Meet the Instruments
Double reed instruments have existed ever since somebody long ago discovered the joys of pinching one end of a tube of grass and blowing into it to make a buzzing sound. They have evolved throughout history to meet musical needs and aesthetic desires; one significant evolution took place in the mid-17th century when musicians at the court of Louis XIV created a new model of shawm, the loud and rather brash-sounding double reed of the medieval and Renaissance periods, with the objective of a more refined instrument suitable for large ensembles accompanying the grand and dignified ceremonies and entertainments of the court. This new design included a three-piece body allowing greater flexibility in boring and tuning, decorative turnings, two metal keys and doubled holes with a system of cross-fingering to play chromatic passages, and a slight contraction at the end of the bell that modulated and enriched the sound. The instruments were usually made from boxwood, a slow-growing ornamental shrub often used in the landscaping of palace gardens that yields a relatively lightweight fine-grained hardwood which turns and stains beautifully and produces a warm and resonant tone quality.
The French term for shawm was hautbois, meaning a loud (haut) instrument made of wood (bois), and this new mellower version took the same name. The invention caught on, and by the end of the 1600s it had spread throughout Europe and acquired names that mimicked the French pronunciation: hautboy in England, hobo in Flanders, and oboe in Germany, Spain, and Italy. Musicians grew to appreciate its versatility; although originally intended as ceremonial band instruments, oboes had found their way into theaters, opera houses, churches, and chambers by the end of the century. An English instruction-book published in 1695 described the hautboy as “Majestical and Stately, and not much Inferior to the Trumpet” but reported that with a good reed it could sound “as Soft and Easie as the Flute.” The combination of directly-fingered and cross-fingered notes meant that each tonality had its own distinctive character, and many Baroque composers, perhaps Bach most of all, appreciated its expressivity and remarkable ability to imitate, blend, and interact with the human voice, writing an extensive repertoire of solo music and obligato arias. The Baroque period can be considered the “Golden Age” of the oboe.
The standard design features of 17th-century French oboe making—three-piece boxwood construction, two keys with doubled holes, and lipped bell—persisted until almost 1800, by which time musical tastes had changed and a new kind of oboe was required that could play in more remote keys and loudly enough to be heard in large orchestras. The 19th century saw a kind of “arms race” of heavier woods, increasing mechanization, and simplified boring, producing oboes designed for ever-greater uniformity, power, and athleticism, until the present-day oboe of about 26 cast-metal keys mounted on bodies made from a dense wood of the dalbergia family became standard around 1900. It could be argued that something was lost in the process.
Note by Stephen Hammer, 2023
Photo: Stephen Hammer playing Baroque oboe in the Festival orchestra (Gary Payne Photography)
If you look quickly, there appears to be no difference at all between the modern violin and the Baroque violin! Many “modern” violins in use today were made in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, but were subsequently modified in the 19th century to accommodate the needs of the music being written for the instrument at that time. Modern violins have a longer fingerboard, a heftier bridge, heavier base bar (inside), weightier tailpiece, and a more angled neck than their Baroque counterparts. Overall, the “modern” set up — in combination with a full set of metal wound strings and the equally-weighted modern bow — produces a powerful, immediate sound, designed to fill large concert halls and ensure the violin soloist is heard in Romantic concertos above a full symphony orchestra.
The original “Baroque” set up, on the other hand, brings an intimacy and natural warmth to the sound. The parallel neck, gut strings, and lightweight bridge, tailpiece and base bar create less tension when the bow is drawn across the string. The Baroque instrument speaks in a really different way. And, notice the shape of the bow, which also contributes to the unique qualities of the Baroque violin sound. It’s much lighter than a modern bow, with less hair and no metal, and it’s often curved slightly outward, always with more weight at the frog than the tip. The bow creates the shape of the notes that the Baroque masters intended easily, with natural decay after the initial attack, and weaker “up bows” than “down bows” — adhering to the hierarchy of the beats in the bar. Listen for the gutsy “chiff” of tutti strings in fast orchestral movements for just one example of Baroque string instrument sound. There are many!
Note by Zenovia Edwards, 2019
Photo: Elizabeth Blumenstock directing the Festival orchestra (Gary Payne Photography)
Baroque Flute & Piccolo
Of all the Baroque instruments that survived the era, the flute was arguably the one most dramatically changed. The revolutionary shift from wood to metal transformed the flute into an instrument that could hold its own in the dynamically supercharged modern orchestra. In my opinion, though some qualities were gained, those that were lost were truly magical. The Baroque flute is a deceptively simple instrument — how hard can it be to blow into it and move your fingers? — no reeds, no nasty and temperamental gut strings, no physically exhausting embouchures!
But the Baroque flute is hard to play in tune. It’s difficult if not impossible to play loudly. And quirks of its construction imbue it with subtly different tonal qualities in different registers — indeed, almost from note to note. Yet these very difficulties and inconsistencies are part of its beguiling beauty. The challenges it presents mean that every note, every tone, is hard-won, special, unique. To hear it well played is to revel in nuance, suggestion, playfulness, nobility, and a kind of demure voluptuousness.
Note by Elizabeth Blumenstock (extract from program note for the 39th Festival opening concert, June 23, 2019)
Photo: Christopher Matthews, Baroque piccolo and Stephen Schultz, Baroque flute (Gary Payne Photography)
The main visual difference between the Baroque and modern bassoons is the number of keys. The Baroque instrument has five keys, whereas the modern instrument has 24. An equally important difference, that you can’t see, is the shape of the bore or inside of the bassoon. A Baroque bassoon has a larger bore than the modern instrument, which gives it a warmer, rounder sound that’s especially beautiful for playing continuo (bass) lines. The narrow, hard-rubber-lined bore of a modern bassoon makes it more of a tenor voice that can project very well in a big modern orchestra. Also, Baroque reeds are much larger than their modern counterparts, further contributing to the warm, flexible sound of the earlier instrument.
Some of my favorite Baroque bassoon composers are Vivaldi, Fasch and Rameau. They all wrote so prolifically and idiomatically for the instrument. We bassoonists are incredibly lucky to have almost 40 concertos by Vivaldi, which are, by and large, all unique and range in expression from soulful to virtuosic to quirky. Fasch wrote piles of ensemble sonatas and orchestral works with great obbligato bassoon lines that show off the instrument well and are really fun to play. Perhaps the most gratifying Baroque music of all to play for a bassoonist is that of Rameau’s operas. He clearly loved the bassoon and really knew how to exploit its unique color and range.
Note by Dominic Teresi, 2020 (Adapted from artist interview with Elizabeth Blumenstock)
Photo: Clay Zeller-Townson, Baroque bassoon (Gary Payne Photography)