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From Pompeii to Paris – the Berlioz Sistrum

You may see sistrum, sistri, sistro or similar on an old percussion score, but rarely does it actually indicate the use of the instrument featured in this blog post. For edification and disambiguation, seek out the excellent blog by David Valdés on this subject (and in particular, for Rossini’s The Barber of Seville). However, if you are looking at The Trojans / Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz, then you are in the right place.

Sistrums at the Louvre museum in Paris
Pompeii Sistrums at the Louvre, Paris


The story goes that in 1831 Berlioz visited the ancient Pompeii museum in Naples, Italy and saw there the ancient cymbals (crotales) and sistrums from Pompeii and Herculaneum, two ancient Roman cities buried in volcanic ash and pyroclastic flow during the infamous AD 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius. These percussion instruments were from temples set up to worship the Egyptian goddess Isis (who had subsumed many of the aspects of the earlier deity Hathor; both goddesses were worshiped using the sistrum).

Berlioz wanted to use these instruments in the orchestra. He had replicas made in France at some time between the 1830s and 1850s and wrote them into his opera, The Trojans, composed between 1856 and 1858. The ancient cymbals – small, thick, heavy and specifically pitched were included earlier in his choral symphony, Roméo et Juliette, in 1839, so the replica cymbals were certainly made in the 1830s. It is likely that his replica sistrums came later, maybe soon after The Louvre museum in Paris acquired their own ancient specimen in 1852. The ancient cymbals caught on, with Debussy and other composers adopting them soon afterwards and they are still written into parts today, having evolved into the modern rack of crotales. The ancient sistrum, didn’t quite gain the same traction, though Saint-Saëns did include it in his comic opera Phryné in 1893. In more recent times, Takashi Yoshimatsu uses a sistrum in his Cyberbird Concerto and Tan Dun also includes one  in his Cello Concerto. Both composers are using the French nomenclature – sistre.

Berlioz was keen to add new percussion instruments to the orchestra, and not just in terms of decoration and colour. He wanted an expansion in the pitched percussion department also. Here is a plea to instrument makers that he wrote in the Journal Des Débats on the 12th October 1847:

Newspaper scan
Plea to instrument makers


Sistrums (or Sistra if we are to pluralise it in the Latin form) are still in use in various cultures today, and in various forms. They are a (usually) metal shaker / rattle with some form of open frame or hoop attached to a handle. Within the frame there are moving or fixed horizontal bars and often, but not always, there are metal discs on the bars  which are free to move back and forth within the frame. There are sistrums produced today for use in the Ethiopian Coptic Orthodox Church and you might argue that the Brazilian Samba Band Chocalho is a version of the sistrum.

Sensasel – Ethiopian Sistrum


Very early forms of this  instrument come from Sumeria and Babylonia as far back as 2500BC, with some even earlier similar instruments made of wood,  coconut shell, shark teeth and other materials coming from the Indonesia / Melanesia region. The Sistrum became a very big thing in ancient Egyptian culture from around 2000BC in religious worship of the goddess Hathor,  and later the goddess Isis. There are many depictions of priestesses  playing these. Instruments were made from materials including wood, bone, ivory, clay and bronze. Some were active ritual instruments, others were purely symbolic – for example the clay versions used in burials.

Isis worship spread around much of the Mediterranean including into ancient Greece and ancient Rome. The Roman name sistrum comes from the Greek seistron which means “that which is shaken”. The Egyptian names for the instrument are sekhem and sesheshet – the latter is quite likely to be onomatopoeic representing the sound of the instrument.

Nefertari holding sistrum
Nefertari Sistrum – credit Abu Simbel, Wikimedia Commons


Sistrums were depicted on various ancient Roman coins – here is the rear side of a coin minted during the reign of Emperor Claudius:

Isis Claudius Roman Coin
Isis with sistrum on rear of Claudius coin


Here is is depiction of a sistrum from an ancient Roman floor mosaic:

sistrum floor mosaic
Roman mosaic at the British Museum


It was the late Nigel Shipway who initially suggested to me that I should make some kind of period-authentic sistrum for Berlioz’s Trojans. Many orchestras who play the work today will opt for an alternative instrument such as a ringed triangle or some type of tambourine, or even spurs. This is a shame as the sound is not authentic to Berlioz’s ideas. The idea mulled over in my mind – on the back burner, so to speak – for quite a while. How best to construct this? Patterns, molds and casting maybe? How to get those shapes? How to make something sturdy, beautiful and musical? It wasn’t until I was approached this year by French percussionist, Sylvain Bertrand with a request for two to four authentic sistrums that the real impetus came along to make this a reality. The Festival Berlioz was marking 150 years since Hector Berlioz’s death and parts of Les Troyens were to be performed by The Hector Berlioz European Youth Orchestra – young pre-professional musicians from the best european conservatoires with section principals of the orchestra Les Siècles, specialists in the interpretation of the 19th century repertoire, on period instruments, under the baton of François-Xavier Roth. The timing was right.

I had been hoping that I might manage to visit the museum in Naples and see the actual inspiration pieces that Berlioz saw and I also have “agents” in various museum and opera house basements in Paris trying to find the replicas he had made. No luck on that front yet, but I opted for the next best thing which was to arrange to visit the British Museum in London and get hands-on access to some of the specimens from their collection in storage:

sistra and ancient cymbals
Egyptian sistrums and Roman cymbals at the British Museum


On public display, the British Museum also has a Roman sistrum. Like the ancient Egyptian ones above, it is made from Bronze. There are often sacred animals depicted on top of or at the base of the hoop – cats, birds and so on:

Roman bronze sistrum
Roman sistrum in the British Museum display


Being able to see these old instruments up close and take measurements, weights, etc. (though I wasn’t allowed to shake them and they were so corroded that they wouldn’t have sounded anyway) was very valuable to help me make my “replicas” with appropriate proportions. I put the word replicas in inverted commas as, with only so much time on my side and only so much budget from the orchestra, great and fine detail was not an option. So, instead, I made what might be better termed “homages” to the original instruments: more plainly decorated, but inspired by these wonderful artefacts of the ancient world.

I also studied many images of sistrums from different museums’ collections from around the world. With the opportunity to make four instruments, I thought it would be good to try out  varied forms and materials to explore the range of sounds these sistrums can make. I made the new instruments from three different bronze alloys and one brass alloy. Three of them have sliding rods, one has fixed rods, two have discs on the rods and two do not. They were constructed using a combination of brazing and welding, lots of cutting and filing, grinding and polishing, hammering, bending by hand, and turning and twisting of parts in the lathe.

Here is the first one, with what I call a “stirrup” shaped hoop:

Matt Nolan period-authentic bronze sistrum
Matt Nolan Stirrup Sistrum


The second is larger and heavier with a more elaborate handle:

Matt Nolan Bronze Sistrum
Matt Nolan Face Sistrum

This one has a blank plate between the hoop and handle where you might find a Hathor face engraved on an ancient Egyptian one. It has both moving rods and discs, all bronze. The discs sound quite chime-like, like the thicker discs on “spurs”, not like drier, thinner, tambourine type jingle discs.


For my third sistrum I really quite closely copied the turned handle detail from a photograph of an original instrument (you can click on all the pictures here to see a larger version). It is very comfortable in the hand and balances the instrument well. There is a numerical significance to three and one in ancient Egyptian religion, but not to four. Many old sistrums with four rods have them grouped like this, as three and one:

Matt Nolan Bronze Sistrum
Matt Nolan Bronze Sistrum with turned handle


For the last one, I took inspiration from two different originals. Snakes or serpents are often depicted on sistrums and there are suggestions that the sound of them being shaken is representative of snakes hissing. The sliding rods on many sistrums are suggestive of serpents, some even have little heads carved in. I actually have fixed rods here. I just wanted the sound of the discs in this instance. The entwined handle is a reference to snakes. I saw an old sistrum with two serpents entwined as the handle. There are other old instruments with four struts from the handle to the base of the hoop, so I combined these two ideas. Rather than being polished like new, this sistrum has been artificially patinated to look like a relic showing its age:

Matt Nolan relic sistrum
Matt Nolan twist handle Sistrum

The jingle discs are physically thin and light, and dry sounding. To get a broader sound, I used several different metals in combination.

The sound of the first sistrum I made was surprising to me. The hoop / frame itself actually contributes a lot to the sound. Quite handbell-like, or like a modern orchestral triangle at the more pitched end of the spectrum. I hadn’t quite expected this but then I do usually aim to make my instruments as resonant as possible. I never quite agreed with the suggestions from some quarters that the modern triangle is a direct descendant of the sistrum. I think that comes more from the ringed triangle being used as a substitute for a sistrum, or from the Italian score nomenclature confusion. Now I can hear why the substitution is fairly appropriate. In fact, even Berlioz himself offers 19th Century style ringed triangles as alternatives for the sistrum part in The Trojans.

All four of the sistrums that I made have three components to the sound in different proportions: the sound of the hoop, the sound of the rods, and the sound of the discs. The manner of playing can also emphasise or de-emphasise different aspects of the overall sound, making the instrument more dry or more sustaining. There is a clatter of the free rods hitting the frame but also their own resonance, as with the discs. The dimensions and materials of the discs can be used to adjust how much dry “shuck” sound there is from them and how much ringing “jingle” sound. There is scope for a lot of variation. Fixing the rods or making a thin but stiff frame (like in the British Museum public display example, with the frame having a flange) can reduce the ringing contribution to the sound from the frame, as can playing in a more “dead-stroke” manner as you shake the sistrum back and forth.

Joseph Baggers Sistrum
French Sistrum from Joseph Baggers’ method book

Above is a picture of a French sistrum from Joseph Baggers’ method book published in 1906. So this would be roughly contemporary with the reproductions made for Berlioz – it may even be one of those. Berlioz had them made larger and more sturdy in an attempt to make them loud enough to compete with the full orchestra.

So, how do they actually sound? Well, with the time limitations and rushing to get these instruments delivered in time for first rehearsals, I did not have the chance to make a good audio or video documentation. However, the full performance with the instruments in context was broadcast on 21st September at 8pm (local time) on France Music on the “Saturday evening at the Opera” show – here is the link to listen to the performance. The sistrums are played shortly after the 35 minutes and 20 seconds mark. I don’t know how long that concert will remain available up there so here is just the excerpt featuring the sistrums. The rhythmic motive played on the sistrums is doubled on tuned triangles which I also made for this performance. This is another Berlioz first which did not really catch on – the Jeu De Triangles – a chromatic set of seven pitches in this case.

Addendum: Short video montage of my research expedition to the British Museum. How many different sistrums can you spot?


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Bigger, badder, bassier…

Where do you find the most bells in classical music? In opera. Where do you find the lowest ones? In Tosca by Giacomo Puccini. The percussion score includes an E1, an F2 and a Bb2. That E1 – the lowest E note on a standard piano – was inspired by the tolling of the Campanone (the big bell) of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A 10 tonne bell – actually quite light as some tower bells go and, actually, an E3. We can only assume that Puccini wanted an E1 as an exaggeration. How do you replicate this in an orchestra? So far, the answer is, you don’t.

il campanone at San Pietro
il campanone at San Pietro

At least, you don’t with a tubular bell. You might with a bell plate. But that’s for another blog. I believe there have been E2 tubular bells – i.e. one octave up – made (by EQ Percussion and by Century Mallet) for use in Tosca, but I have neither seen nor heard them. They’ll be around 15 foot long 2″ chimes by my estimate. The overtone structure of tubular bells and the way your ears and brain assign pitch to such things really starts to fall apart below about Eb3 or D3, so there must be some tricks involved in making these work.

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in London got in touch with me about replacing some old tubular bells they have which were – reportedly – the F2 and Bb2 for Tosca. The F is starting to crack up and can’t be played loudly any more. I went to have a look and take some recordings for analysis. It turns out these Bronze beauties are Harringtons’ Patented Tubular Bells from up to 120 years ago (metal tubular bells themselves being only around 155 years old as a concept). They were probably originally installed in a church tower. Roughly 3 inches in outer diameter, 1/2 inch thick in wall, and getting on for 3 metres in length; the F is around 65kg and, as it turns out, not an F2, but an F3. Sorry about the terrible mobile phone picture:

harringtons tubular bell
harringtons patent tubular bell

So, I’m both relieved and disappointed in almost equal measure that I don’t have to figure out the tubular bells below D3 conundrum – yet.

Evidently, the sheer size of the bells allow much more volume from the bass partials to get out into the air and thus to suggest the lower octave. Or, perhaps more likely, they are less prone to sounding an octave higher than they should, as deep tubular bells of lesser girth can sometimes do. Tubular bells fool you into hearing a virtual fundamental “1” by having three partials in their overtone spectrum which are approximately in the ratio 2:3:4 – so they seem like part of a harmonic series. Sometimes this auditory illusion can break down and you can hear the 2 and 4 as 1 and 2, or yet higher overtones point to a different pitch altogether.

To make replacement tubular chime bells in Bronze, or even Brass would be extravagantly expensive today – not to mention back-breakingly heavy. I have had success in making bass chimes using thick-wall Aluminium tubing. For this kind of thing, it ends up being quite a bit lighter, despite being up to 20% longer for the same note. The natural tendency for the Aluminium to damp the higher overtones also helps bolster the virtual pitch illusion. Let the adventures in 3 inch diameter Aluminium tubular bells begin!

I wanted to use 3 inch outer diameter by 1/2 inch wall thickness Aluminium, the same cross section as the existing Bronze bells, but was not able to find any which could be supplied in time. So I went for 3/8 inch wall. Really, I would have liked to have been able to compare the two and decide which sounded better, rather than extrapolating from my experiments in 2 inch tubing. I ordered two 5 metre lengths. I couldn’t get them delivered directly to my workshop so had to transfer them from my home to there in my car.

uncut tubes in car
late night motor jousting

When I made my cymbal lathe, I made sure it was also capable of taking a standard metal-turning chuck. However, there isn’t a solid lathe bed or tool post, so some operations using this can be a little Heath-Robinson.

Still, I can make nicely shaped caps and do the overall finishing of these (very) long tubes using this lathe.

bell caps
cut and turned caps

I like to fit cord guide tubes on my tubular bells. It makes life so much easier when threading the suspension cords through and it also helps the cords last a lot longer before they fray. For bells this big, that meant drilling some pretty big holes. A 1 inch hole saw was slightly too large (larger than advertised, in fact) and a 15/16 inch hole saw was slightly under what I needed. So, that lathe chuck came in handy again by allowing some power-reaming.

don't try this at home
reamer in lathe chuck
holes drilled
cord guide holes
cord guide tube in tubular bell
cord guide tube installed

While proper tubular bell tuning is more than simply cutting the tube to the right length, tuning the Bb was a breeze. After a little experimentation, everything fell into place nicely. The “4” overtone being only 4 cents out with the “2” being dead on. The “3” was a little flat, but not enough to upset anybody. The (approximate) minor 3rd and hum tones were quite loud giving plenty of body to the sound of the bell. The F, however, was more of a challenge and took the bulk of the time.

It is easy enough with recording gear and computers to see exactly what is going on with the tuning of all the partials in a tubular bell. It is less easy to infer from this what the perceived pitch of the bell will be and, at notes significantly down on middle C (C4) like this, it can be hard to be objective about what you are actually hearing. Would the bell sound better 20 cents sharper? 20 cents flatter? 7 cents flatter? They all seemed reasonable and yet all a bit different, and different again in different contexts. After going dangerously far down a blind alley (finding a Bb partial in the F bell and matching it to a partial in the same octave in the Bb bell) I realised it was far easier to hear the apparent fundamental pitch of the bell when alternating between it and a reference, rather than listening to the two sounds at the same time. At last I have two bells which sound in tune and also good next to each other.

giant tubular bells
tall bells

They really are monsters at 2.8 and 3.2m long, but a fair bit more manageable weighing “only” 16 and 18kg. The Opera House has a specially constructed frame with built-in stairs and a platform for the elevated percussionist. Of course, it doesn’t fit in the pit, but that is fine as the bells are suppose to be “off stage” anyhow. I hear that Maestro Pappone is happy with the sound of the new bells – such feedback is always nice to receive! They just about fit in my workshop in the tallest part so I could test them properly. I thought I might have to move the lathe around 90 degrees to accommodate the F, but I got away with just pushing it back by 6 inches or so. If we need to replace the E bell at some point in the future, things may get a little more tight.


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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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