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Topic: Period Instruments

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  1. #1

    Period Instruments

    Last week, I was fortunate enough to go to a mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli recital. She brought with her a nice chamber orchestra, playing period instruments. This was the first concert I attended featuring 'period instruments' and could not help noticing how 'different' it sounded, slightly 'rougher' and 'rustic'

    Which bring me to my question: Does anyone know what the (general) differences are between period and standard instruments? This was very obvious in the strings: Instead if the usual string 'wash', I could very easily pick out individual instruments. How can I get that kind of sound using GPO, or any library for that matter? Is it jusr EQ?

    Thanks in advance for any suggestions...

    Diego

  2. #2

    Re: Period Instruments

    Hi Diego, here's my opinion on it (be interesting to see what others have to say!). I studied organ and harpsichord at Oberlin, and did some secondary work on baroque violin (violin was my first instrument) so I've got some feel for period instruments.

    Main differences:

    1. you're hearing individual instruments (as opposed to the "wash" you mention) because there are usually FEWER instruments. Period orchestras, back then and nowadays, are nowhere near the size of the modern symphony orchestra. When I conduct period ensembles, I usually hire 5-6 firsts, 4-5 seconds, 3-4 violi, 4 celli (or a baroque bassoon), and violone (the period version of double bass).

    2. Relative lack of vibrato. In much music prior to 1800, left-hand vibrato was used more as an ornament than a constant effect (as it is today). The full (and quite lush and beautiful) string sections in GPO would never sound like this by definition. You might be able to get something like that effect if you combined some of the solo violins that have less vibrato in the sample (I think one of them -- maybe the Guarnerius? -- has less than others).

    3. The effect of the non-Tourte bow. 18th century string players used a different bow, one that had less "balanced" tone throughout the length of the bow. (This is no criticism -- it's a gorgeous effect in the music of the period). That means that each note/bowstroke tended to have a slight "swelling" effect; this coincided with a "mesa di voce" playing style that called for a natural swell a longer note, coupled with the relatively non-vibrato sound I mentioned above. I'm not sure you could approximate this with modern samples.

    4. String differences. In the period orchestra you're hearing gut strings; in the modern, you're hearing steel wrapped around gut (and -- crucially -- on the top E string you're hearing steel alone). Modern string players usually avoid the open strings because of the very different, raw "steely" sound they produce. Period instruments use open strings all the time as they are quite homogenous with the other notes. (A wish for me and a few composers is to have a sample orchestra -- maybe GPOA? -- that has open strings available for modern instruments, since there are certainly times you want that sound -- particularly double and triple stops, etc.).

    THere are other differences, of course, but those are some of the big ones. Hope that helps!

    Steve
    Steve Main
    stmain@aol.com
    www.stephenmain.com

  3. #3

    Smile Re: Period Instruments

    Quote Originally Posted by diegom
    Last week, I was fortunate enough to go to a mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli recital. She brought with her a nice chamber orchestra, playing period instruments. This was the first concert I attended featuring 'period instruments' and could not help noticing how 'different' it sounded, slightly 'rougher' and 'rustic'

    Which bring me to my question: Does anyone know what the (general) differences are between period and standard instruments? This was very obvious in the strings: Instead if the usual string 'wash', I could very easily pick out individual instruments. How can I get that kind of sound using GPO, or any library for that matter? Is it jusr EQ?

    Thanks in advance for any suggestions...

    Diego
    Depending on the period, the woodwinds and brass will sound quite different. For example, the trumpets and horns did not have valves in the Renaissance and Baroque periods (I think they began acquiring valves in the late 1800's, but don't have my references here at hand). As a result, you couldn't write certain notes: trumpets could not play a chromatic scale over their entire range. Horns played chromatic notes by "stopping" the horn - jamming one's hand into the bell so far that the pitch goes off a half step, which also distinctly changes the timbre. The trumpets used were valveless 8' instruments, played in a screaming high register, in contrast to the 4' trumpets of today (or 2' piccolo trumpets) - again, a distinctly different timbre. Trombones weren't as brash (they were church instruments!). Tubas didn't exist: that role was filled by serpents, then bass horn/Russian bassoon (still essentially a serpent), then the ophicleide.

    Before Boehm, flutes were generally made of wood, with smaller holes and much softer timbres. Think "Irish flute", and you're on the right track. Recorders were more widely used (and there are timbral differences between the sharp Baroque recorders and the mellower, softer Renaissance recorders). Renaissance double reeds included shawms (ancestor to the oboe) in a variety of sizes (sopranino down to great bass), generally loud enough that they were considered "outdoor" instruments (imagine a cross between oboe and bagpipe...).

    Probably one of the most defining characteristics of "period" woodwinds is the difference in timbre from note to note. On many instruments, accidentals were made by covering a fingerhole only half-way, which provides the right pitch but changes the timbre.

    Probably more than you wanted to know...

    As for how to re-create these sounds, perhaps we need to petition Gary for the GPPO (Garritan Personal Period Orchestra)

    Of course, some of these instruments might show up in GPOA.

    Enjoy!

    Grant
    ==============================
    Grant Green ||| www.contrabass.com
    Sarrusophones and other seismic devices

  4. #4
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    Re: Period Instruments

    This is an extremely interesting thread, and I've really enjoyed the insights. I hope I'm not digressing, but when it comes to "period" reenactments, I can't help but ask: What's the object of the exercise? It seems to me that when we hear and interpret a piece of music, all of our conscious history and experience is brought to bear, and thus our interpretation exists in a moment of time that can never come again.

    For instance, I've heard period reenactments before (though only via recorded media) and can relate to the description of an enjoyably "rough" or "rustic" sound. But isn't this only because we have been enculturated into a "wash" standard, from which we filter our perceptions? It wouldn't have sounded that way to the people living there and then. We can never know what it sounded like to them. Even if you could time travel to 1720 and hear a live Baroque era concert, your sensibilities would be so entirely alien to the period that your sonic experience would be radically and incomprehensively different from those of your new-found contemporaries.

    So even in the act of trying to recapture something old, what we really find is something brand new.

    Just a thought.

  5. #5

    Re: Period Instruments

    Quote Originally Posted by diegom
    Which bring me to my question: Does anyone know what the (general) differences are between period and standard instruments? This was very obvious in the strings: Instead if the usual string 'wash', I could very easily pick out individual instruments. How can I get that kind of sound using GPO, or any library for that matter? Is it jusr EQ?

    Thanks in advance for any suggestions...

    Diego
    Hello Diego,

    I have a particular interest in this and most of my recordings are of 'period music'. There are very different physical and historical differences in 'authentic' instruments and performances, many of which have already been mentioned. I have studied the violin and piano although violin is my main. In addition to those differences already mentioned, the fingerboard of 'early' violins were shorter than those of today. Many Baroque violins have had their fingerboards lengthened for modern use.

    Regarding performance, there are significantly different conventions in the performance of 'period music' involving ensemble make-up, use of continuo and figured bass, tempo, ornaments and temperence (pitch .. early music was tuned lower than today). This is probably better explained and demonstrated by those who study and perform 'period music' professionally such as Christopher Hogwood John Eliot Gardiner and Andrew Parrott, (to mention but a few) who have made several recordings. There is no substitute to listening and comparing to highlight the differences. By way of example, how many times have we heard Handel's Messiah performed by large symphony orchestras and massed choirs? (Handel directed his first performance in Dublin with 19 male voices .. 6 of them boys.) By comparison, listen to the performance by Hogwood directing the Academy of Ancient Music using Handel's instrumental and voice make-up, using authentic instruments Handel composed for and playing from the autograph score.

    I am aware of the argument 'If these composers were alive today .. etc .. etc' Many, many years ago, when vinyl reigned, I bought a recording of the Bach Brandenburgs conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. I was gobsmacked to hear a highly 'lush' performance firmly fixed in the 'Romantic' era. On reading the record notes, Sir Adrian had written, 'If Bach were alive today ... if you are unhappy then you are at liberty to return the recording and purchase one of the many others available'. This is exactly what I did!

    Regarding using GPO in the style of 'period music', I will leave that to the more technical and experienced here in the forums. I would start by suggesting that you use the samples of the 'early' strings Gary has included. Early ensembles were smaller than today so you could make up your own string ensembles with individual instruments. Regarding woodwind, there is a 'classical oboe' sample included and, of course, for continuo we have a harpsichord. Additionally, perhaps you could tune your ensemble down to A=441. When writing for your ensemble pay particular attention to the use of ornaments and the way they are played. I'm sure there are other things but this could be a start. I have messaged Gary to ask if he has plans to add an early pianoforte to the GPO library. If you are interested, perhaps you could help with some persuasion as well

    I have included a few samples of 'authentic' performance of Mozart's music played on instruments he owned. I have also included some explanation. I find the 'Bassoon stop' on Mozart's fortepiano (not present on modern pianos) particularly fascinating. If you would like to listen to these, please visit www.michaelsroom.btinternet.co.uk/mozart.htm

    Good luck.
    Michael
    Patience is a virtue, sensitivity is a gift

  6. #6

    Re: Period Instruments

    Well, GPPO is already taken with the Garritan Personal Pipe Organ. Maybe GPBE? Garritan Personal Baroque Enseamble?

    GPOA will have non-vibrato solo strings, so you can enseamble build and get a more rough rustic baroque sound. Since Gary samples such exquisite instruments from a long time ago I think we can make some great sounding preiod noises.

    This thread is very fascinating. Please continue!

    -Chris

  7. #7
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    Re: Period Instruments

    Quote Originally Posted by cptexas
    Well, GPPO is already taken with the Garritan Personal Pipe Organ. Maybe GPBE? Garritan Personal Baroque Enseamble?
    -
    GPOAI - GPO Ancient Instruments or GPOPI - GPO Period Instruments. Have Renaissance and Baroque instruments as well as things like early pianos and other classical era instruments.
    Trent P. McDonald

  8. #8

    Re: Period Instruments

    Michael, many thanks for the link to your interesting website. The musical examples are fascinating.

    Terry (another Mozart lover)

  9. #9
    Senior Member Styxx's Avatar
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    Re: Period Instruments

    I have played on period percussion instruments such as snares (field drum) from the civil war area. The cat gut snares strands on the bottom and calf skin heads give the drum a warm, deep, threatening sound that Mylar plastic heads of today cannot produce. I also own a civil war 18" bass drum that has been refitted with Mylar plastic heads and re-roped. It tunes by moving leather straps that are bound around the strands of rope. Haven't used it for much except one musical but it is does have a characteristic sound. Some day I will replace the heads with calfskin.
    Styxx

  10. #10

    Re: Period Instruments

    I wonder if it's possible to truly recreate original performances of old music simply by playing them on the same instruments, because there can be so many little style differences between different players, such as amount of legato or vibrato on instruments like the violin and the piano. General style differences may be known, as stmain mentioned, but we'll probably never know exactly how Mozart's playing style was (unless everyone watches Amadeus). Also, since we don't have any recordings from so long ago, how can we ever know for sure?

    Anyway, I don't think my emotional response to the music is going to change dramatically when a piano sonata is played on Mozart's piano as opposed to a Steinway (especially since I don't have experience playing both pianos myself).

    However, it is rather interesting just for its own sake! Thanks for the interesting link, Michaeal!
    Sean Patrick Hannifin
    My MP3s | My Melody Generator | my album
    "serious music" ... as if the rest of us are just kidding

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