Sunday, November 06, 2005


From Whence Came Instruments?

It would be fun to consider that our intstruments came from "chicken little" on the fourth day of "The Sky is Falling." Sprinkler However, the evolution of the Symphony is so inseparably identified with, and dependent upon, the history and development of musical instruments that it is imperative to begin with the latter.

It is perfectly obvious that the first, most primitive utterances of the human family were vocal, and that very many centuries must have passed before anything in the nature of instrumental experiments could have been made. An infant uses lungs long before making conscious use of the hands; and in music, the human race must have remained in the infantile stage for a tremendously long time.

Just when the first musical instrument was fashioned and used, no one can tell; but there is proof positive of the existence of such, some very crude, and others remarkably refined (at least in appearance), dating back to the dawn of history. The ancient Egyptians did surely possess and manipulate an array of Harps (tebuna), besides many other more or less inviting tone-producing instruments; the Hebrews had there Shofar and numerous other mediums of mechanical tone-production, enumerated in the Bible; the Chinese their venerable and venerated Cheng and King; the Hindus their Vina; the Greeks their various Lyres and Kitharas, also Flutes, single and double; the Romans their Flutes and Trumpets. But the greater part of these mechanical agents are so remote, and have exerted so little influence upon the instruments that for the modern orchestra, that they may be dismissed with complaisant mention. The only ones of these ancient instruments that appear to have persisted and to have become approximate models for later days are the Flutes, the rounded metal Buccina, and the straight Tuba (or Lituus, when slightly curved at the end) of the Romans, whose general resemblance to the present flute, horn and trumpet is noteworthy.

Of far greater significance are three more recent contrivances of the Arabs and Persians, the Rebab and Kemangeh---stringed instruments that passed over quite directly into our present viola or violin and 'cello; further, the Lute ("el aud"---aloe wood) which became the type for the prodigious number of Italian lutes; and the Zurna, an instrument of nasal quality which probably led to the European Pommer family (sixteenth century), the highest member of which is practically identical with the modern oboe. These were familiarized through the crusades, that brought many European nations into contact with the Orientals. The lute, though wholly banned from the modern orchestra, nevertheless promoted greatly the cultivation of the instrumental style, since its qualities were peculiarly adapted to accompaniments in detached chords, thus favoring the harmonic style and furthering precise rhythmic accents, and, in general, inviting independent treatment.

It should be borne in mind that serious music [ah, a term needing its own discussion], up to and far into the sixteenth century, was almost exclusively vocal. The Masses of the Church, and the Madrigals of the secular world, were the predominating channels of musical expression, and they neither sanctioned nor tolerated co-operation with instruments. Madrigals and other secular forms were sometimes transcribed for and played upon the lute (no doubt clumsily enough); and rustic dances, serenades, minstrel activities, and other musical inducements certainly furnished occasion for brief, more or less skillful instrumental practices from earliest historic times. But these inartistic musical occupations with still rather imperfect instruments of early days, unpolished and unemotional (in the deeper sense), have no appreciable bearing upon the birth and development of the later artistic forms of instrumental music, excepting in that they did their share in preparing the soil for future accomplishments, and aided materially in bringing music closer to the common people, in a congenial form---more than the elaborate and exclusive music of the Church, or the artistic performances of trained singers could do.

The inception of a distinctive and independent instrumental style came very late. History associates the names of Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1612) and Claudio Monteverde (or Monteverdi, 1567-1643) with the first conscious attempts to separate the vocal and instrumental styles, and to impart greater independence to the instrumental accompaniments and the purely instrumental preludes and interludes which were added to the vocal scores. Of these two distinguished composers it was Monteverdi who became active in the promotion of the Opera (called into life about 1600), and herein he found the greatest and most natural inducement to develop and advance the co-operation of instruments, not only, as stated, in the accompaniment, but in numerous interspersed instrumental passages. He is called the father of the art of Instrumentation.


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