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.

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.