From The Director's Desk
Editorial Views and Opinions

Die Flötedämmerung
The Twilight of Acoustical Musical Instruments


For the past decade or so, one of the complaints most frequently heard from professional musicians of all persuasions (commercial, jazz, folk, symphonic, and, yes, early music performers) who perform on traditional acoustical musical instruments is that their work and livelihood is being encroached upon and usurped by players of electronic instruments. Many acoustical musicians have seen the future and are absolutely terrified of what it might hold for them and their successors. They are very much apprehensive of being at best relegated to a niche market surviving largely on nostalgia for historical styles of musical performance and, at worse, being rendered obsolete entirely.

Present-day performers on historical instruments are, of course, accustomed to being in a niche market, but the prospect of all acoustical instruments becoming in effect historical instruments is a very real possibility. Symphonic musicians in particular are feeling especially vulnerable, what with the earlier part of their repertoire (nowadays all music up to Brahms and Wagner) having been gradually and increasingly usurped by what they derisively and defensively call “the early instrument crowd” and the more and more frequent performances of opera and ballet scores by electronic media being dictated by economic factors.

It is not entirely inconceivable that acoustical musical instruments may in fact be in some sort of twilight phase of their lifespan, gradually being eclipsed and sooner or later to be replaced by electronic performance media. It might therefore be timely for those of us who perform upon historical instruments and presumably have a vested interest in the continued viability of acoustical instruments in general to evaluate the validity of these allegations and prognostications.

The advantages of computer technology as applied to music performance are very palpable and undeniable: one performer with an array of sophisticated electronic equipment can simulate the performance of anywhere from one to a hundred performers on acoustical instruments, with far greater precision of ensemble and intonation and flexibility of color, nuance, and dynamics than has ever been possible with our familiar, beloved, but primitive-by-comparison acoustical instruments -- and with considerably less expenditure of time and money as well.

A brief visit to any general music store or the annual NAMM music industry trade show in Anaheim will quickly reveal that the bulk of activity in the music business today lies in electronic keyboard instruments, guitars, and drum equipment, the basic components of the instrumentarium of professional and amateur pop and rock groups. Sales of traditional pianos, band and orchestral instruments, and such specialized items as classical guitars (and, dare I say, recorders and other historical instruments as well) have been moribund for over a decade and industry pundits have expressed serious doubts as to whether they will ever again be a major force in the industry.


The purpose of this essay is not, as one might expect from the foregoing, to make a strong case for the continued viability of acoustical instruments in general and historical instruments in particular, however well that particular premise might play to the special interests of the readers of this not-so-august journal. I have a somewhat larger target to pursue: I would like to try to put the entire continuum of organological development in Western civilization from the Middle Ages to the present day into some sort of historical perspective in order to provide a framework from which the current predicament of modern acoustical instrumental performance might more profitably be viewed.

I would like to advance several theories that may well be unsettling to many professional performers who believe strongly in the continued viability of their chosen performance medium. I believe that present-day modern acoustical instruments have in fact for over a century contained within themselves the seeds of their own destruction. I will attempt to show not only where and why acoustical instrument design went wrong but also try to show a way out of our present dilemma. In order to do so, it will first be necessary to demolish some long-held cherished ideas about the history and development of musical instruments in Western civilization.

First, we have to disabuse ourselves of the appealing notion, usually implicit but occasionally expressed explicitly as well, that the entire chronology of instrument design and building from the late Middle Ages to the present day is one of continued growth, refinement, and improvement. Those who subscribe to this widely held, highly tempting, and comforting view of organological history believe that earlier instruments were extremely primitive at their inception and gradually, over the centuries, were improved upon by successive generations of instrument makers until the twentieth century, which is now presumably blessed with highly developed instruments which represent a pinnacle of achievement in design and technological sophistication. This Panglossian “best of all possible worlds” view of the modern instrumentarium is widely believed by instrument makers and professional performers; indeed, many of the latter have had their notions reinforced by a dabbling ten-minute acquaintance with an historical predecessor of their modern instrument, after which they smugly proclaim the older instrument primitive and unplayable and repair to the practice studio for another four hours of daily physical effort to beat their chosen instrument into submission.

I can recall quite vividly a highly accomplished modern flutist coming up to our exhibit at a National Flute Association convention, picking up a baroque flute and, after a few minutes of trying to play the instrument, said “I can't believe that they ever played the Bach flute sonatas on such an instrument!,” and walked away, secure in the knowledge that her modern Böhm flute was vastly superior.

Only those who have been living in a cave for the past several decades remain unaware of the enormous strides that have been made in performance upon historical instruments and the performance practice of earlier music in general. Caves can indeed be warm, comforting, and womb-like, but they are also dark, dank, and insulate one from the experiences of the outside world. Living in a cave, one can readily convince oneself that performers on historical instruments are largely cranks or oddballs motivated by a misguided, impractical sense of historicity, a prime example of antiquarianism run amok.

If that cave were equipped with a decent stereo system, however, musicus neanderthalus might well compact-discover (to coin an infelicitous turn of phrase) that historical instruments have their own distinct and separate virtues complementary to those of modern instruments and are, in fact, better suited to the performance of period music than modern instruments. As has been pointed out previously in these pages, historical instruments should be used not just because they are historically correct or, worse, quaint or different, but primarily because they are the best tool for the job in a completely modern sense. Like modern instruments, however, they must be studied and practiced for a lifetime and do not yield up their secrets easily, certainly not on ten minutes' acquaintance.

There is also a second, corollary erroneous notion about organological history that is widely if tacitly held by both early instrumentalists and modern instrumentalists alike: the idea that change in instrument design is a gradual evolutionary process, each generation of instrument makers contributing ideas that reflect the specific needs of musical styles and performers of their time. The fact of the matter is that instrument design, like cultural history as a whole, does not evolve gradually and continually but rather moves in fits and starts. Certain brief periods in instrumental design may in retrospect be seen to be watershed eras of revolutionary change, whereas other periods may be viewed as plateaus and times of consolidation.

When were the big revolutionary periods in Western musical instrument design? Perhaps the earliest was the period in the late Middle Ages, now totally obscured by the mists of time (as historians are fond of saying), when folk instruments imported from the Near East, probably by merchants and crusaders, were adapted for the purposes of a fledgling, newly emerging Western art music. A second great wave of creativity began in the late fifteenth century when instrument builders, particularly in Italy, set about creating whole families or consorts of like instruments in a variety of pitch ranges from their single-size late medieval precursors.

A third spurt of organological activity occurred in the latter half of the seventeenth century, when instrument makers in several major cities (woodwinds in Paris, brass in Nuremberg, for example) made major modifications in design to the most suitable sizes of renaissance consort instruments in order to create a whole new instrumentarium for the performance of baroque musical styles in a Darwinian survival of the fittest. The most recent upheaval in instrument design occurred in the late nineteenth century, when modern technology made possible the creation of louder instruments with wider, fully chromatic ranges, suitable for performance in large modern concert halls.

It may be seen by the astute reader that each of these four major revolutionary periods occurred at intervals of roughly two hundred years. Whether this is simply happenstance or whether we are seeing the manifestation of a regularly recurring cycle of predictable change, a brief period of revolution followed by a plateau of more than a century and a half of consolidation and application, is difficult to say. The notion of periodicity in the fine arts is one that has been around for most of this century, having been first advanced by the German art historian Heinrich Wölfflin around the time of the First World War. See his “Grundsätze der Kunstgeschichte”, Berlin, 1915, for the original exposition of this theory. This theory of cyclic recurrence in instrumental development, to the best of my knowledge not previously noticed by organologists, may well be simply another manifestation of the general cultural phenomenon first noticed by Wölfflin.

My theory may well explain why instrument design has been largely moribund for the past one hundred years. It is also more than a bit discomforting to think that we will have to wait for another century before the world of musical instrument design takes another Great Leap Forward into another, as yet unforeseen Brave New World. Whether electronic instruments may condemn acoustical instruments to oblivion before this development can occur, or whether electronic instruments are in fact the next generation, the wave of the future, remains to be seen.

Our knowledge and understanding of these watershed epochs in organology, as with cultural history in general, increases logarithmically from one period to the next on a sort of historical Richter scale. Even developments as recent as those of the late seventeenth century are still quite unclear to us in many details. It is only with the most recent breakthroughs in the late nineteenth century that we have a good grasp of the specifics of who did what, where, when, why, and how. What we have lacked until now is an overview and understanding of what happened one hundred years ago and why it landed us in the predicament in which we now find ourselves. Let us, then, look closely at the changes in instrument design that occurred in the last century, why “early” instruments, by our current definition, became obsolete, and why modern instruments achieved a victory which is now beginning to turn sour.


The musical history of the past two centuries can only be properly understood in the larger context of sociological and political history and change. The root cause of our present predicament, I am sorry to relate, was the emergence in the late eighteenth century of democratic and republican ideals and the coming to power in both Europe and the New World of a middle class with cultural interests and aspirations, a socio-political phenomenon which was crystallized and symbolized by the French Revolution and ideologically aided and abetted by the Enlightenment philosophers. The old world order, in which music and the other arts were considered the private entertainment of the nobility, rapidly and (in some instances) violently gave way to a new social structure in which culture became popularized and readily available to the masses.

Prior to the late eighteenth century, music performances were given in relatively small acoustical venues for the benefit and entertainment of the aristocracy. During the latter half of that century, however, public concerts became increasingly common and special halls were built to house these performances. During the nineteenth century, the trend to increasingly larger orchestral performing forces, concert audiences, and concert halls became so pronounced that “early”(i.e., baroque/classical) instruments which had slowly evolved since the late seventeenth century were no longer equal to the task of filling these immense spaces. It was then that European and American instrument makers, aided by striking advances in technology, made major modifications to virtually all types of musical instruments in order to render them more audible in large concert halls. In doing so, instrument design took a left turn into a cul-de-sac from which there is now No Exit in both the existential as well as real sense.

Let us examine precisely what happened one hundred years ago, the better to understand where we are today. Instrument builders, then as now, were up against some very basic, immutable facts of physics and acoustics. First, any specific type of acoustical musical instrument can generate only a limited, finite amount of sound energy. That energy is dispersed by the design of the instrument into a fundamental frequency, which gives the tone pitch identification and definition, and a variety of weaker, higher pitches or overtones, which create the subtle tone color of a particular instrument. A second inescapable fact of physics is that low frequencies (long wavelengths) carry for greater distances than higher frequencies (short wavelengths). This is why musical instruments sound brighter when heard close up and darker when heard from a distance; the upper partials attenuate increasingly with distance and only the stronger lower partials and fundamental survive the trip – Darwin's theory of evolution applied to the physics of musical instruments.

Late nineteenth century instrument makers, acting partly by science and partly by empiricism, found that the only way to make a musical instrument carry greater distances in large halls was to concentrate as much of the sound energy as possible in the fundamental; the only way to accomplish this was to rob energy from the overtones. The universal result was instruments which were louder but darker and duller in tone quality. An even more pernicious side effect was that, in the process, instruments also became more inertial, monolithic, and far less flexible in tone and articulation; notes required more effort to start and, once sounding, more difficult to stop, making subtlety and variety of color and expression, theretofore the very essence of musical performance, much more difficult if not impossible to achieve.

Performers were faced with the task of developing new playing techniques to overcome these new limitations; these techniques required much greater physical strength and control and a greater expenditure of daily practice time in order to maintain that strength and control, all in the name of attempting to wrest some modicum of musical expression from instruments which had become essentially much less inherently musical. Let us look at the manifestation of these technical changes in the cases of specific types of musical instruments. Woodwind instruments acquired an increasing number of keys during the nineteenth century in order to permit technical facility, tonal equality, and pitch stability of all twelve semitones in what was becoming an increasingly chromatic musical vocabulary. The process of boring more and more holes, including not only holes for each chromatic semitone but also additional holes for technical purposes such as specific trill keys or alternate fingerings, created an acoustical design nightmare. The closed and open fingerholes created blips and bumps which destroyed the regular, smooth bore of the older instruments and which in and of itself robbed these instruments of their original tonal complexity and richness.

Instrument makers, being essentially engineers and not musicians, became dazzled by their own technical achievements – “the more keywork, the better” was the order of the day. An examination of late 19th and early 20th century patent registrations show clearly that technology had become an end in itself and had in fact become the proverbial tail wagging the dog. These “new improved” instruments were, in fact, more difficult and not easier to play, especially to play musically, but, hell, that was the player's problem, not the maker’s.

Radical redesigns of certain instruments, such as Theobald Böhm's creation of a completely new cylindrical bore flute with enormous toneholes, and Adolf Sax's invention of a wholly new family of instruments bearing his name which managed to combine in roughly equal parts the less appealing characteristics of both the woodwind and brass families, were simply two of many such “improvements” in instrument design which purported to make instruments more nearly perfect but which in fact sacrificed musically subtlety on the altar of loudness and homogeneity. In the past hundred years, woodwind instrument makers have attempted to further improve these instruments in order to make them more flexible and inherently musical, but it has been a piecemeal effort and a largely unsuccessful and thankless task to boot.

The major improvement effected in brass instrument design during the nineteenth century was, of course, the invention and application of valve mechanisms to trumpets and horns which previously played only the notes of the natural harmonic series, rending them fully chromatic throughout their entire ranges. Although the technology may seem on the surface to be substantially different than that deployed by woodwind instrument makers, the end results were very much the same: the interruption of the previously smooth, geometrically pure bores of the natural trumpets and horns by ancillary tubing with numerous bends, as well as rotors, pistons, and the like, served to rob the instruments of their originally rich tonal qualities and created tonal and intonational problems to which even more technology had to be applied. In the preface to the score of “Tristan und Isolde”, Wagner obviously had mixed feelings about the capabilities of the new-fangled valve horns required by his work and stated that, if they were well-played, they could sound almost as good as the old natural horns.

Only the trombone was at first immune to these changes, but it too later succumbed to bore changes, rotary valves, and much additional tubing in the attempt to facilitate slide technique, extend range, and increase volume. The current craze for open-wrap tubing modifications on so-called bass trombones (which are actually large bore tenor trombones and not bass instruments at all) is a belated attempt to correct the tone and response deterioration caused by the addition of multiple valves and extra tubing to the simple trombone, a classic example of fixing something that wasn't broke to begin with. As we are only recently learning to our dismay, there is no such thing as pure progress. There is no free lunch in musical instrument design. Technology always seems to create new (and often worse) problems to take the place of the ones which it purports to solve. Trumpets with four or more valves and valve slide tuning mechanisms of a complexity which only Rube Goldberg would have loved are clumsy, technology-driven attempts to rectify the intonational inaccuracies inherent in valved brass instruments.

Bowed string instruments seemed on the surface to change the least during the nineteenth century, but that seeming absence of change was, upon closer investigation, largely illusory. While makers rebuilt instruments by seventeenth and eighteenth century masters and built new instruments to the same general historical shapes and patterns, these instruments were set up entirely differently. Instruments were now fitted with more sharply angled necks and longer fingerboards. Higher tension strings were more acutely angled over taller bridges, creating more pressure on the top of the instrument, which in turn had to be buttressed underneath with larger, longer bass bars and thicker soundposts. It is little wonder that the old instruments fell apart under this tension and had to be continually rebuilt and reinforced for modern use. The overall rise in pitch levels, frequently cited as a major factor in the destruction of older string instruments, was in fact only a relatively minor factor.

Newer styles of bows were developed to enable the player to cope with an instrument that made become increasingly less responsive. The introduction of modern metal strings was only the last nail in the coffin lid. Just as with woodwind and brass instruments, the result was louder, darker, duller sounding instruments with sluggish response and reduced range of coloration.

It was no coincidence that the adoption of the modern, mechanical, more or less continuous vibrato on all bowed strings and most woodwind and brass instruments (the clarinet and horn being the most notable exceptions) occurred at the same time as these structural changes in the instruments themselves. Indeed, the modern use of vibrato as a constant element of musical tone instead of an occasional ornament may in retrospect be seen as a somewhat futile attempt to give some life to the sound of an instrument that had become tonally dead. The late Archie Camden, considered the greatest English bassoonist of the first half of the twentieth century, had surprisingly historical notions about the use of vibrato on orchestral instruments. In a mid-1950's BBC broadcast in a series entitled “Talking About Music” hosted by John Amis, he proffered the opinion that modern continuous bassoon vibrato resembled nothing so much as “a bowl of jelly at bay.” He stated that “you use vibrato when the music calls for it and don't when it doesn't -- generally you don't.” He further stated that “a player who uses vibrato in the classics [i.e., Mozart and Haydn] should be shot -- drastic but effective!” While it is unlikely that Camden ever saw or played on an historical instrument or arranged for the execution of a fellow bassoonist, his ideas on performance practice were astoundingly ahead of his time.

Harps also underwent similar changes in stringing and construction in the late nineteenth century. Larger, more heavily buttressed soundboxes were required to withstand the pressure from thicker, more heavily wound strings under much higher tension. In attempting to make the harp, originally a chamber instrument, suitable for competition in a modern orchestral environment, it lost its charm, grace, clarity, and richness of tone color in exchange for the presumed capability of being able to be heard above the din of the orchestra, a futile endeavor if ever there was one.

Playing technique changed radically as well; harpists were compelled to use much greater physical effort and actually wrap their fingers around the string from behind and pull, rather than using the historical technique of playing the string from the side. Even some makers of folk harps have succumbed to the temptation to increase string tension in the name of volume and projection, creating in essence concert harps without pedals. The late Bernard Zighera, principal harpist of the Boston Symphony for many years, decried the decline of the classical French school of harp playing and the advent of a more athletic, less subtle American school. To the end of his distinguished career and to his everlasting credit, he refused to become involved in a battle of decibels which he knew could never be won.

To leave for a moment the area of orchestral instruments, the piano, essentially a solo medium, also underwent similar structural changes. The introduction of massive cases, heavy soundboards, and unresonant metal frames to accommodate higher tension and multiple stringing created a monster which was indeed louder, more stable in tuning, but bald of overtones. The development of modern hammer mechanisms served only to isolate further the finger of the player from the point where the sound is created. How far these instruments had evolved from the simple clavichord and harpsichord, where the player had a direct link to the tone production and could actually feel the string under the finger!

Modern pianos can indeed fill a large hall with overpowering sound, but at what a cost. The instrument has become dull and monochromatic in tone, and only a handful of the solo pianists before the public today have resisted the temptation to become pounders and have learned to wrest a modicum of color variety and inflection out of what has become perhaps the least tractable of modern instruments.

Pipe organs, then as now largely found in the ecclesiastical realm, were also victims of nineteenth century technological progress. The guilty culprit in this case was the advent of electricity, which at first seemed to create tremendous freedom for the organ builder (and unemployment for the organ pumper). Organ consoles no longer had to be located in close proximity to the pipe work and linked mechanically. With electrical circuits, the console and pipework could be located anywhere that was architecturally convenient or liturgically desirable, organs could easily be made larger and more complex, playing aids such as combinations and presets allowed virtually unlimited flexibility in registration, and higher wind pressures generated by electric blowers permitted pipes to be voiced louder.

All of this sounded wonderful in theory, an organist's pipe dream come true. Like most dreams, it was too good to be true. The price that had to be paid for these seemingly miraculous achievements was the loss of the organ's power of speech. The subtlety of articulation and agogic accent possible only on a mechanical action instrument was totally lost; the keyboard became merely a set of electric switches opening and closing circuits to the electromagnets under the pipe feet that controlled the valves. A pipe was either on or off, sounding or mute; the myriad subtle ways of beginning and releasing a tone by controlling attack transients and decay were lost. Each note started and ended the same way, no matter how the player touched the key. Just as in the case of woodwind, brass, string, and pianos, the organ had lost its heritage and identity in the name of progress and volume. Its birthright was sold for a mess of potage. As we eventually learned, it was too great a price to pay.


What is quite astounding about this great revolution in the design of musical instruments in the late nineteenth century is that these changes occurred in all the different families of instruments at about the same time, in spite of the fact that the technologies of designing, building, and playing upon disparate types of instruments would appear, at least on the surface, to be radically different from one another. The industrial revolution was on a roll and we seemed to have adopted a child-like faith in technology as the cure for all problems, accompanied by peripheral blindness to the new problems that technology created in place of the old, familiar problems for which workarounds and practical solutions already existed. Throwing still more technology at these newer problems has only served to complicate the situation even more.

Modern musical instruments have become more and more difficult to master and have become increasingly the tools of an elite corps of professional players. Most would-be amateur musicians, given the complexity of life in the late twentieth century, have neither the time, training, nor inclination to master the performance skills necessary to make real music (as opposed to primitive noises) on modern instruments. Musical talent and aptitude are not all that rare among the general populace, but the time and determination to apply that natural ability are simply not available in the lives of most people. A brief visit to an elementary school band class will reveal how truly dreadful beginning instrumentalists sound. The chronic high attrition rates in school music programs are ample evidence that many if not most school children are well aware of how awful their first attempts at playing a modern instrument are. They become quickly discouraged by the primitive results they achieve and soon drop out.

Modern instrument builders have to realize that they have gotten themselves into a blind alley from which there is no escape. The first evidence of awareness in this regard seems to have come from the organ-building community. As early as the 1950's, some European makers realized the musical limitations of electric-action pipe organs and began to fight their way back to building once again mechanical action organs and reconnecting themselves to the historical tradition of organ building from the Middle Ages through the mid-nineteenth century. They now build not just historical replicas, but also modern instruments with the musical virtues of historical instruments. This Orgelbewegung (organ movement), as it was called in Germany, caught on a decade or so later in the United States and Canada, and truly fine modern instruments based on historical tonal and mechanical principles are now being built by many if not most organ builders on both sides of the ocean today.

Organ builders, then, have shown us the way back to clarity and sanity in musical instrument design by once again building instruments that are satisfying to play and satisfying to hear. Modern makers of woodwind, brass, bowed and plucked strings, and other keyboard instruments can and must take a cue from their organbuilding colleagues. Mind you, I am not suggesting for one moment that we chuck all modern instruments into the trash bin and attempt to perform nineteenth and twentieth century music on early instruments – that would be just as stupid and wrong-headed as playing early music on modern instruments. What I would propose is that instrument makers and performers call a halt to the escalation of this insane trend to make modern instruments increasingly louder at the expense of tone quality and musicality.

The advent of electronic instruments has, if nothing else, proven conclusively that acoustical instruments cannot possibly win this war of decibels. Rather, we must redesign modern instruments so that they are not as loud, but have greater variety of tone color, flexibility, and musical nuance. In short, we must seek to regain the birthright of acoustical musical instruments, the qualities which render them musically superior to electronic instruments. The battle for the survival of acoustical instruments must be fought on grounds which can be won. Otherwise, they will most assuredly be increasingly consigned to museums and trotted out for occasional “historical” performances for the appreciation of niche-market enthusiasts. If this escalation continues, Valhalla will most certainly burn to the ground and acoustical instruments will wind up back at the bottom of the Rhine in the primordial ooze from whence they came.

Copyright, Antique Sound Workshop, Ltd., 1992. All rights reserved.

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