Tag Archives: sistra

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?

Update June 2021: Here’s my production model. I took the frame design from the “Turned Handle” version above, but installed just 3 rungs which can be changed between fixed and sliding using cotter pins. This also allows swapping in and out the jingle discs or changing the combination of discs to tailor the sound.

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