This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.
Today’s column will demonstrate some unusual instruments, or some instruments in unusual settings. I’ll start with the double bass.
Now, I can hear you say that it’s not an unusual instrument. Indeed, it features in all forms of music. However, how many compositions are there for double bass? There are a few jazz pieces but I’m going with classical music here.
There are none. Well, not quite, but very few. There were a couple of brave souls who wrote music for the instrument.
One of those was CARL DITTERS VON DITTERSDORF.
Carl was born simply August Carl Ditters. However, Philipp Gotthard von Schaffgotsch, the Prince-Bishop of Breslau, was so impressed by his music he vonned him (or whatever the process is to become some grandee) in an attempt to keep Carl for himself, as it were.
Carl was good friends with the other musicians of the time, some of the greatest who ever lived. He used to jam with Haydn and Mozart playing string quartets. The fourth member was Johann Vanhal, a pupil of Carl’s who, unlike the other three, didn’t set the world of composing on fire.
Carl wrote two concertos for double bass, and rather interesting they are. This is the third movement of his Concerto for Double Bass No. 1 in E flat major.
♫ Dittersdorf - Concerto for Double Bass No 1 (3)
Like the double bass, the mandolin is not at all an unusual instrument either. It turns up all the time in blue-grass music and it’s heard in other genres as well. However, it doesn’t rear its head very often in classical music.
Vivaldi was fond of the instrument and wrote quite a few works for it. Apart from him, nothing really. Well, not quite.
There is another unlikely composer who wrote some music for it and that is (envelope please) BEETHOVEN (gasps all around the auditorium).
Ludwig and mandolins are not a natural fit you’d think but he did all sorts of things that are rather unexpected. That’s what made him so great. This is the Sonatina in C major for Mandolin and Piano N°1.
♫ Beethoven - Sonatina in C major for mandolin & piano N°1
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tuba in any symphony concert I’ve been to - at least, not the comic, big-horned version that is normally associated with the instrument. Indeed, my knowledge of it comes from listening to Tubby the Tuba as a whippersnapper. A very young whippersnapper.
As with the double bass, the tuba doesn’t get a look in when it comes to serious composition. The only one I have in my collection is a Tuba Concerto by RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS.
Ralph was an English composer noted for his symphonies and other orchestral works. He also wrote settings for many folk songs. Today, though, we have the second movement of his Tuba Concerto in F minor. It had its premiere in 1954.
♫ Vaughan Williams - Tuba Concerto (2)
The composition by JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH, BWV 1055, is a concerto for the beautifully named instrument the oboe d’amore (the oboe of love).
This is a transcription of a harpsichord concerto, however, to complicate things, and to bring us full circle really, it’s now considered that that work was itself based on an earlier concerto of his for oboe d’amore (now lost).
Naturally, people these days have recorded both versions and here is the “reconstruction” of the first movement of Concerto for oboe d'amore BWV 1055 in A major.
♫ Bach - Concerto for oboe d'amore BWV 1055 (1)
The anvil doesn’t appear much in music of any sort. Only once to my knowledge, and that was by GIUSEPPE VERDI in his opera “Il Trovatore.”
The anvil doesn’t really have much of a range of sounds. I suppose you could get a bunch of them of different sizes but I’d imagine the roadies would rather object to that. Anyway, here is The Anvil Chorus (le fosche notturne soglie).
♫ Il Trovatore - The Anvil Chorus
MARIN MARAIS was a French composer from the seventeenth and early eighteenth century.
He studied composition under Jean-Baptiste Lully and the bass viol with Jean de Sainte-Colombe. Jean would give concerts in his home accompanied by his two daughters which generally got rave reviews from those who attended.
However, although he was a teacher, he wasn’t too happy about showing Marin the tricks of the trade and he built himself a tree house in a mulberry tree in his back yard where he’d play the viol.
Marin was a bright lad and he’d sit under the tree and figure out what Jean was doing. So much so that he eventually became the world authority on viol playing. His books on the subject are still the source that current players turn to.
Here is his composition for bass viol called Sonnerie de Ste Genevieve du Mont-de-Paris.
♫ Marais - Sonnerie de Ste Genevieve du Mont-de-Paris
This is a piece by LEOPOLD MOZART, Wolfie’s dad, that employs several unusual instruments.
There’s a bit of conjecture about whether he actually wrote it. Joseph Haydn was once considered its author but that was rather quickly dismissed. Then his brother Michael was suggested. Mike got the boot too. Edmund Angerer has been a serious contender as well.
However, the weight of evidence, from what I’ve read, points to Leo, so I’ll go along with that.
This work has a bunch of things for the orchestra to play with, various toys really, a toy trumpet, ratchet, nightingale, cuckoo and drum. It’s all very silly. Here is the first movement of the Toy Symphony in G major.
♫ Leopold Mozart - Toy Symphony (1)
Now for something to put you to sleep or maybe drive you insane. I give you the weirdest instrument of them all, the glass harmonica (nothing to do with the little blowing thing you’re familiar with).
It’s also known as bowl organ, hydrocrystalophone or simply the "armonica." The word hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica is also recorded and isn’t that a great word? Use that in a sentence today.
The various words refer to any instrument played by rubbing glass or crystal goblets. You can get the same effect by wetting your finger and rubbing the top of a wine glass and who hasn’t done that? Here’s a picture of one based on a design by none other than Ben Franklin.
The instrument was a passing fad, popular in the eighteenth century. Some say, or some said back then, that it lost popularity because the instrument “excessively stimulated the nerves, plunging the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood leading to self-annihilation.”
You have been warned.
Many of the great composers of the time wrote music for this thing, one of whom was WOLFGANG MOZART. Here is the second movement of his Adagio and Rondo in C, K. 617 for Glass Harmonica, Flute, Oboe, Viola and Cello.
♫ Mozart - Adagio And Rondo K. 617 (2)