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!
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.
Update – August 2018
Prototype #2 finally made – indeed, a pair of them. Nigel Shipway (RIP) visited me earlier in the year mostly to try out all sorts of things triangular, with and without rings, open and closed, and I took the opportunity to get his feedback on a revised Castagnette en Fer. I made this one from Spring Steel and had hardened and tempered it after forging it into shape. This new one had more cups which were circular and Nigel was very happy with it – the sound and the feel of playing it. He also suggested that smaller and larger pairs with low and high pitches might be a useful addition. Prototype #3 for another day…
After getting the Seal of Approval from Nigel, I went ahead and made the second of the pair. Here is a little video demo for you – oh yes I have sourced a copy of the Baggers book in the interim: