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.