Music Post: Ghosts of Instruments Past

We never hear the basset-horn any more!

Music Post: Ghosts of Instruments Past
This painting is called “The Viola da Gamba,” though the focus appears to be on the voluptuous player whose bosom appears unaccountably dislodged by her playing. History does not record how the piece ended.

The symphony orchestra has changed mostly by growing, adding more and more instruments. Trombones, which had been around a long time, became prominent in the symphonies of Beethoven and the operas of Rossini. Valved French horns were the latest thing in Schumann’s day and quickly became indispensable. (Brahms preferred hand-stopped horns, however, and the particular sound of one can be a highlight of period performances.) The percussion section has grown enormously. Where Beethoven might have used only timpani and that sparingly, Prokofiev in his late symphonies would find some percussive sheen, shine or shellac to tack onto every melody.

Two once-ubiquitous stringed instruments have become museum pieces, novelties at any concert where they are played and displayed. The viola da gamba and viola d’amore vanished altogether in the 19thcentury, returning in the 20thas a consequence of renewed interest in trying to perform Renaissance and Baroque music the way it sounded in the Renaissance and Baroque ages.

I met a luthier in California who makes gambas and taught himself to play them. He was playing one at a county fair. “Hey,” I said when he finished, “was that John Dowland?” “Yes!” he replied, excited that someone would recognize a 16thcentury composer at a county fair. “And is that a gamba?” I asked. “Yes!!!” he exclaimed, excited that anyone would recognize a gamba anywhere at all. But once you’ve seen a picture of one (I had never seen one before except in pictures) it’s hard to miss. It looks like a viola played between the legs like a cello. Furthermore that’s more or less what it is. As a member of the viol family it’s related to the modern bass but not so much to the modern violin, viola or cello, and the tuning tends to be in fourths like the bass, and the shape is just different enough to affect the sound a bit. Viols often have one or two extra strings. Bach wrote music for gamba and harpsichord which in our own time has been reappearing in the original form. Vivaldi wrote many excellent pieces for gamba.

The viola d’amore (not “dah-MOH-ray,” but “dah-MOOR”) is played like a modern viola but is a flat-backed member of the viol family and has six strings, sometimes seven. Other strings underneath these are meant to vibrate sympathetically. Mozart’s father, in a textbook for strings that was widely-used in his day, said the viola d’amore sounded especially sweet “in the stillness of the night.”

Bernard Herrmann sometimes used a viola d’amore in his movie scores. Leoz Janacek tried to use on in his second quartet “Intimate Pages” but changed his mind and rewrote the part for a regular viola. Prokofiev used one in his ballet “Romeo and Juliet” but good luck hearing it. Paul Hindemith, who unlike Herrmann and Janacek could actually playa viola d’amore, wrote one of his Kammermusikenas a concerto for one.

For me the instrument whose absence is most to be regretted is the basset-horn, a relative of the clarinet. It reaches deeper notes, but with a more pleasing timbre than the deeper clarinets can offer. A basset-horn sounds like a basset hound looks. Like clarinets, the basset-horn is not one instrument but many, single-reed, conical bore, transposing instruments, each available in many keys – the most common clarinet is made so that its “white key” scale is B flat; the common basset-horn is pitched in F. Deeper instruments are longer so one different between a basset-horn and a clarinet is a bend at the bell. That’s a functional necessity and I don’t know if or how it alters the mellow sound.

This is a basset-horn.
This is a basset-horn.

Basset-horns were widespread from 1750 to 1850, and among composers who wrote wonderfully for them were Mozart, Mendelssohn and the virtuoso clarinetist Anton Stadler, who was equally good on basset-horn. My favorites are the Mendelssohn concert pieces for clarinet, basset-horn and piano, because the two wind instruments sound so good in close harmony. But Mozart also figured that out and wrote a piece for three basset-horns.

Mozart also composed pieces for the “armonica,” or glass harmonica, a novelty instrument that was exceeding popular in his day. You may have seen someone making high-pitching, ringing music by rubbing moistening fingers on drinking glasses filled with various amounts of water to create different pitches. Benjamin Franklin invented one with a keyboard. I’m guessing that made it less rather than more popular: the intriguing way of making the music until then had made up for a high-pitched timbre that becomes tiresome after a few minutes.

And then there is the curious case of the harpsichord.

The conductor’s instrument in Bach’s day, the quiet, tinkly harpsichord could be used to guide the other musicians without becoming obtrusive. The early fortepiano sounded better, and the modern pianoforte better still, and the harpsichord fell into disuse through the 1800s. In the 20thcentury, something interesting happened. Not until did renewed interest in Baroque music bring renewed interest in the harpsichord, but composers from Francis Poulenc to Manuel da Falla to Philip Glass began writing newmusic for it. The same plectrum mechanism that limits the harpsichord’s volume gives it a precise attack that is useful for music that is harmonically complicated.

Howard Dicus hosts “Howard’s Day Off” on Hawaii Public Radio’s HPR-2, 5am-7am HST Saturdays, with a replay at 5pm-7pm HST Sundays. If you join the Howard’s Day Off Listener Appreciation Society on Facebook you’ll see cue sheets for the programs along with advance notice of the following weekend’s topic.