9 odd wind instruments you have probably never seen




Over the last couple of centuries, inventors have brought out a remarkable number of odd wind instruments that somehow never became successful. Or if they did, their success didn’t last. In some cases, pieces in the standard orchestral repertoire call for one or more. There is a growing interest in restoring them for performance of this music. Ophicleide At the beginning of the 19th century, as the orchestra began to expand, only two instruments existed that could serve as bass of the brass choir: the bass trombone and the serpent. Neither was satisfactory. The serpent, a cornett-like bass instrument invented … Continue reading

A Wisconsin band in the Civil War: 1st Brigade Band of Brodhead




When the Civil War started, the two sides suddenly required armies, and army regiments needed bands. I have already written about the 26th North Carolina Regiment Band, which grew out of one of the oldest musical institutions in the country. Brodhead, Wisconsin had existed less than a decade before its band joined the war effort. The 1st Brigade Band, as it eventually became known, got off to a rocky start, but earned an excellent reputation by the end of the war. The rapid growth of towns like Brodhead In the decade before the Civil War, railroads spread across the country, … Continue reading

Adolphe Sax’s marketing campaign for new brass instruments




If people know only one thing about Adolphe Sax, it’s that he invented a lot of new instruments in the nineteenth century. Today, the saxophone is the most successful. That basically amounts to an ophicleide (a forerunner of the tuba with keys instead of valves) fitted with a clarinet reed. His redesign of the trombone with six independent valves, first introduced in 1852, was much more radical than any of the new instruments he invented. I’d like to look at at least part of his marketing campaign for that instrument as an illustration of his business methods. The important journal … Continue reading

Serpent, ophicleide, bombardon: the tuba’s forerunners




The tuba is the youngest regular member of the orchestra. Quite a bit of orchestral music is older, and it had to depend on one of three other instruments to provide a bass voice for the brass section. The serpent, ophicleide, and bombardon long ago disappeared from public view, but with the rise of historically informed performance, they have returned to concert halls at least occasionally. Serpent Of all brass instruments before the invention of valves in 1815, only the trombone could play a complete chromatic scale. Trombones were among the major instrument groups during the Renaissance. They were made … Continue reading

The oddest-looking trombones ever, by Adolphe Sax




Everyone knows what a trombone looks like. Even modern valve trombones maintain the familiar shape of the slide trombone. In the nineteenth-century, however, when instrument designers competed with each others’ various valve configurations, there seemed no reason to keep their creations looking like a slide trombone. The shape of the bore, not the shape into which the tubing is bent, determines what will sound like a trombone. Adolphe Sax introduced many odd-looking valve trombones, none odder than his six independent valve invention.   The very earliest valves did not work especially well, and it took a while to find the … Continue reading

Musical predictions for the new year




No, I’m not going to try to make predictions for musical happenings in 2011. It’s much more fun to look at someone else’s predictions from years past and see how they turned out. I just got back from Christmas vacation, and I confess to hunting for something I could type out quickly. This gem of a prediction appears in the January 1, 1895 issue of The Musical Times. One Arthur E. Grimshaw wrote a letter to the editor in response to a concert review the previous month. It seems that the critic had complained that the loud trombones spoiled an … Continue reading

Classical music for machines




The attempt to create music mechanically, without human performance, has a long history, dating back to ancient Egyptians and Asians. Leonardo da Vinci and others in the late Renaissance designed sophisticated instruments. Only in the late eighteenth century did composers–including Handel, C.P.E. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven venture to compose music especially for mechanical clocks. Museums hold least some of the original clocks with their music, but to my knowledge no recordings have been made. Most of the time, therefore, the only way we get to hear this music is through a transcription for human performance. Here’s a modern clock … Continue reading

The buccin: a dragon-headed trombone




In the early nineteenth century, some  French and Belgian instrument makers manufacturered a fanciful adaptation of the trombone known as the buccin. In place of the standard bell section, it had a widely curving tube  ending with a gaudily painted serpent’s or dragon’s head.  The same makers also put monster’s heads on serpents, serpent bassoons, and other precursors of the ophicleide. Judging from the trombone parts in French music during or after the Revolution, the was played loudly, primarily in the lower register.  As the French used a very small-bore trombone, its sound must have been coarse and at times … Continue reading

Untouched by performers’ hands: the theremin




The theremin, named for its inventor Louis Théremin, is the only instrument that is played without the performer touching any part of it. It uses two ultrasonic oscillators, one of fixed pitch and the other variable. The variable frequency oscillator is attached to an antenna. Audible pitch results from the heterodyne interaction of the two oscillators. That is, what we hear are the beats between two ultrasonic pitches, the difference tones. The frequency of the pitch results from how close or how far away the performers right hand is to the antenna. The performer’s left hand similarly controls the volume … Continue reading