Musical Instruments And The Rise Of Instrumental Music

DURING the Middle Ages vocal music reached a high degree of artistic development. Instrumental music as an art did not then exist, because of the limitations in tonal range and power of musical instruments. Up to the beginning of the sixteenth century these were used, in art-music, only for doubling the vocal parts. We have seen that Willaert and the Gabrielis were the first to recognize the tone-coloring effectiveness of certain musical instruments, and that they occasionally wrote madrigals for instruments as well as for voices, the former to be “sounded” (sonate), the latter to be sung (cantate), both written virtually after the same manner and sometimes bearing the direction “da cantare e sonare” (to be sung and played).

The origin of most musical instruments is shrouded in obscurity, and was attributed to different causes among different nations of antiquity. We know the story of Hermes, who, when walking along the bank of the river, accidentally kicked the shell of a tortoise to which some dried skin or intestines were still adhering, which gave forth a vibrant sound and suggested to him the idea and shape of the lyre.

The rebab and lute originated among the Arabs. The former was played with a bow; the latter was plucked with the fingers, and became the favorite accompanying instrument of the Troubadours and Minnesinger. The crowd or chrotta of the Welsh was a sort of violin with several strings and played with a bow; in mediaeval times the names of such instruments were derived from the Latin word fides (a cord made from animal intestines), such as fidula, viola, vielle, viole, and (in England) fiddle or viol. During the Middle Ages we find this instrument in two forms and played after two different manners, one kind resting on the leg or between the knees (da gamba) and the other on the arm (da braccia), and made in several sizes corresponding in pitch to the various ranges of the human voice. This was due to the fact that they were used mostly for doubling the voices; so they were grouped as bass, tenor and soprano viols. Following the labors and artistic demands of Monteverde, who recognized their individual quality, but four species survived — the bass-viol and the tenor viola da gamba becoming respectively our double-bass and violoncello, the alto viola da braccia becoming our viola (German, Bratsche), and the soprano viola the violin (Italian violino = little violin).

We have spoken of the art of violin-making which flourished in Italy, in the sixteenth century, Brescia producing Gasparo da Sal() and the Magginis, and Cremona (then already celebrated for this industry) producing the Amatis, who gave the instrument its present shape. By the families of Guarneri and Stradivari the violin was improved still more, until it became the solo instrument of the orchestra. The in-creasing excellence of its tone-quality caused it to be recognized as capable of much more than its hitherto conceded special fitness for playing dance-music. Its vocal quality began to be appreciated and, after the invention of the solo song, or Aria, it began to alternate and vie with the voices of highly trained coloratura singers. This form of musical utterance, first transferred to keyboard instruments and then to the members of the violin family, was known as the Canzone (French, Chanson). The orchestral pieces of this sort, composed by Giovanni Gabrieli and Monteverde, were limited in length, because they were used only as interludes; they were also called Sonatas, meaning “to be sounded” and not “to be sung,” as may be seen from the title “Sonata a cinque per istromenti.” (Sonata in five parts, for instruments.)

The town musicians in Germany, France and Italy early instituted the practice of playing a number of dance-tunes in succession (“en suite”) for musical entertainment, entirely dissociated from the exercise of the terpsichorean art. In Italy these were called sonate da camera, or partite. French musicians soon began to give them key-relationship and a sort of organic connection; with the addition of a prelude they were now called “ordres,” or “suites,” both by the French and by Bach. At first their plan was more or less incoherent, but early in the eighteenth century they began to assume a definite arrangement, and there was a distinctive difference between French, English and Italian Suites.

Among the French writers who then excelled in this form, and transferred it to the organ and other keyboard instruments, must be named Couperin, Marchand and Rameau. François Couperin (1663–1733) was a fine organist and player upon the clavecin (harpsichord), and one of the founders of harpsichord. music, within its profuse embellishments. Louis Marchand, his contemporary, likewise an excellent organist and clavecin-player, was the man who, after accepting Bach’s challenge to a contest in organ-playing, fled instead of meeting the great cantor. Rameau wrote excellently in the suite-form for the harpsichord, on which he was a great virtuoso.

While Handel also wrote fine suites for harpsichord, as well as for orchestra, at the hands of Bach they reached their height of excellence and dignity.

In addition to the suite, the overture, the sonata and the concerto were favorite forms of composite instrumental utterance. — The overture, though originally part of the music-drama, and therefore of Italian origin, was gradually developed by Alessandro Scarlatti and Lully into an independent musical form, containing three or four distinct movements. The Italian form consisted of (i) a rapid, decisively rhythmic movement, (2) a flowing movement in song-form, and (3) a quick, and usually contrapuntal, Allegro. The French form consisted of (1) a broad, sustained, strongly harmonic movement, in majestic style; (2) a contrapuntal Allegro with a display of varied instrumental color; (3) a flowing melody like a canzonetta, and (4) a stately dance.

The sonata, a composition for a small number of instruments, existed in two varieties; the sonata da chiesa, in form a precursor of the French overture; and the sonata da camera, a set of dances for a few instruments.

The concerto was originally a composition for a certain set of orchestral instruments, playing in “concert” with each other. In the course of time its name was also applied to works for one or more solo instruments with orchestral accompaniment, the concerti grossi of Handel belonging to this class. In smaller dimensions this form was also called sonata, especially when the accompaniment was limited to the harpsichord, and in both manners was worked out exquisitely for the violin by Corelli (1653—1713); Vivaldi (1680?—1743) and Tartini (1692—1770) furnishing fine examples for the display of virtuosity, and also exhibiting a deep study of the musical resources of the instrument. Bach followed their form in his Italian Concertos for the clavichord, and in many concertos for various other instruments.

All these efforts were but preliminary steps to the advent of the symphony, the culmination of instrumental music, to which we shall return.

The beginnings of the organ may be seen in the Syrinx or Pandean pipes of mythical lore. In ancient forms it was used by Greeks and Romans. Of all musical instruments it was the first to serve higher artistic purposes, largely because of its association with the Church and its consequent use by men of learning and musicianship. At first, its mechanism was so clumsy that the organ at Winchester cathedral, England, in 950, although having 400 pipes and but ten keys, is said to have required seventy men to blow it. The manual of early organs had keys as broad as the average hand, and they could be pressed down only by the elbows or the fists. Its tones could therefore only give fundamental support to the singers, and the player was called an “organ-beater.”

The origin of the modern keyboard is shrouded in obscurity. Though it still contains the original idea of leverage, its adaptation to the hand progressed slowly. The arrangement of the white keys was undoubtedly due to its use in sup-porting the liturgic chant in the pure church modes, whose representation upon the lines and spaces of the staff (unaltered) corresponds with them, the intervening black keys being adopted as needed.

Although organs were at first built only in permanent positions in the churches, it was not long before movable ones were made. In the thirteenth century, we find them called “positives” if their position could be changed, and “portatives” if they were so small that they could be carried, as in processions, those having but one stop or set of small pipes being called regals. We mentioned two of the latter class as part of Monteverde’s orchestra; and there is no question that the use of these smaller organs contributed most to the improvement of the larger ones, because they could be used for “secular” and experimental purposes. While the making of organs was originally in the hands of monks, at the beginning of the Reformation their manufacture had become a trade, and the builders had formed guilds. The resultant competition aided the rapid development of excellence in details of construction, such as the material of the pipes, the adjustment of the reeds, sufficient wind-pressure, the “action,” and the introduction of different manuals.

The earlier forms of organ music were those of the contrapuntal vocal style, and it was apparently not until the middle of the sixteenth century that the possibility of the use of this instrument for other musical purposes was clearly realized. It was Willaert who, by the combined use of his two organs at the church of San Marco in Venice, recognized its possible massive chord-effects and variety of tone-color. Gradually other organists learned its adaptability for characteristic but unvocal passages and intervals that could be used to produce striking effects, and even transferred the dance-forms to their instrument.

The fugue, the most elaborate contrapuntal form, was a product of the work of Sweelinck (of the Netherland school), who invented the idea of subject and answer; the contrapuntal elaboration of the chorale, and the addition of harmonic accompaniment to church songs in their final development, were likewise based upon keyboard possibilities, and not upon those of voices. This opened an entirely new field for composition, and the advancement of harmony without abandoning contrapuntal skill, resulting in the toccata and canzona for organ and an independent use of the organ-pedals.

The leadership among organists now shifted from Italy (Frescobaldi) to Germany, where two distinct organ schools were formed, that of the South and that of the North, between which grew up the child of both, the Thuringian school.

The South German school, arising in a country predominantly Catholic, followed the Italians very closely, producing Froberger of Vienna and Pachelbel of Nuremburg.

Jacob Froberger (?–1667) studied with Frescobaldi at Rome (1637-41), became imperial organist and harpsichordist at Vienna, and composed many excellent toccatas and suites for both these instruments. Johann Pachelbel (1653–1706) served as organist in a number of cities; his works had an undoubted influence over Bach.

The North German school was formed by pupils of Sweelinck, several of whom surpassed their teacher. Among them were Samuel Scheidt, Heinrich Scheidemann, Adam Reinken, Dietrich Buxtehude, and a host of other organists in Protestant churches, who helped to develop the true organ-style.

Samuel Scheidt (1587—1654), organist at Halle, was the first to elaborate chorale ornamentation artistically upon the organ, and wrote excellently in the vocal style.

Heinrich Scheidemann (1596–1663) was a famous organist who served for almost half a century at the Katharinenkirche in Hamburg.

Adam Reinken (1623-1722), the Nestor of German organists, who spent more than half of his long life as Scheidemann’s successor, was the man who aroused the admiration of Bach by his splendid extempore playing, an art of which the latter became a still more proficient exponent.

Dietrich Buxtehude (1637–1707), a Dane, came from a family of church musicians, and won international fame as an organist and composer for his instrument. He had a profound influence upon Bach.

The Thuringian or Central German school of organists, midway between the other two, presented by the end of the seventeenth century a character all its own. Among its masters were several of the Bach family, Zachau, Bach’s teacher, as well as the venerable cantor himself and the immortal Handel.

The precursors of the piano were many and various. Its remote ancestor was the monochord of Pythagoras, which had but one string stretched by means of varying weights to varying tensions over a soundboard, the pitch of the required tone being obtained by shifting a movable bridge under the string. The clavichord consisted of a series of strings to which a keyboard was applied; touching a key caused a wedge of metal to strike and press against a string, like the bridge of the monochord, the impact also producing a tone. This instrument, which found a place in many homes, was in the shape of a rectangular box which could easily be carried around and placed upon an ordinary table.

Its volume of tone, which was metallic and rather weak, could be graded by the touch; it was therefore liked by Bach and his family, Haydn,, Mozart, and even Beethoven.

The harpsichord, sometimes called clavicytherium, had as one of its ancestors the psaltery or zither, an instrument long in popular use, with a keyboard having one key to each string, which was plucked by a quill. These strings being longer or shorter, according to their pitch, gave the instrument the shape of an extended bird’s-wing, whence arose its German name Flugel (wing), which is still applied to German grand pianos. The tone of the harpsichord was more sonorous than that of the clavichord, and rather reedy in quality. It was also an instrument for the home, but nevertheless capable of use for concert purposes and in theaters, when the number of strings to each key was increased to two, three or even four. It was a favorite instrument of Bach, Scarlatti, Rameau, Handel and many other virtuosi, and was the standard throughout the eighteenth century. The spinet and the virginal were only temporary steps, or variations, in the development of the harpsichord and clavichord.

The origin of the pianoforte or forte-piano (its original name) may also be traced to another popular musical instrument, the dulcimer, which consisted of a rectangular box over which metal strings were stretched, which were struck with a small hammer. The piano-tone, as we know, is produced in a similar manner, its quality depending somewhat on the material with which the hammer is covered. Its improvement was delayed because of lack of skill in the making of proper soundboards and heavy drawn-steel wires that could be stretched very taut. Its action is also much more complicated than that of the harpsichord, because of the necessary instant recoil (“escapement”) of the hammer from the string. At first the piano resembled the harpsichord in shape, but later it assumed the form of the earlier clavichord, resulting in what we now call the “square” piano, the Clavicy therium form of the harpsichord being again approximated in the form which we call “upright.”

While we speak of the pianoforte as an invention, it was, like all such, the result of many experiments. The Italian Cristofori, who died in 1731, was the first to make the “hammer-clavier,” the strength of whose tone was dependent upon that of the blow of the hammer, enabling the player to produce either a forte or a piano at will. The instrument was improved in various countries, the noted German organ-builder Silbermann being especially successful. Several specimens of his work were tested by Bach at the time of his visit to Frederick the Great, at Potsdam, and although he was very much pleased with them, he deemed himself too old to change his style of playing from that required by the harpsichord, of which he was a master.

The tuning of instruments of fixed pitch, with or without keyboard, so that various tonalities might be used with an equally agreeable effect on the ear, proved a problem for several centuries. In the earlier organs it was not uncommon to have separate keys and pipes for A flat and G sharp, since both were out of tune when used outside of the tonality of which they were integral parts.

The Pythagorean theory of intervals, upon which was based the novum organum of Hucbald and other early attempts at polyphony, rested on the assumption that the perfect fifth of any tone, which forms a fourth with the octave of that tone, was the foundation of scale-formation. Now, measuring by a series of perfect fifths and octaves, such as we term the “circle of fifths,” the octave of the initial tone will come out almost an eighth of a whole tone too sharp. As long as the church modes were in use, this did not prove so objectionable, but when the feeling for harmony demanded the triad rather than the mode as its basis, the lowering of the Pythagorean third became a necessity. This was first accomplished in the early sixteenth century, by Zarlino, of whom we have already spoken, but its application, while excellent for diatonic harmonies within a given key, met with other difficulties when modulation was attempted, some of the altered tones proving too sharp and others too flat.

It thus became necessary to make some tones of each scale slightly untrue, so that, for practical purposes, their “out-of-tuneness” would be scarcely noticeable. This alteration was called the “temperament” of the scale, and was applied in two ways, (I) by the “mean-tone” temperament, which endeavored to make certain keys and those immediately related to them as nearly in tune as possible, and (2) by the “even” or “equal” temperament (the system now in general use), which made all keys slightly “untrue.”

Bach’s “Well-tempered Clavichord” marks the consummation of this equal temperament and shows his hearty approval of the scheme, which enabled the composer to use all keys, whether closely related or not, equally well.

This opened the way for the piano works of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and that great mass of chamber-music literature which combines stringed instruments with the piano.

Another sign of broadening musical culture was an investigation into the possibilities of other musical instruments of decided individuality; and the study and utilization of their characteristic effects and tone-qualities led to the instrumental solo as a distinct art-form.

At first these solo instruments were, as we have seen, those of the violin family, but gradually the flute, the oboe, the trumpet and other instruments demanded and received recognition.

The flute, though in use in antiquity, did not receive artistic recognition until the beginning of the eighteenth century. Its ancient form, which required the use of a mouthpiece (bec) like that occasionally seen on the fife, gradually passed away and the transverse or cross-flute became the leading variety. It was made in many different sizes, with a varying number of holes and auxiliary keys, being perfected in modern times by Boehm, whose instruments can be played equally well in almost all keys.

The oboe (or hautbois) and the bassoon belong, in some form of double-reed instrument, to very early times, appearing gradually in groups or families corresponding to the human voices. All these were reduced in the eighteenth century to three forms: the oboe (the soprano instrument), the English horn or cor anglais (the tenor), and the bassoon (the bass). After their individuality came to be recognized, they were used as solo instruments, and as the reeds were gradually made thinner, thus producing a more refined tone, they finally arrived at artistic excellence.

The clarinet, with but a single reed, also belongs to the family of wood-wind instruments, and was developed from the chalumeau about the year 1700, though it did not take its place in the orchestra until about 1750, the chalumeau being preferred as late as the time of Gluck.

The French horn, trombone and trumpet belong to the same musical family, whose common ancestor was probably the horn of some animal, as was the case with the shofar. The trumpet was early used for military purposes, and in time took its place in the orchestra without much change. The French horn, a variety of the trumpet, is a lineal descendant of the medieval hunting-horn, and took its place in the orchestra early in the eighteenth century, although its tone was thought to be rather harsh. The trombone is a large trumpet of low register; because of its ability to produce tones of exact pitch it was used even in the sixteenth century in vocal compositions for the purpose of tone-coloring.

The kettledrums form one among many varieties of percussion instruments common to all nations of antiquity, and even to savages, and were imported from the Orient during the Crusades as a military instrument.

We have given this cursory view of the origin and development of musical instruments, fit for artistic and solo purposes, and the consequent rise of instrumental music as an art, because increasing skill of the players was necessary before composers could give expression to their conceptions, not only through the large body of good performers in the orchestra but also through smaller groups of superior players on similar or different instruments, whose united skill rendered possible the creation of the symphony and the more intimate forms which we call chamber music.