Musical inventions (book 1)
February 5, 2012
Last night I had the great pleasure of attending an excellent performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony given by the London Philharmonic under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and the luxury of having really good seats (generously donated by a kind friend in the fiddles) meant I noticed the horn players switching back and forth to their Wagner Tubas much more than I ever had before.
This set me thinking about some of the more unusual musical instruments out there – where they come from, how they are used, and how you might get hold of them. I’ve not set out to find the oddest, rarest, most beautiful, or ugliest, but simply some that have fascinated and delighted me over the years.
(I’ve split the post into two parts because I keep being drawn down all sorts of internet rabbit-holes and I haven’t been able to resist writing a page about each instrument, rather than just a paragraph and picture as planned. A prize for anyone who can guess what’s on the second half of the list!)
1. Wagner Tuba
First used in early performances of the Ring in the 1870s, this horn-tuba hybrid had a long period of gestation, beginning in the 1850s and only coming to a stable conclusion with the delivery of a definitive Bayreuth set in 1890. It looks like a miniature tuba but is technically an elongated horn, and since it has horn mouth parts it’s generally played by the horn section. Wagner wanted to enrich the orchestral brass balance, bridging the gap between the sound of the horn and the trombone. He probably also wanted to evoke an imagined sense of ancient Nordic horns, though the practical inspiration came from various new band instruments developed in nineteenth century Germany, and also from the experiments of Adolphe Sax.
The Wagner Tuba is in fact a sensitive instrument, producing a mellow, focused sound with little blare, and it’s generally used at solemn, quiet moments in the Ring, and similarly in Bruckner’s last three symphonies.
Which means it’s actually quite hard to point out obvious examples on record, because it tends to be hidden within a rich ensemble. I found this great piece of historic rehearsal footage conducted by Solti which has helpful annotations!
Those late Bruckner symphonies, written in the years following Wagner’s death, probably include the most notable writing for the instrument. Less well known is that it was taken up by Richard Strauss (in quite a few works including Don Quixote, Elektra and Eine Alpensinfonie) and more surprisingly Stravinsky (The Firebird, The Rite of Spring). Many more recent composers have included it in ensembles, including Rautavaara, Henze, Zimmermann, Lutyens (with a very prominent role in Quincunx), and Gubaidulina (the Viola Concerto). Google finds no results at all for “Wagner Tuba Concerto”, which is probably a good thing. There is said to be a Stokowski Bach arrangement using it, and last but by no means least I must mention Mike Post’s theme music for The Rockford Files!
The much more common euphonium is sometimes used as a substitute instrument in the orchestra, and to my surprise this works both ways – apparently performances of The Planets in the Germanic world may resort to Wagner Tubas!
They’re available from Alexander and a few other manufacturers for £3000 or so apiece. One retailer notes helpfully that the valve technology employed is “well suited to the long storage periods that Wagner Tubas are often required to endure” – which I’m sure is an issue for all the instruments on this list!
2. Mahler Hammer
The tragic finale of Mahler’s sixth symphony features a series of brutal interruptions by an extravagantly vicious hammer, symbolising mighty blows of fate. In Mahler’s words, the sound should be “brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe).”
A great mythology has developed around this Mahler Hammer, in keeping with the past century’s gradual mystical glorification of Mahler (I blame Willy Russell). The instrument itself has been refined over the decades and is generally now agreed to be a weighty flat-headed wooden mallet, though some say it’s the box it hits that’s more important for the sound. It even has a Facebook fan page.
Personally my feeling is that the Mahler Hammer really shouldn’t be considered a proper instrument. If I were putting on Mahler 6 I would want to dig into my own dark side and improvise my own imagined violence. However, there is a standard version, and it can be hired for £35! Could be great for a party, though I imagine the pricing assumes you only hit it three times. Sadly there are no user reviews on the website.
Here’s a great Bernstein-directed Hammerschlag:
I’ve only just remembered that I heard Mahler’s sixth symphony at (I think) the first classical concert I ever attended – with Simon Rattle no less at the 1984 Proms (scherzo placed third). And now I’ve found the Proms archive – oh dear …
The baryton is a large and rather eccentric viol with six or seven bowed strings plus ten or more sympathetic resonating strings that can also be plucked with the fingers. It was popular in parts of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, and by occidental standards it’s a remarkably complicated instrument. It’s really only remembered today because Haydn wrote about 175 pieces for it, mostly string trios – which he did because his employer Nikolaus Esterházy was an enthusiastic player.
Unfortunately Nikolaus was not a great virtuoso, judging by the music. Haydn’s pieces are inventive but don’t really test the possibilities of the instrument. I’d quite like to have heard a Baryton Sequenza by Berio, but that’s unlikely now.
One of the more expressive pieces I’ve found is Haydn’s Trio No. 87 (Spotify link). There’s more information at the International Baryton Society and on the website of the Haydn Baryton Trio Budapest (with samples).
The baryton has a distinctive delicate sound, coloured by the aura of resonance, but the overall effect is a little wet compared to Asian instruments like the sitar and sarod. I opened the website of the Esterházy Ensemble while No. 87 was still playing in Spotify and it launched straight into an intro sample. I found the effect of two of these pieces playing together in different keys to be my best musical experience of the baryton. I recommend trying it. The Esterházy Ensemble have recorded a complete edition on 21 CDs, but you’ll only need two.
4. Stereophonic Double Violin
Indian-born violinist Lakshminarayanan Shankar (also known as L. Shankar, just Shankar, and now apparently Shenkar – what next: Schenker?) invented this instrument, which gives a single player the five and a half octave range of a full string orchestra.
Built by noted guitar maker Ken Parker, it has ten strings and is electrically amplified. The other proponent of the instrument is Gingger Shankar (relationship unclear), and according to her website there are only two instruments in existence.
For Shankar’s small-group jazz-influenced music it seems to me a really good idea, avoiding the need for lots of overdubbing in recording and prepared backing tracks in live performance. It’s used very effectively in a series of ECM recordings from the 1980s, including Who’s to Know and one of my all-time favourites, Song for Everyone (with Trilok Gurtu, Jan Garbarek and Zakir Hussain.
5. Ondes Martenot
Now this is probably my favourite instrument in the whole list of ten. Borrowing the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Olivier Messiaen from Dunstable library aged about 17 was absolutely one of my life-changing musical experiences. It was the 1967 Ozawa recording, so I got Takemitsu’s November Steps as a bonus. The squealing, shrieking and buzzing of the Ondes Martenot, eerie, mischievous and erotic, was just one among many extraordinary aspects of this work that set my imagination aflame, probably touching on earlier teenage enthusiasms for the music of Jean-Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream. It was great to discover the radical side of classical music so early on.
It’s also probably safe to say that the Ondes would by now have been relegated to the world of musical instrument museums if it hadn’t been taken up by Messiaen, in particular in Turangalîla, which now appears to have established a firm place in the orchestral repertoire.
One of the earliest electric musical instruments, the Ondes was invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot, bringing together his experience as a cellist and wartime radio transmission expert. It has the very distinctive feature of being controlled by sliding a metal finger ring along a wire (ruban), which is stretched over a piano-style keyboard to indicate pitch. The ruban allows expressive analogue glissandi and vibrato, and combined with a set of timbre controls, foot pedals and specially designed speakers (including the ‘palme’) allows a surprisingly wide range of expression, considering the underlying sounds are pretty basic – sine wave, square wave etc.
Messiaen’s sister-in-law Jeanne Loriod, who died by drowning in 2001, was for decades the leading exponent of the Ondes. She had a repertoire including 14 Ondes concertos, and wrote a definitive three-volume treatise for players. Other notable virtuosi have included Cynthia Millar, rare instrument specialist Thomas Bloch (who also plays Glass Armonica, Cristal Baschet and Theremin Cello), Tristan Murail (also an exceptionally interesting composer), who performed in Turangalîla with the Berlin Philharmonic at the 2008 Proms, and Christine Ott.
Here’s Cynthia Millar in the fifth movement:
Messiaen used the Ondes in several other works, including six in Fête des Belles Eaux and three in his opera Saint-François d’Assise. Other notable composers for it have included Honegger, Milhaud and Jolivet. There’s an early quartet for four Ondes by Boulez (withdrawn of course), and apparently there is a Stokowski arrangement of a piece by Buxtehude that uses it … hmm, a theme is developing here! However, it’s really only Turangalîla that has ensured the instrument’s survival.
Some of the imagery and compositions from the early days of the Ondes suggest a kind of ethereal Satiesque cod-occult aesthetic that could easily have led to it being sadly past its time before it had a chance to be avant-garde.
Not surprisingly it was widely taken up by film and television composers, generally exploiting its capacity for spookiness, before smaller and cheaper electronic instruments became available, and also to some extent since. In recent years Jonny Greenwood has championed it, using it in many Radiohead songs and even taking part in a performance of Fête des Belles Eaux.
As for where to buy an one … well, you certainly can’t just order online. Apparently they are now available under the auspices of M. Martenot’s son, and there is also a similar instrument available outside the family called the Ondéa. I’ve heard rumours of $20000, and I imagine it’s one of those purchases like an old Harley that needs a lifetime of commitment to maintenance. There is a simplified Ondes-inspired synth from Analogue Systems called the French Connection – clearly a compromise, but it looks good, and does have the authentic ruban.