedia.  Southerland is a saxophonist, so his playable sculptures are actually woodwinds, but crossbred with borrowed trumpet and horn bells: they are true hybrids.  He follows in the footsteps of such free jazz pioneers as Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who modified his instruments so that he could play three saxophones at once.  Southerland’s work is qualitatively different from the nineteenth century inventors like Schreiber or modern artisans like Monette, closer in spirit to the found-object transformations of outsider art or the process of discovery undertaken by electronic circuit-benders.

Brass instruments aren’t the easiest article to collect; making them the medium of your art is even more challenging.  But all the examples I’ve given above started with a tactile, manual approach to music-making; even a factory-made instrument involves an enormous amount of assembly and finishing by hand.  For those who combine their musical sensibilities with an urge to tinker, creating a one-of-a-kind instrument can be uniquely satisfying, whether it’s as straightforward as a modified lead pipe or as exotic as a double-belled metallic flower.