Everything Old Is New Again

Taking a walk through the musical instruments exhibition at any museum can be a bewildering experience. For many of us, we can only guess at what purpose the weird object before us might have served. We can look at a horn-like instrument and intuitively know that it should be blown into, but we haven’t a clue what kind of sound it produces and how it was used to make music.

Old instruments are enigmas that have only recently begun to reveal their secrets. The period instrument movement—pioneered by the old instrument builder Arnold Dolmetsch in the early twentieth century, his son Carl at mid-century, and musicologist-performers like the New York-based Noah Greenberg in the early 1950s—is a relatively new phenomenon. Those pioneers paved the way for the current early music boom, and the sounds of old instruments are becoming more familiar to modern audiences. Historically informed performances on period instruments are the way you are going to hear Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel from now on.

Corelli performed on gut string instruments is a stylistic choice made by the performer. A different situation arises when a twentieth-century composer writes a work for old instruments. What happens when a composer sitting in front of his computer, working with state-of-the art technology, decides to write for a tromba marina or a crumhorn?

Roy Whelden is a viola da gamba player and a composer who performs with the American Baroque ensemble. Whelden says in his liner notes to Galax, a recording featuring his own works and those of Carl Friedrich Abel (an eighteenth-century German viola da gamba virtuoso and composer), “I have chosen to write and perform music using up-to-the-minute compositional techniques on instruments commonly thought to be old-fashioned.” He has made an interesting choice in programming Abel’s music alongside his own, since the German composer was a virtuoso on an instrument that, by the late eighteenth century, was considered an anachronism.

Like most composer-performers, Whelden’s performance skills serve him well as a composer. His compositions reveal intimate knowledge of the instrument’s strengths and weaknesses, and he is never afraid to turn tradition on its ear, as he does in his “Prelude and Divisions on She’s So Heavy” (based on the Lennon and McCartney tune).

Whelden continues to push old instruments into new worlds. His 1997 composition, “Songs of Cold Mountain,” is a song cycle of poems by seventh-century Tang dynasty poet Han Shan. Whelden scored the work for the unlikely combination of narrator, mezzo-soprano, flute, oboe, violin, harpsichord, synthesizer, percussion, cello, triple harp, and viola da gamba.

“The recorder is a twentieth-century instrument; there are better performers now than there were probably ever before,” says Roy Sansom, another composer-performer. With the possible exception of the harpsichord, probably no other instrument so closely associated with early music has captured the imagination of twentieth-century composers like the recorder. Sansom and his duet partner, Roxanne Layton, have performed much of the standard Baroque repertoire, but also include many twentieth-century pieces in their programs. In the hands of contemporary composers, the recorder has moved beyond the delicate chamber music with which it’s been associated for centuries.

“There are lots of extended techniques for the recorder: portamenti, multiphonics, flutter tonguing, and slap tones, which is a very harsh articulation,” says Sansom. “My first work was a recorder duet piece called Xylophobia, a sonatina with lots of repeated notes and jumps that take the instrument into its highest registers. It’s kind of primitive and minimalist, but still tonal. The recorder negotiates leaps very well, and you can attack pretty hard on it.” You can do even more when modern technology enters the mix; Layton’s Canyons features the recorder played with a digital delay.

The harpsichord is no stranger to twentieth-century music, either. Back in 1896, Ravel used the harpsichord as the accompaniment to his song “D’Anne jouant de l’espinette,” and, in 1906, Jules Massenet added the harpsichord to the score of his opera Thérèse.Igor Kipnis, a renowned performed of both Baroque and twentieth-century harpsichord music, says in his review of Frances Bedford’s Harpsichord and Clavichord Music of the Twentieth Century, “To be sure, not every composer has known how to write for it…some composers have though of it as a plucking piano, others as a percussion instrument. It is sometimes difficult to convince potential composers that it is neither.”

Some composers who have written for Kipnis (and presumably got it right) are George Rochberg, Ned Rorem, John McCabe, Barbara Kolb, Eric Salzman, and Richard Rodney Bennett. This is just scratching the surface. The legendary American harpsichordist, Ralph Kirkpatrick, a great proponent of contemporary harpsichord repertoire, regularly performed entire recitals devoted to contemporary music. Some of the works written for him included Henry Cowell‘s Set of Four (1960), Ernst Lévy‘s Fantasie Symphonique (1939), and Peter Mieg‘s Le voyage á Montfort (1956).

The instrument has maintained its fascination for composers in the later part of the century, and a small sampling of composers who have written harpsichord works includes some formidable American and international names: Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Peter Maxwell Davies, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Alfred Schnittke.

Contemporary composers writing for the serpent? The twisted, bizarre-looking member of cornett family does have its twentieth-century specialists. One of the most famous composers who has written for it is film music composer Jerry Goldsmith. His soundtrack for the films Tora, Tora, Tora and Alien have both used the serpent played along with more conventional instruments. (For those of you who’ve never heard it, the serpent sounds sort of like a bassoon with a more focused tone.) While there isn’t a burgeoning school of composers dedicated to writing for the serpent, three British composers—Clifford Bevan, Simon Proctor, and Robert Steadman—have had a go at this unlikely wind instrument.

From Everything Old Is New Again
by Craig Zeichner
© 2001 NewMusicBox

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