Category Archives: Period Instruments

The Quest for the Holy Grail?

I can’t resist a good challenge. This one, seemingly, has remained unsolved for over a century. I am talking about the deep tolling “crystalline” bells of the Holy Grail temple in Richard Wagner’s opera, Parsifal.

Wagner himself, was never quite satisfied with solutions to this sound he heard in his head. The lowest bell being 20 semitones below the deepest in St Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna. A real church bell like this would be larger and deeper than any ever made, as far as I know. The closest would be the great Kremlin Tsar Bell, which was never really finished and was damaged by fire in 1737. The low E would have to be 8 metres in diameter and over 260 tonnes! For the opera leitmotif you’d need 4, of similar proportions, to produce the C3, G2, A2, E2 peal. Real bells like this are, of course, out of the question. Too big, too heavy, too expensive and too loud.

Wagner's grailmotif
Wagner’s original manuscript

One of the earlier sonic solutions, which was rejected upon testing circa 1882, was a set of Chinese tam-tam gongs, sourced from London. To help the perception of a clear resounding pitch, a piano / hammered dulcimer hybrid was concocted. This had 6 parallel strings for each of the four notes and was struck with a wide mallet. You can hear a later version of it on the 1926 recording conducted by Karl Muck. Steingraeber made various iterations of this Gralsklavier including a brand new one earlier this year.

Here is the combination of instruments used by the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in 1914. Giant oversize tubular bells / chimes, a single gong (hiding there in the background, middle), and another of these piano dulcimer hybrids. Quite a wonderful newspaper drawing. I love the idea of playing percussion in hats and trench coats! Perhaps it was cold backstage.

Covent Garden Parsifal bells 1914
Covent Garden backstage bells 1914

By far the most grand solution to add the metallic and somewhat discordant bell like tone plus some low end woof to the harmonious piano dulcimer was the set of brewing vat resonated bell plates constructed at Bayreuth. Absolutely huge and requiring one player each! You can also just about make these out in the Karl Muck recording. I can’t help but think that this solution was arrived at by trial and error rather than applying the techniques of Helmholtz from his 1863 paper “On the sensations of tone”.

Giant barrel bells
Giant Barrels at Bayreuth 1927

It wasn’t long before electronics were getting in on the act. Smaller, grandfather clock like, metal tines with pick-ups and amplification have been used. Manipulated recordings (or “samples”) of actual bells have been used. Synthesisers have been used – including for quite some time as a favourite, the Mixtur Trautonium, one of the very first synthesisers. The latter was also a favourite of Alfred Hitchcock. He used it on the soundtrack to his film The Birds.

Hitchcock Trautonium
Alfred Hitchcock with the Mixtur-Trautonium

And yet, anything electronic or amplified and played through loudspeakers always meets with disapproval from at least one corner or other.  Even the (only slightly manipulated) recordings of the actual bells from St Sulpice in Paris as used this year for Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique at the Proms and the Edinburgh Festival got a drubbing in the review press. I can see why. When the rest of the orchestra is real, live, organic and full of human interpretation, expression and inflection, accompanying sounds which are not do rather stick out as alien interlopers.

As my own experiments and minor successes in the realms of bass bell plates in various different metals and bass tubular chimes have been proceeding not unnoticed by the symphonic and operatic worlds, I have now been asked by 3 separate people to consider producing a good, acoustic percussion solution to the problem of these Holy Grail bells of Montsalvat. There are numerous technical issues to overcome to do with the physics of such instruments and the psycho-acoustic vagaries of the human ear and brain, not to mention logistical and practical considerations. Nonetheless, I have a handful of different ideas to go and test out. Some are a single instrument per note, some are combinations. Whether I can produce a solution which satisfies all discerning ears, who knows? Watch this space…

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Castagnettes de Fer

Here is another “authentic” period instrument recreation. This time some “metal castanets” for Samson and Delilah by Saint-Saens. So, I’m working from a picture, but not one I’ve seen. It is in an out of print book and it has been described to me over the phone!

Some people use finger cymbals for this part, often mounted on “castanet machines” to make them easier to play. The reference picture though comes from the book of Joseph Baggers – Saint-Saens’ very own percussionist (and also the teacher, of percussion, to Messiaen, no less). So, again, we’re back to how the composer heard the sound.

What is required is a single piece of metal, forged into a shape somewhat like salad tongs, but with the ends like large spoons and arranged back to back, not face to face. Quite chunky because we need a good spring from the handle and the cups need to be robust. For the first prototype, I’ve gone with Nickel-Silver which I have artificially patinated to look somewhat ancient. There was a slight hiccup. I thought the brief was “like two large Victorian serving spoons”. Apparently it was *soup* spoons. So, I shouldn’t have pointed ends on the cups, they should be much closer to round. Ah well – that refinement will have to wait for prototype #2!

Metal Castanets

Reportedly, the sound and playability are very good. However, a pair would be preferred, to be played on the knees. I quite liked using the one so that you could modulate the timbre somewhat by shaping a cupped hand as you played against it. Perhaps Danse Bacchanale is a little too fast for one-handed playing. Maybe I’ll bring some pairs to PASIC in November and see if anyone else is interested in these.

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Recreating Baroque Triangles

I’ve been meaning to get around to making some proper old-school triangles for quite some time. Did you know that the original incarnation of this instrument was gap-free and had loose jingling rings on the bottom limb? I’ve had a few requests from possible customers. Period ensembles like to use instruments authentic to the time when the music was written – so that it sounds closer to the composer’s original aural vision. This either means using original / restored instruments or, more often than not, reproductions.

The humble triangle (albeit often the instrument that makes other instruments sound better!) has murky roots. There seem to be different origin stories and, just perhaps, it might be possible that more than one of them is true. Did the triangle evolve from the Ancient Egyptian Sistrum, a ceremonial instrument? Or did it start out as rudimentary horse stirrups which were taken off the straps and used as folk instruments? There’s even an outsider suggestion of a hand-held metal device for making sparks from flints, the fire steel.

Sistrumacciarino_medievaleStirrup    SistrumSistrum3

Officially, the triangle entered the European Orchestra with the fashion for “Turkish” music in the late 1700s to early 1800s, this new section being called the “banda turca”. The triangle had existed in other musics in various places on the planet well before then. Though we only know this from paintings, drawings and wood carvings. I don’t know of any surviving instruments from those times. Today, these ancestors may be classified as early “mediaeval” triangles (closed, with rings, often quite tall and isosceles, sometimes even trapezoidal) or the later “baroque” triangles (open, with or without rings, often with scrolls fashioned into the open ends).

Ting tingBaroque triangle diagram

Of course, nobody today really knows how the originals sounded, we can only guess. Then there’s the question of whether you go the whole hog into authentic materials, construction techniques and hopefully sound or do you make a halfway house. Somewhere between the guess of what the originals sounded like and the modern, open ended, ring-free triangle we are used to hearing now. As a maker, it fascinates me to wonder if there’s some secret buried back there waiting to be re-discovered.

Last year I had a percussionist from an Austrian Orchestra after a “banda turca” triangle. He was disappointed with solutions he’d found elsewhere and wanted something with more sustaining and obvious sizzle – that you can still hear from a distance, through the texture of the orchestra. I had an idea about using cymbal rivets instead of rings and it certainly worked better than rings that pass through holes in the triangle limbs. Still not quite what was wanted though. Then, we tried a pair of tambourine jingles on a small bolt, threaded into the triangle at an angle – perfect! So, we have a triangle that sings for a short – but not too short – time, accompanied by a clear jingling sizzling sussuration. So, not remotely authentic, but it made the sound the player wanted.

Jingle Triangle

This February, I had a different request. For a more authentic baroque style triangle, for Mozart. The suggestion was to have a slightly unorthodox scroll arrangement – both turning upwards. This was perfect for keeping the loose hanging rings from falling off the bottom limb though. The other alternative is to have the triangle gap small enough that the rings can’t get out unless you prise the bars apart. That has issues though, I think. Straight off the bat, this worked better than a rings-through-holes triangle. The rings are much more free to move, and thus they dampen the triangle less.

Baroque triangle with rings

There’s still a question to be answered regarding how many rings, of what material, what size and weight, etc. The originals would have been forged from iron by a blacksmith. For the triangle itself though, my client wanted one of my brighter sounding bronze alloys. Making small rings from this was somewhat out of the question, brass ones would be easy to make, but I don’t think they’d work too well. I found some wrought iron rings (for curtain poles!) – perhaps a little large, or maybe OK. Then also some stainless steel rings which were smaller and felt to be about the right size.

After rehearsal tests at Glyndebourne in late May and early June, the stainless steel rings were found to be the sonic winners, 4 of them on a 9″ triangle. But they don’t look right, of course. The wrought iron ones look the part but are too heavy. So, I cut some down to the same weight as the stainless ones and re-forged them into a smaller ring. So, that should be perfect, right? Wrong. Still the stainless ones work better (good job I had blued some up to make them look more in keeping). My theory is that actually the natural pitch of the rings is important. If the rings resonate at a frequency which is strong in the triangle then they can more easily suck energy out of the instrument. The wrought iron rings were much lower pitched than the stainless ones, and possibly close to one of the main lower partials of the triangle. Only time and making more will tell…

jingle rings

As for mediaeval style triangles with all 3 corners closed (or 4 if a trapezoidal one), I’ve got to figure out some welding smarts for that one. Butted joint? Scarfe joint? Forge-welded or cheating modern methods? I think there may be some other subtle tricks too, to get an instrument that actually sings nicely. Tune in to a later blog to find out!

 

Update Feb 2016 – though this photo is from November 2015:

I got better at making the scrolls. Here are some more recent editions of my triangle with the “blued” stainless steel rings.

New baroque triangles
Newer edition triangles
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