Period Instruments and Performance

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

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During the nineteenth century there was clearly a great revolution in instrument making. Actually, a number of these changes had been slowly taking place over the course of a century or so, especially with the string instruments. However, the style of music in the late 18th century probably had some affect on the evolution of the instruments of the orchestra. Extreme contrasts of dynamics were called for 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 increased dynamic range, I have faith that it was not the only factor.

There were another reason for the nineteenth century preoccupation with increasing the dynamics of instruments. Audiences were getting larger and concert halls were getting larger in order to accommodate these larger audiences. Orchestras was required to produce a greater number of sound to fill the new concert halls. Making orchestras larger was not really the answer. Larger orchestras have a problem playing fast tempi with precision. This is why Beethoven preferred a forty-piece orchestra for his symphonies when he could have had them performed by a sixty-piece orchestra. The selection between using a large or small orchestra to perform a given composition, obviously, boils down to how big the string section is. The amount of woodwinds and brass depends on the score, however you can have as big or as small a string section as you desire. The standard orchestra in the late eighteenth century consists of: 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 a couple flutes. By 1800 two clarinets had also become a standard part of the orchestra. What will happen is a discussion difference between modern orchestral instruments along with their earlier counterparts, by having an emphasis on the development of the string instruments.

The Violin

First thing I would like to discuss may be the violin bow. The initial violin bow, if the instrument was fist introduced by Amati, in 1550, was shaped about like a hunting bow. It were built with a pronounced arch into it, and the hairs quite slack. The tension of the hairs was controlled by subtle movements of the bowing hand. This got easy to bow all four strings at the same time, a treadmill at a time when necessary. When the player wanted to bow three or four strings, he would slacken the bow hairs a little. When he wanted to bow one or two, he would increase the tension a bit. This type of bow had changed little from the time of Bach.

Another thing that made it easier to bow all strings at once, was the reality that the bridge wasn't quite as arched as what modern violin, thus putting the strings closer to being in the same plane. On a modern violin, one can bow three strings simultaneously, however it is difficult to do this without giving greater pressure, and for that reason greater loudness, to the string in between another two. Modern violinists ought to sort of fake it, whenever they play Bach's sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin. When Bach necessitates four notes to get played simultaneously, the player of a modern violin will rapidly slowly move the bow, one string at any given time, causing the notes to get heard in rapid succession, one by one, closing approximating the sound that particular would get from bowing all four notes at once. Around the violin of Bach's day, it wasn't necessary, because bow could be easily moved across all four strings simultaneously.

The violin bow underwent a gradual change throughout the 18th century, becoming less and less arched. After the eighteenth century a male named Tourte created a new kind of bow. This bow actually curved slightly toward the hairs, as an alternative 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. Using this new bow, a competent violinist could make the change from upbow to down bow almost imperceptible. It turned out perfectly suited to the newest style of music, with its broad, sweeping melodic lines. Exactly the same reasons that make the Tourte bow very well suited for nineteenth century music make it somewhat unsuitable for 18th 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 as the string was approached by either end in the bow. This is actually a benefit when performing baroque music, featuring its highly articulated phrasing and lean texture. That old baroque bow allowed more how to go about shaping a note. Using the Tourte bow, it is challenging to shorten a note without making it sound chopped off. With most baroque music, it really is 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 can be easier to hear each of the individual lines if each player does not smoothly connect her or his notes, but allows a certain amount of "space" between them. This is possible on a modern violin, but comes naturally using a baroque violin.

The body of the violin went through major changes in the middle of the nineteenth century. A chin rest was added by Louis Spohr at the outset of the nineteenth century, producing a whole new technique of playing. The strings were made thicker, and eventually were wound with metal, the sound post appeared thicker, the bass bar appeared thicker and stronger, and even more tension was placed on the strings. Using the thicker strings, the bow has to be drawn over the strings with a lot more pressure in order to get them to vibrate, but the sound is much louder. The neck, rather than coming straight out of the belly, was glued on within an angle, which makes the angle of the strings across the bridge more acute.

These changes resulted in a tremendous loss of overtones, resulting in a much dryer sound. For this reason the old baroque violin has a real sweet, pretty sound, than the modern violin. Here is the price that was paid in order to increase the volume of the instrument. Using the new instrument, dynamics took over as dominant means of achieving various expression, while nuances of articulation were the primary 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 using vibrato, a technique, which was only used sparingly, simply for special effect, three hundred years ago.

Eighteenth century books on violin playing, including the one by Leopold Mozart, reveal that vibrato should be used to add spice to a note. Vibrato is the daily bread and butter with 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 within the baroque period and is designed to imitate the tremulant in organs.

In the center of the nineteenth century great instruments built from the great masters of old, such as Stradivari, Gaunari, and Stainer, to name the three most important, were separated and rebuilt in an effort to make them like the newer violins. Many of them literally broke in 2 from the strain. There are no instruments built with the great masters, which have not been rebuilt, some of them many times over. For me this is a great tragedy.

Everything that has been said above in regards to the violin is also largely the case with the viola and cello. The bass violin stood a somewhat different history. In Germany, in the eighteenth century, a three stringed bass was widely used. The Germans learned that a bass just three strings, stood a beautiful, more pure sound than a single with four. However, the more versatile four string bass become the norm and the three string bass became obsolete.


The woodwinds also underwent a whole makeover in the nineteenth century. The taper from the internal bore also was changed. This resulted in a louder instrument having a different timbre than the genuine 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. In the current woodwind, all of the holes are closed by keys. Due to nature of the arrangement of the holes, and mostly because of the fact that they are closed directly with the fingers, each woodwind is readily 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 essential key of the instrument. The present day woodwinds, with the key mechanisms employed to cover the holes, as opposed to being covered directly through the finger tips, are just as fast to play in one key as with another. Besides equal easy playing in all keys, another important difference it that each note on a modern woodwind has just about the same timbre, while on a baroque woodwind, especially the flute, each tone will have a noticeably different timbre.

In the clarinet and oboe the internal bore was widened. The final bell of the clarinet became less flared. This triggered a different sound. The bassoon from the eighteenth century was constructed differently too, the visible difference being the walls of the instrument were thin enough to vibrate. It becomes an important difference. The laws of acoustics dictate how the timbre of a wind instrument is not affected by the material it 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, however the new bassoons were much louder.


The principle change in the brass instruments was the invention of valves which can be operated by pressing levers with the fingers. This made the instruments considerably more versatile. With the old brass instruments you had to change the tension of his lips to produce different notes, the sole notes being available is the ones of the harmonic overtones. Horn players employed short lengths of tubing called crooks. As a way to play in a different key, the horn player removed one crook and inserted another. This is a bit cumbersome and composers rarely wanted horn players to change crooks within a movement, though they often had to change crooks between movements.

Horn players in Mozart's day had worked out that they could change some text by a semitone by inserting their fist carefully into the end bell and holding it simply right. This gave them to be able to play things that they could not otherwise play, however this technique was used sparingly because of the difference in timbre of the not thus produced. The invention of valves gave all the brass much more versatility. Inside the late eighteenth century the trumpet was outfitted with one valve, which has been controlled by the thumb. This enabled the trumpet player to try out a lot more notes. It turned out this type of trumpet for which Josef Haydn composed his famous trumpet concerto. In the nineteenth century three valves which control the flow of air through sections of tubing were included with the trumpet, allowing the ball player much more versatility. The trombones, naturally did not need to be outfitted with valves simply because they always had a slide which changed the size of the vibrating column of air, thus changing the note.

The smaller internal bore from the old brass instruments gave them, well, no pun intended, a brassier sound. The trumpets had really a bite to their sound. The horns were somewhat harsh compared to the smooth sounding modern horn. The trombones had a slightly harsh edge for their sound compared to modern trombones.

Benefits and drawbacks

So which is better, the previous baroque instruments of modern ones? I can't think either is best. They are only different. The old instruments have a sweet sounding quality which will come through even in recordings. They're perfectly suited to the music activity of Bach and Handel. They are great on recordings but they will never have an important put in place the modern concert world his or her sound is too weak to fill a major concert hall. Even though it is possible to do justice to the music of Bach and Handel on modern instruments in the event the musicians have an intimate idea of the style, it would be sheer madness to experience Strauss or Debussy on baroque instruments.

When it comes to music of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, you can actually make the argument which it should be played about the same type of instruments they'd in their time, and perhaps certain aspects of their music purchased through more clearly about the old instruments. Yet it's also easy to argue that their music pushed the instruments of time to their limits, as well as beyond. Their music was revolutionary. It turned out ahead of its time in several ways, especially the music of Beethoven. How come we have to put up with the restrictions that were forced with 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 that produces the biggest difference, not the kind of instruments they are playing.