Musical Instruments — Their History And Development

IN church music, the organ is perhaps the first instrument to be considered. In 951, Elfeg, the Bishop of Winchester had built in his cathedral a great organ which had four hundred pipes and twenty-six pairs of bellows, to manage which seventy strong men were necessary. Wolstan, in his life of St. Swithin, the Benedictine monk, gives an account of the exhausting work required to keep the bellows in action.

Two performers were necessary to play this organ, just as nowadays we play four-hand music on the piano. The keys went down with such difficulty that the players had to use their elbows or fists on each key; therefore it is easy to see that, at the most, only four keys could be pressed down at the same time. On the other hand, each key when pressed down or pushed back (for in the early organs the keyboard was perpendicular) gave the wind from the bellows access to ten pipes each, which were probably tuned in octaves or, possibly, according to the organum of Hucbald, in fifths or fourths. This particular organ had two sets of keys (called manuals), one for each player; there were twenty keys to each manual, and every key caused ten pipes to sound. The compass of this organ was restricted to ten notes, repeated at the distance of an octave, and, there being four hundred pipes, forty pipes were available for each note. On each key was inscribed the name of the note. As may be imagined, the tone of this instrument was such that it could be heard at a great distance.

There were many smaller organs, as, for instance, the one in the monastery of Ramsey, which had copper pipes. Pictures of others from the twelfth century show that even where there were only ten pipes, the organ had two manuals, needed two players, and at least four men for the bellows. The great exertion required to play these instruments led to the invention of what is called “mixtures.” From the moment fifths and fourths were considered to sound better together than the simple notes, the pipes were so arranged that the player did not need to press two of the ponderous organ keys for this combination of sounds. One key was made to open the valves of the two sets of pipes, so that each key, instead of sounding one note, would, at will, sound the open fifth, fourth, or octave. With the addition of the third, thus constituting a perfect major triad, this barbarous habit has come down to our present day almost unchanged, for by using what is called the “mixture stop” of our modern organs, each key of the manual gives not only the original note, but also its perfect major triad, several octaves higher.

Originally the organ was used only to give the right intonation for the chanting of the priests. From the twelfth century, small portable organs of limited compass were much used; although the tone of these instruments was necessarily slight, and, owing to the shortness of the pipes, high in pitch, the principle of the mechanism was similar to that of the larger instruments. They were hung by means of a strap passed over the shoulders; one hand pressed the keys in front of the pipes (which were arranged perpendicularly), and the other hand operated the small bellows behind the pipes. These small instruments rarely had more than eight pipes, consequently they possessed only the compass of an octave. With slight variations, they were quite universally used up to the seventeenth century. Organ pedals were invented in Germany about 1325. Bernhard, organist of St. Mark’s, Venice (1445-1459), has been credited with the invention of organ pedals, but it is probable that he merely introduced them into Italy.

As the Greek modes formed the basis for the musical system of the church, so the Greek monochord is the type from which the monks evolved what they called the clavichord. The monochord has a movable bridge, therefore some time is lost in adjusting it in order to get the different tones. To obviate this inconvenience, a number of strings were placed side by side, and a mechanism inserted which, by pressing a key (clavis), would move the bridge to the point at which the string must divide to give the note indicated by the key. This made it possible to use one string for several different notes, and explains why the clavichord or davicembalo needed comparatively few strings. This instrument became obsolete toward the end of the eighteenth century.

The other species of instrument, the harpsichord, which was invented about 1400, and which may be considered as having sprung from the clavichord, consisted of a separate string for each sound; the key, instead of setting in action a device for striking and at the same time dividing the strings, caused the strings to be plucked by quills. Thus, in these instruments, not only was an entirely different quality of tone produced, but the pitch of a string remained unaltered. These instruments were called bundfrei, “unbound,” in opposition to the clavicembalo, which was called gebunden, or “bound.” The harpsichord was much more complicated than the clavichord, in that the latter ceased to sound when the key which moved the bridge was released, whereas the harpsichord required what is called a “damper” to stop the sound when the key came up; once the string was touched by the quill, all command of the tone by the key was lost. To regulate this, a device was added to the instrument by means of which a damper fell on the string when the key was released, thereby stopping the sound.

We have now to consider the instrumental development of the Middle Ages.

An instrument of the harpsichord family which has significance in the development of the instruments of the Middle Ages is the spinet (from spina, “thorn” ; it had leather points up to 1500), first made by Johannes Spinctus, Venice, 1500. It was a harpsichord with a square case, the strings running diagonally instead of lengthwise. When the spinet was of very small dimensions it was called a virginal; when it was in the shape of our modern grand piano, it was, of course, a harpsichord; and when the strings and sounding board were arranged perpendicularly, the instrument was called a clavicitherium. As early as 1500, then, four different instruments were in general use, the larger ones having a compass of about four octaves. The connecting link between the harpsichord, the clavichord, and the piano, was the dulcimer or hackbrett, which was a tavern instrument. Pantaleon Hebenstreit, a dancing master and inventor of Leipzig, in 1705 added an improved hammer action, which was first applied to keyboard instruments by Cristofori, an instrument maker at Florence (1711). His instrument was called forte-piano or pianoforte, because it would strike loud or soft.

These instruments all descended from the ancient lyre, the only difference being that instead of causing the strings to vibrate by means of a plectrum held in the hand, the plectrum was set in motion by the mechanism of the claves or keys. The system of fingering employed in playing the harpsichord, up to 1700, did not make use of the thumb. J. S. Bach, F. Couperin, and J. P. Rameau were the pioneers in this matter. The first published work on piano technique and fingering was that by C. P. E. Bach (1753).

With the advent of bowed instruments the foundation was laid for the modern orchestra, of which they are the natural basis. The question of the antiquity of the bowed instrument has often been discussed, with the result that the latter has been definitely classed as essentially modem, for the reason that it did not become known in Europe until about the tenth to the twelfth centuries. As a matter of fact, the instrument is doubtless of Pershan or Hindu origin, and was brought to the West by the Arabs, who were in Spain from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries; in fact, most of our stringed instruments, both the bowed and those of the lyre type, we owe to the Arabs — the very name of the lute, el owl (“shell” in Arabic) became liuto in Italian, in German laute, and in English lute. There were many varieties of these bowed instruments, and it is thought that the principle arose from rubbing one instrument with another. The only other known examples of bowed instruments of primitive type are (I) the ravanastron, an instrument of the mono-chord type, native to India, made to vibrate by a kind of bow with a string stretched from end to end; (2) the Welsh chrotta (609 A. D.), a primitive lyre-shaped instrument, with which, however, the use of the bow seems to have been a much later invention. Mention should also be made of the marine trumpet, much in vogue from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries; it consisted of a long, narrow, resonant box, composed of three boards, over which was stretched a single string; other unchangeable strings, struck with the bow, served as drones. Only the harmonics were played on the marine trumpet.

The principle of procuring the vibrations in stringed instruments by means of a bow was, of course, applied to the monochord class of keyed instruments, and was thus the origin of the hurdy-gurdy, which consisted of a wheel covered with resined leather and turned by a crank.

The bowed instruments were originally of two types, the first in the form of the lute or mandolin; the second probably derived from the Welsh crwlh, consisting of a flat, long box strung with strings (called fidel from fides, ” string “). The combination of these types, which were subjected to the most fantastic changes of shape, led eventually to the modern violin family.

We know that the highest plane of perfection in the violin was “reached in Italy about 1600. The Cremona makers, Amati, Guarnerius, and Stradivarius, made their most celebrated instruments between 1600 and 1750.

The violin bow, in its earliest form, was nothing more than an ordinary bow with a stretched string; Corelli and Tartini used a bow of the kind. The present shape of the bow is due to Tourte, a Paris maker, who experimented in conjunction with Viotti, the celebrated violinist.

By looking at the original lute and the Arabian rebeck or Welsh crwth (originally Latin chorus), we can see how the modern violin received its generally rounded shape from the lute, its flatness from the rebeck, the sides of the instrument being cut out in order to give the bow free access to the side strings. The name too, fidula or vidula, from mediæval Latin fides, ” string,” became fiddle and viola, the smaller viola being called violino, the larger, violoncello and viola da gamba.

In the Middle Ages, the different species of bowed instrument numbered from fifteen to twenty, and it was not until between 1600 and 1700 that the modem forms of these instruments obtained the ascendancy.

Of the wind instruments it was naturally the flute that retained its antique form; the only difference between the modem instrument and the ancient one being that the former is blown crosswise, instead of perpendicularly. Quantz, the celebrated court flute player to Frederick the Great of Prussia, was the first to publish, in 1750, a so-called “method” of playing the traversal (crosswise) flute.

With the reed instruments the change in modern times is more striking. The original form of the reed instruments was of the double-reed variety. The oldest known mention of them dates from 650 A. D., when the name applied is calamus (reed); later the names shalmei (chalumeau, “straw,” from German halm) and shawm were used. These instruments were played by means of a bell-shaped mouthpiece, the double reed being fixed inside the tube. It was not until toward the end of the sixteenth century that the bell-shaped mouthpiece was dispensed with and the reed brought directly to the lips, thus giving the player greater power of expression. The oboe is a representative type of the higher pitched double-reed instruments. In its present shape it is about two hundred years old. As the deeper toned instruments were necessarily very long, six to eight and even ten feet, an assistant had to walk before the performer, holding the tube on his shoulder. This inconvenience led to bending the tube back on itself, making it look somewhat like a bundle of sticks, hence the word faggot; although it is commonly known in this country by the French name, bassoon. This manner of arranging the instrument dates from about the year 1550. The clarinet is an essentially modern instrument, the single beating reed and cylindrical tube coming into use about 1700, the invention of a German named Denner, who lived at Nuremberg.

All the brass instruments of the Middle Ages seem to have been very short, therefore high in pitch. We remember that the Romans had trumpets (chiefly used in signalling) called buccina, and we may assume that the whole modern family of brass instruments has descended from this primitive type. As late as 1500, the hunting horn consisted of but one loop which passed over the shoulder and around the body of the player. A horn of from six to seven feet in length was first used about 1650; and we know that, owing to the smallness of the instruments and their consequent high pitch in those days, many of Bach’s scores contain parts absolutely impracticable for our modern brass instruments. The division of these instruments into classes, such as trumpets, horns, trombones, etc., is due to the differences in shape, which in turn produce tones of different quality. The large bore of the trombone gives great volume to the tone, the small bore of the trumpet great brilliancy, the medium bore of the horn veils the brilliancy on one hand and lightens the thickness of tone on the other.

The horn, called cor de chasse, was first used in the orchestra in 1664, in one of Lully’s operas, but its technique (stopped tones and crooks) was only properly understood about 1750; the present-day valve horn did not come into general use until within the last half century. Fifty years before the principle had been applied to the horn the trumpet had crooks and slides, a mechanism which, in the trumpet, is still retained in England, pointing to the fact that the trombone is, after all, nothing but a very large kind of trumpet.