Typical instruments by musical era
Medieval (476 – 1400)
Very few specimens of instruments have survived from the Middle Ages, so most of our information has to come mostly from iconography (the study of depictions in painting and sculpture), from theoretical discussions, and from relating those things to surviving music that seems to be intended for instruments. Unfortunately, not many medieval writers condescend to give much practical information concerning instruments. One of the earliest writers to do so is Johannes de Grocheo who was working, probably in Paris, around the year l300. He divides instruments into two types according to their means of sound production: those that use wind or breath, and those that use percussion (including, surprisingly to us, string instruments).
Later Medieval musicians began to observe a distinction between loud and soft types of instruments (haut and bas is the usual French terminology) and mixed ensembles were made up entirely of instruments of one kind or the other, depending on whether loud or soft music was desired. All of the string instruments, naturally, fall into the soft category and many of the wind instruments do, as well, so it was possible to have combinations of wind and string instruments. In particular, at least one medieval writer mentions the joining of the flute and the fiddle.
Medieval Woodwind Instruments
Whether windcap instruments per se existed in this period is debatable, although bladderpipes and bagpipes were clearly quite common. Windcap instruments probably originated as detached bagpipe chanters. Pictorial sources show what is possibly a windcapped instrument with a flaring bell played by rustic types. This so-called shepherd's shawm was recreated by the late Günter Körber in four sizes; although largely conjectural, it provided a missing link between the bagpipe chanter and the renaissance families of windcap instruments.
Medieval String Instruments
The writings of Michael Praetorius is always the point of departure to study the rich palette of colours available to the Renaissance instrumentalist. Praetorius published his book about instruments in l6l8 in Wolfenbüttel, in northern Germany, as the second volume of a three-volume encyclopaedia entitled Syntagma Musicum. And while this might seem late for a work about Renaissance instruments, the described instruments are the same ones which were in use throughout much of the l6th century.
Praetorius makes it clear that single-line instruments—those which play only one note at a time—were normally played in consorts, or groups of instruments of the same type in a wide range of sizes. This represents a change in taste from the late Medieval period when ensembles of different types of instruments seem to have been preferred. The change is no doubt because of the contrapuntal nature of much Renaissance music in which each part is of equal importance and therefore most properly rendered as part of a homogeneous texture. Early in the Renaissance, the standard ensemble had a three-voice texture, increasing to five or six by the end of the 16th century. The Renaissance also saw the beginnings of a substantial and virtuosic solo repertoire for keyboards instruments, lutes, and so on.
While some writers have asserted that renaissance trombones had wider bores and later instruments had narrower bores, an examination of surviving instruments has shown that both wide and narrow bore instruments, particularly tenor sizes, existed in this period; moreover, both flat and rounded slide braces were found on renaissance sackbutts as well. The distinguishing characteristic of renaissance trombones and trumpets was the construction of the bell branch, which had a longer and less-pronounced taper terminating in a smaller, thicker bell. This gave the instrument a warmer, more covered, vocal, blending quality which made the instrument, like the cornetts and the bass dulcian, highly useful in both choral and purely instrumental contexts.
Renaissance Woodwind Instruments
Exposed double reed instruments were of two families, the shawms (oboes) and the dulcians or curtals (bassoons); both families existed in four to six sizes, although the greatbass and contrabass sizes were extremely rare then as now. Renaissance shawms were larger in bore and fuller in tone than their medieval predecessors; the earlier soprano instruments (schalmei) were simple unkeyed instruments, whereas the more refined soprano shawm with keywork did not appear until the turn of the seventeenth century. The soprano through tenor sizes were played either with or without a pirouette, the small cup of wood surrounding the reed which, contrary to popular belief, was used not to play the instrument with a freely-vibrating reed but rather to support the instrument against the lips and teeth while marching and protect the reed and player from mishap. The bass shawm, too large for marching use, was never supplied with a pirouette. Alto and tenor instruments were made in two models, the shorter one having only a single key and the longer one having three additional keys which extended the range an additional fourth below. Bass and larger shawms invariably had the extended lower range.
The dulcian or bassoon family was created in the second quarter of the sixteenth century. The wider bore of these instruments was doubled back upon itself, making the larger sizes considerably more portable and manageable. The most common size was the bass or Chorist Fagott, which served as the lowest voice in a dulcian or mixed wind consort, supported the pitch in church choirs when an organ was not available, and even developed a virtuoso solo literature of its own in the early seventeenth century. Next to a set of renaissance recorders, a bass dulcian is perhaps the single most useful instrument in the renaissance instrumentarium. The tenor size was somewhat less common, and the soprano and alto sizes seem to have been used only in Spain, to support the upper voices in cathedral choirs. Dulcians were made either with open or closed bells, the former being louder and brighter, the latter more covered and mellow.
Perhaps the most distinctive wind instruments of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries are the several families of windcap instruments, in which the tone is produced by a freely vibrating double reed inside a hollow chamber at the top of the instrument. The most common of these was the krummhorn family, instruments of narrow cylindrical bore with a characteristic J-shape, producing a bright, buzzy tone quality; these instruments are relatively easy to play, but are incapable of dynamic variation and, because they cannot overblow, have a limited range of a ninth to an eleventh. The larger sizes are sometimes equipped with sliders, small brass keys on the bell curve which may be set to close additional holes and make possible two or three additional low notes.
Closely related to the krummhorns are the cornamuses, which lack the picturesque bend of the krummhorn and have a perforated wooden sleeve at the lower end to dampen the sound; they are therefore somewhat softer than krummhorns but have the same range.
The kortholts have a doubled back bore, similar to the dulcian family but narrow and cylindrical rather than larger and conical, and are therefore shorter in physical length but longer acoustically, allowing a lower range extension of four or five notes below the corresponding size of krummhorn or cornamuse. The members of the rackett family, which have semi-exposed reeds in a pirouette but function acoustically as windcap-blown instruments, carry the kortholt principal of construction to its logical extreme; the bore winds up and down nine times within the body, creating instruments of very low pitch in a small physical size. Differing greatly from all of the foregoing cylindrical bore windcap instruments are the rauschpfeifes, which have wider conical bores and are more closely related to the shawm family. They are capable of overblowing a few notes into the second octave, providing a useful range of an eleventh to a thirteenth.
Many instruments of the Baroque era are easily recognizable as antecedents of modern instruments. Sometimes, the differences between them are subtle or even invisible to the casual observer, or simply in the way they are played. Other instruments had their heyday at the time and passed out of use without obvious descendants. It is important to realize that, although these instruments may be simpler in construction than any modern successors, they are not musically inferior. In fact, both musically and technically, they are perfectly suited to performing the repertoire for which they were designed.
Baroque Woodwind Instruments
Parallel changes occurred in all of the other woodwind instruments: from the flute family, it was the tenor size which became the solo flauto traverso of the baroque, from the shawm family, the soprano member was modernized into the baroque oboe, and from the dulcian family, the noble bass Chorist Fagott was modified into the baroque bassoon. The renaissance shawm band underwent transformation and become the French double reed band of two oboes, taille (tenor oboe), and bassoon. The more expressive and highly contrasted tone quality of the new baroque woodwind saw immediate employment not just in chamber music but also, together with the string family of violins, in the woodwind section of the late baroque and classical orchestra.
Pitch standards also changed about the middle of the seventeenth century. The old renaissance high pitch for wind instruments, about a'=462 Hz. and a semitone above modern pitch, gave way to a French chamber pitch of c. a'=394 Hz., a whole tone below a'=440 Hz.; in the early eighteenth century, this was superseded by a pitch of about a'=409 or 410. The current practice of making baroque woodwind instruments at a'=415 has in fact very little basis in history. In addition, some modern makers have not been careful in redesigning their instruments to compensate for the difference between a'=409 and a'=415, producing instruments which have intonation and response problems. There were also a small number of instruments from the late baroque pitched at a'=435, about a semitone above a'=409. The conclusion to be drawn here is that the current practice of playing baroque music at a'=415 is no more nor less authentic than playing at a'=440 and that both pitches require a total redesign of the original instruments, not a crude shortening and retuning.
The baroque woodwind instruments which we offer are from makers who fully understand the problems of scaling instruments to the present day pitch standards of a'=415 and a'=440 and produce instruments redesigned to those pitches as well as at the original pitches of a'=394 and 410.
Single reed instruments did not find their way into sophisticated musical circles until the early eighteenth century and did not find widespread acceptance in orchestral and chamber music until the very late classical period. The chalumeau was not the predecessor of the clarinet, as is generally believed, but a completely separate entity whose development paralleled that of the baroque clarinet. The baroque chalumeau was a simple cylindrical single reed instrument which enjoyed a brief period of use by German composers such as Graupner and Telemann. It had two keys at the top which permitted a range of an eleventh. The music for this instrument never exceeds this lower register, although most chalumeaux can overblow an additional three or four notes as well. There were four sizes of chalumeau in use, called soprano through bass in the eighteenth century, but usually labelled sopranino through tenor by modern makers. There was no true bass size, since the baroque rackett (also called rackett-bassoon) was used as a bass to the members of this family in the opera orchestra. The smallest size, the sopranino, was used as a solo instrument in concerti and as an obbligato instrument in operatic arias. The soprano, alto, and tenor sizes were used both independently and in various combinations as solo instruments in concerti and church or secular cantatas, and in chamber music by themselves with or without continuo or with other wind or string instruments.
The chalumeau, after several decades, was eclipsed by the baroque clarinet, which offered a much wider range and a fully useful upper register which was overblown at the twelve from the lower register. The upper register is fully chromatic, whereas the lower register offers some chromatic notes by half-holing but does not provide useful cross-fingered notes. Composers therefore habitually avoided chromatic tones in the lower register. Among the works written for the baroque clarinet are the several concerti for oboes and clarinets in C by Vivaldi, the operatic scores of Rameau, and the wonderful virtuoso solo concerti for D clarinet by Molter. The D clarinet was frequently employed as a substitute for the baroque clarino trumpet, and therefore all baroque trumpet literature is also fair game for the baroque clarinetist.
Classical (1750 – 1820)
Classical Woodwind Instruments
The single-keyed transverse flute of the baroque period became a four-keyed and still later six-keyed instrument, although single-keyed instruments were still in use well into the nineteenth century. The additional keywork provided greatly technical facility and eliminated or offered more stable alternatives to the cross-fingered notes of the earlier instruments. Oboes, on the other hand, temporarily lost one of their original three keys in the classical era, only to have many other keys gradually added after the turn of the nineteenth century.
Bassoons evolved slowly and gradually from the three-keyed instrument of the baroque into the four and six-keyed instrument of the classical era, and the extension of the upper register by an additional three to five semitones was also utilized by composers in solo and orchestral literature.
The clarinet, however, showed the most dramatic changes in the late eighteenth century; a total redesign of the baroque clarinet produced a larger bored, wide-belled instrument with a warm, expressive tone and a greatly enlarged range which very rapidly earned the instrument a place in solo, orchestral, and chamber music. Instruments pitched in A, Bb, and C were all quite common.