ASW Guide to Historical Woodwind Instruments

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Medieval Woodwind Instruments

As with recorders, there are virtually no surviving woodwind instruments from prior to the sixteenth century; modern makers have been most ingenious in creating medieval instruments by extrapolating backwards from later renaissance instruments, incorporating European and folk instrument influences, and using depictions of instruments in paintings and wood and stone carvings as a point of departure.

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.

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Renaissance Woodwind Instruments

In the sixteenth century, instrument makers developed large families of wind instruments from the sparser medieval instrumentarium; most instruments were made in four to eight different sizes and pitches. The taste of the period dictated the performance of music on contrasting choirs of like instruments, as well as in the mixed ensembles more common in the middle ages and in later periods. The palette of wind instrument colors was far more extensive in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries than at any other time in music history. Transverse flutes, of straight cylindrical bore with six open tone holes, were commonly used in alto, tenor, and bass sizes, although most modern makers provide a soprano size as well. Their simple, open sound contrasts well with renaissance recorder tone as well as with the many reed instruments. Moeck offers large bore tenor and bass sizes, and Ralph Sweet makes an extremely inexpensive and highly playable tenor flute as well as a soprano flute or renaissance fife.

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 shawms from Moeck's Renaissance Studios have been vastly improved in design and quality of workmanship in recent years and now represent a viable alternative as well.

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. The Moeck dulcians have a removeable plug to convert their instruments from open to closed bell models.

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. The celebrated krummhorns by the late Günter Körber are no longer available, but the newer instruments by Moeck are of excellent quality and highly recommended.

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. Our Moeck cornamuses are a viable and less expensive alternative to their crumhorns and produce a rich, warm tone quality that will not overpower recorders and other quieter instruments.

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. Moeck offers alto and tenor sizes of kortholt in wood. 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. Volker Kernbach produces all four sizes of rackett depicted in the Syntagma Musicum of Michael Praetorius. 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. The rauschpfeifes made by Moeck are identical copies of those made by the late Günter Körber.

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Baroque Woodwind Instruments

During the third quarter of the seventeenth century, a drastic overhaul of all of the woodwind instruments was initiated by a circle of Parisian instrument makers centering around the famous Hotteterre family. The families windcap instruments, being incapable of tonal or dynamic variation and therefore unsuited to baroque performance styles, had by this time passed into obsolescence. From each of the remaining renaissance families of recorders, flutes, and reed instruments, the one most useful size was selected, redesigned acoustically to meet the more expressive needs of baroque music, and fitted with an elaborately turned exterior in the baroque style. The body of the instrument was typically divided into several pieces, both for ease in manufacturing and portability. In the recorder world, the alto size became the leading solo instrument for chamber music and concerti, whereas the soprano, tenor, and bass sizes, although still occasionally made, were used far less. The bore of the instrument became narrower and more highly conical, the tone smaller but much more complex and reedier, with distinct quality and dynamic differences among the low, middle, and high registers.

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. Among makers of baroque instruments at a'=440, we recommend the Denner oboes and bassoons by Moeck, and the Grenser flutes by Mollenhauer as being well designed and highly playable. The plastic baroque flutes by Aulos, available in a'=440 Grenser and a'=415 Stanesby models, are quite inexpensive in price and play extremely well and easily; the wooden baroque flute by Ralph Sweet, with interchangeable joints for a'=440 and 415, provides a very useable instrument at a bargain price. The choice of good instruments at low pitch is far greater, and all of the instruments in our catalogue are capable of fine results. Each instrument is carefully serviced and tuned in our workshop by a experienced player and meets the highest professional standards of performance.

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 medieval, folk, and modern chalumeaux by Adler-Heinrich are extremely inexpensive instruments which provide a wide range of utility. 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 baroque chalumeaux by Moeck which we offer are easy to play, relatively inexpensive in price, and make available a substantial body of virtually unknown solo and chamber music to the baroque music enthusiast.

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. Schwenk & Seggelke make several fine models of baroque clarinets.

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Classical Woodwind Instruments

The changes in woodwind instrument building from the baroque to the classical periods were on the whole far less dramatic than the changes from renaissance to baroque, a process evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Later eighteenth century makers made instruments which were warmer and less assertive in tone color, suited more for blending in the wind section of the classical orchestra of Mozart, Haydn, and their contemporaries. Some earlier instruments seem to have been made for a pitch standard of a'=425 to 430, but there are a large number of surviving instruments which play at or close to a'=440; this would seem to be a reasonably authentic and yet practical standard to which modern makers should adhere.

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. We have a variety of multiple-keyed transverse flute from the Ralph Sweet workshop, including a fine six or eight keyed simple system flute. 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. Moeck offers a fine copy of an original Grassi classical period oboe.

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 Rust bassoon by Hanchet was an outstanding example of the French school of instrument making, but is sadly no longer available.

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. The finest makers of classical and early romantic clarinets are Schwenk & Seggelke; They offer a wide variety of faithful reproductions, beautifully made and highly playable, of surviving original instruments.

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Folk Woodwind Instruments

The distinction between folk and classical instruments was not at all well defined in earlier periods as it is today, and many folk instruments can be used to great effect in the performance practices of early music. A wide variety of flute family instruments at extremely low prices are made by Ralph Sweet, including numerous models of transverse flutes, tabor pipes (three-hole or one-hand recorder-like instruments), flageolettes (transverse flutes with recorder-like headjoints), and fifes. We also offer sets of plastic pennywhistles and tabor pipes in different sizes made by the Kelischek workshop. The folk chalumeaux and wooden pennywhistles by Adler-Heinrich are extremely inexpensive instruments which provide good value and performance for the performner of folk and traditional music. A variety of ocarinas, panpipes, and other folk instruments are also to be found in our listing of gift items.

Copyright, Antique Sound Workshop, Ltd., 1996, 1997, 1998, 2002, & 2007. All rights reserved.

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