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Fallen by the Wayside? - Neglected Instruments

by Arthur Butterworth


The large modern orchestra and the wind band have long become standardised or almost so. Minor variations in wind band instrumentation occur from time to time and from one country to another, whereas the symphony orchestra is virtually of the same complement the world over: three flutes (including piccolo) two oboes and cor anglais, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contra-bassoon; four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, one timpanist, three or four percussion, one harp, and a varying number of strings. To this basic establishment are often added fairly regular extras: a second harp, fourth trumpet, more percussion, celesta and other keyboard players for the piano or organ. Sometimes of course extra wood-wind are added, maybe an E-flat clarinet, a fourth bassoon, tenor tuba, and various saxophones, perhaps rather more infrequently the alto flute, or, to add colour to the strings, maybe a mandolin or guitar. But other instruments that might once have claimed to be looked upon as basic to the orchestra have almost disappeared. Yet others seem never to have established a foothold.

As in all other evolutionary processes some instruments that once were fundamental to an ensemble became obsolete for one reason or another: the theorbo or lute, the various baroque instruments familiar in Bach and so on. The mid nineteenth century saw the development of many variants in wind instruments while the basic string ensemble of violins, violas, cellos and double basses has remained steadfast because they have never been found to be capable of improvement. It was probably the dramatic requirements of opera and theatrical music in general that inspired the search for new and ever more expressive wind instruments, and later still the development of more exotic and more colourful percussion. This situation has often been commented on in books on musical history. One of the questions rarely if ever asked might have enquired why some of the otherwise apparently useful additions to the wind armoury have not generally caught on.

Of course in the more sophisticated orchestral circles (even amateur as well as professional) it is not now unusual to find that rare instruments can be found when the need or occasion expressly demands it. Despite this it is puzzling to know why composers have almost totally ignored some instruments that could appear to be very useful regular constituents of the standard orchestra.

The sarrusophone is a case in point. This impressive bass wind instrument, (often confused with the sousaphone) is often superior to the contra-bassoon; It appeared in French scores towards the end of the nineteenth century and Bax writes for it in the First Symphony instead of the more usual contra-bassoon. Its tone - because it is essentially made of metal instead of wood - can be more powerful and penetrating than that of the contra-bassoon. It is, however, a regular member of the Band of the Garde Républicaine in Paris.

The standard flute family is generally regarded as comprising flute and piccolo, but on occasion the alto flute is called for - but why does this expressive instrument not figure more widely? It has often been erroneously termed "bass" flute - Holst and Britten even make this mistake of nomenclature - but there is another true bass flute, an octave lower than the standard flute in C. Recorders, once the mainstay of the baroque orchestra have a more appropriate tone colour.

The oboe family too has its other members that once were familiar: the oboe d’amore, so beloved of Bach and the true bass oboe, which is perhaps not quite so unfamiliar in its guise - although not quite the same instrument - the heckelphone.

In the sphere of brass perhaps the situation is slightly different as it has become customary to employ a variety of sizes of trumpets and tubas, whilst the trombone has developed a bigger voice - which perhaps it did not altogether need anyway - and the horns have evolved a whole variety of so-called "improved" models. Yet, on the other hand, with both horns and trumpets there has been a re-awakened interest in the ‘natural’ instruments - no valves or other mechanisation - and this writer, himself primarily a trumpeter, has recently taken up the hand-horn. It is however, a matter of regret that in the present-day orchestra the cornet tends to have been replaced by the all-too-ubiquitous B-flat trumpet, so that the splendid antiphonal effects between two trumpets and two cornets in such as Tchaikovsky, Berlioz and Elgar and in many other French works have been lost. The Germans have never liked the cornet, and it never appears in German scores; it has always been regarded as too plebeian a relation of the truly aristocratic and noble trumpet. The cornet is looked upon as only fit for ballet, light opera. (does this include Berlioz?) and popular brass band music; never to be considered worthy of symphonic employment.

It could be argued that economics as much as music itself, play a part in the way in which instruments are utilised: the cost of the rare instrument in the first place, the use of that instrument if the chances of performance are restricted, and whether an orchestral management would consider it worthwhile or no, whether it is worthwhile of composers to write for it or worthwhile to employ a regular specialist player on a rare instrument.

Arthur Butterworth


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