Period Instruments and satisfaction
Ever since the baroque revival with the 1970s, there has been much discussion in the use of so-called period instruments. Many people 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 such a thing? What follows is a discussion from the instruments of the orchestra and the way they changed drastically in the nineteenth century. Let me leave out any discussion with the piano because I am limiting this discussion to instruments that became standard within the orchestra, and because the evolution of the piano is such a tremendous topic by itself.
In the center of the nineteenth century there were a great revolution in instrument making. Actually, a number of these changes had been slowly going on over the course of a century approximately, especially with the string instruments. However, design for music in the late 18th century probably had some relation to the evolution in the instruments of the orchestra. Extreme contrasts of dynamics were called for in the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Although, that was, no doubt, an important factor behind the will to manufacture louder instruments, with more dynamic range, I have faith that it was not the only factor.
There was clearly another reason for the nineteenth century preoccupation with helping the dynamics of instruments. Audiences were getting larger and concert halls were getting larger as a way to accommodate these larger audiences. Orchestras was required to produce a greater amount of sound to fill the modern concert halls. Making orchestras larger was simply not the answer. Larger orchestras have trouble playing fast tempi with precision. This is the reason Beethoven preferred a forty-piece orchestra for his symphonies when he could have had them completed by a sixty-piece orchestra. The selection between using a large or small orchestra to perform a given composition, naturally, boils down to how big the string section is. The number of woodwinds and brass is determined by the score, nevertheless, you can have as big or as small a string section as you like. The standard orchestra of the late eighteenth century contains: 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 turn into a standard part of the orchestra. What will happen is a discussion of the differences between modern orchestral instruments and their earlier counterparts, with the emphasis on the development of the string instruments.
The very first thing I would like to discuss may be the violin bow. The initial violin bow, when the instrument was fist designed by Amati, in 1550, was shaped pretty much like a hunting bow. It were built with a pronounced arch for it, and the hairs were rather slack. The tension of the hairs was controlled by subtle movements of the bowing hand. This managed to get easy to bow all four strings at the same time, or one at a time when necessary. In the event the player wanted to bow three to 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 in the time of Bach.
Another thing that made it easier to bow all 4 strings at once, was the truth that the bridge had not been quite as arched as that of a modern violin, thus putting the strings closer to being in the same plane. Over a modern violin, it's possible to bow three strings simultaneously, yet it's difficult to do this without giving greater pressure, and therefore greater loudness, to the string in between the opposite two. Modern violinists have to sort of fake it, when they play Bach's sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin. When Bach necessitates four notes being played simultaneously, the gamer of a modern violin will rapidly move the bow, one string at a time, causing the notes to be heard in rapid succession, one after the other, closing approximating the sound that particular would get from bowing all 4 notes at once. On the violin of Bach's day, this technique wasn't necessary, since the bow could easily be moved across all 4 strings simultaneously.
The violin bow underwent a gentle change throughout the eighteenth century, becoming less and less arched. After the eighteenth century a guy named Tourte created a new kind of bow. This bow actually curved slightly toward the hairs, instead of away from them. This new bow could play much louder than the old baroque bow. Also, unlike the baroque bow, this new bow could produce an equally loud volume along its entire length. Using this type of new bow, a talented violinist could make the change from upbow to down bow almost imperceptible. It had been perfectly suited to the new style of music, with its broad, sweeping melodic lines. Precisely the same reasons that make the Tourte bow so well suited for nineteenth century music help it become somewhat unsuitable for 18th century music, especially early eighteenth century music.
The old baroque bow produced a powerful sound in the middle of its length, the sound getting much weaker as the string was approached by either end from the bow. This is actually an advantage when performing baroque music, using its highly articulated phrasing and lean texture. The old baroque bow allowed more nuances of shaping a note. With the Tourte bow, it is hard to shorten a note without which makes it sound chopped off. Sufficient reason for most baroque music, it's advantageous to make the up-bow sound distinctive from the down-bow. The old baroque bow is more preferable suited to the lean, transparent textures of baroque music. In polyphonic music, it is easier to hear each of the individual lines if each player doesn't smoothly connect his / her notes, but allows some "space" between them. This is possible with a modern violin, but comes naturally having a baroque violin.
The body in the violin went through major adjustments to the middle of the nineteenth century. A chin rest was added by Louis Spohr at the outset of the nineteenth century, providing a whole new technique of playing. The strings were created thicker, and eventually were wound with metal, the sound post appeared thicker, the bass bar appeared thicker and stronger, plus more tension was put on the strings. Using the thicker strings, the bow has to be drawn over the strings with much more pressure in order to get the crooks to vibrate, but the sound is a lot louder. The neck, as an alternative to coming straight out of the belly, was glued on within an angle, which makes the angle of the strings across the bridge more acute.
Many of these changes resulted in a significant loss of overtones, resulting in a much dryer sound. This is the reason the old baroque violin has such a sweet, pretty sound, than the modern violin. This is the price that was paid so that you can increase the volume of the instrument. With the new instrument, dynamics took over as dominant means of achieving variety of expression, while nuances of articulation were the primary means of achieving expressive variety with all the baroque violin. Also, a musician playing a modern violin, in order to compensate for the inherently dry sound, could make almost constant utilization of vibrato, a technique, which was only used sparingly, and just for special effect, in the eighteenth century.
Eighteenth century books on violin playing, including the one by Leopold Mozart, reveal that vibrato should sometimes be used to add spice to a note. Vibrato is the daily bread and butter of the modern violinist. It is used almost constantly. With out them, the sound can be dull and dry. I will mention here that I am speaking of the fingered vibrato, not the bowed vibrato. The bowed vibrato is made by a rapid pulsation from the bow across the strings. This effect was rather common in the baroque period and is supposed to imitate the tremulant in organs.
During the nineteenth century great instruments built from the great masters of old, for example Stradivari, Gaunari, and Stainer, to name the 3 most important, were disassembled and rebuilt so that you can make them like the newer violins. Many of them literally broke by 50 % from the strain. There aren't any instruments built through the great masters, which have not been rebuilt, a lot of them many times over. I think this is a great tragedy.
Precisely what has been said above in regards to the violin is also largely true of the viola and cello. The bass violin had a somewhat different history. In Germany, three hundred years ago, a three stringed bass was frequently used. The Germans found that a bass with 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 an entire makeover in the nineteenth century. The taper of the internal bore also was changed. This ended in a louder instrument having a different timbre than the original copies. The old baroque woodwinds had seven or eight holes. Six holes were closed directly through the fingers and the others were closed by keys. Nowadays in this woodwind, all of the holes are closed by keys. As a result of nature of the arrangement in the holes, and ultimately because of the fact that they are closed directly from the fingers, each woodwind is readily playable in one certain key and is progressively more difficult to play in keys which can be more and more distantly related to the basic key of the instrument. The present day woodwinds, with the key mechanisms employed to cover the holes, instead of being covered directly with the finger tips, are just as simple to play in one key such as another. Besides equal easy playing in all keys, another important difference it that all note on a modern woodwind has pretty much the same timbre, while on a baroque woodwind, specially the flute, each tone have a noticeably different timbre.
Inside the clarinet and oboe the internal bore was widened. The conclusion bell of the clarinet became less flared. This resulted in a different sound. The bassoon from the eighteenth century was constructed differently too, the main difference being the walls from the instrument were thin enough to vibrate. It is really an important difference. The laws of acoustics dictate how the timbre of a wind instrument is not affected by the material it's made from as long as the walls in the instrument are too want to vibrate. The thinness in the wooden tube out of which one the old bassoons were made gave it a sweeter sound, though 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 using the fingers. This made the instruments a lot more versatile. With the old brass instruments you had to change the tension of his lips to make different notes, the only real notes being available being the ones of the harmonic overtones. Horn players employed short lengths of tubing called crooks. So that you can play in a different key, the horn player removed one crook and inserted another. This was a bit cumbersome and composers rarely requested horn players to change crooks in just a movement, though many of them 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 to the end bell and holding it just right. This gave them a chance to play things that they can't otherwise play, however this technique was used sparingly due to difference in timbre of the not thus produced. The invention of valves gave each of the brass much more versatility. Inside the late eighteenth century the trumpet was outfitted with one valve, that was controlled by the thumb. This enabled the trumpet player to experience 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 airflow through sections of tubing were put into the trumpet, allowing the player much more versatility. The trombones, of course did not need to be outfitted with valves given that they always had a slide which changed along the vibrating column of air, thus changing the note.
Smaller internal bore from the old brass instruments gave them, well, no pun intended, a brassier sound. The trumpets had much more of a bite for their sound. The horns were a lttle bit harsh compared to the smooth sounding modern horn. The trombones a slightly harsh edge to their sound compared to modern trombones.
Benefits and drawbacks
So which is better, that old baroque instruments of modern ones? I do not think either is better. They are only different. The previous instruments have a sweet sounding quality links through even in recordings. They may be perfectly suited to the music activity of Bach and Handel. They are great on recordings nevertheless they will never have an important invest the modern concert world as their sound is too weak to fill a big concert hall. Though it may be possible to do justice on the music of Bach and Handel on modern instruments if the musicians have an intimate understanding of the style, it would be sheer madness to learn Strauss or Debussy on baroque instruments.
As for the music of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, you can actually make the argument that it should be played on a single type of instruments they had in their time, and possibly certain aspects of their music purchased through more clearly around the old instruments. But it is also easy to argue that their music pushed the instruments of time to their limits, as well as beyond. Their music was revolutionary. It had been ahead of its time in lots of ways, especially the music of Beethoven. How is it that 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's the skill, understanding and sensitivity from the musicians to the kind of music that they are playing that produces the biggest difference, not the kind of instruments they are playing.