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When the first recordings that used period instruments were released thirty years ago, their publishers proudly indicated on their sleeves that "original" instruments were being played, even going so far in their desire for exact documentation as to give the name of the manufacturer of each instrument used. These ideas are now common practice and performers on these early instruments have since then only increased their knowledge of these instruments, meanwhile verifying the appropriateness of the music to be played to the instrument that will be used; an "original " instrument can take on many different aspects depending on the exact period and country. As the modern evolution of these instruments continued, the average musiclover was somewhat left behind, to the extent that every old instrument became "original" by definition.

The art of instrument making was to evolve considerably during the years between the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 19th century, in the period that is popularly but erroneously called Baroque. We have therefore limited the time span covered by this compendium to the musicologically accepted definition of the baroque period, i. e. the years between approximately 1600 and 1750.

Our aim in writing this dictionary is to try to provide the music lover with a reasonable amount of information about these "period" instruments. We have organised the compendium by instrumental families, this seeming the best way to link the instruments' descriptions with their recorded illustrations and simplifying many problems of translation. An index providing exact page numbers is also provided.

Before we begin with the descriptions of the various instruments, it is necessary to discuss two matters that are closely associated with them and that affect their use.


Musicians have been using a so called "baroque" pitch for many years now, but it is unfortunate for many reasons, the main one being of convenience, that one particular system has achieved prominence. This is the well known A=415 which sounds a semitone lower than our modern A=440, and although this pitch seems to be the nearest equivalent to that used in Germany at the start of the 18th century, it is nevertheless only one possibility amongst many. It should also be realised that only certain instruments such as flutes, trumpets and organs in their original forms can give an exact idea of an earlier pitch usage and that there are many other elements to be discussed before we can arrive at any decision as to what pitch was used during any particular period in a specific locality. It is also true that these pitch levels varied frequently between 1600 and 1750, although there is now general agreement on French classical pitch (approximately one tone below modern pitch) and Venetian pitch (higher than that used today).

Our best reference is, of course, the relationship between the music that was actually written and the range of the human voice, given that composers of that time seem always to have been very attentive to the possibilities and the limits of the human voice. French classical pitch (used until the end of the 18th century) provides us with an explanation for the extremely high tessitura of classical French opera and its use today for these works means that singers do not have to force their voices to cope with the high lying vocal writing. The generally low tessitura of Monteverdi's vocal writing can be explained in the same way, Venetian pitch of the period being higher than the accepted A=440 that we use today.

Instrumental music is easier to standardise, although such problems are therefore somewhat different, since the pitch definition of A=415 has in a way brought these problems to light. Instrument makers who today are copying period instruments have recognised that it is often difficult to copy these instruments faithfully, for the basic qualities of the instrument are often altered when they modify the instrument's basic pitch. We therefore arrive at a problem for which common sense alone can provide any solution; what is most important is that the instrument must above all sound well, as several contemporary sources also prescribe. This dictum is not only applicable to period instruments, but also to the human voice.

The Human Voice

Period instruments certainly exist, but "period voices" pose a completely different problem. The problem of rediscovering a period performance practice for the voice is fraught with difficulty tor reasons that are known to us all, although numerous theoretical works and accounts of vocal performing styles have luckily come down to us from that time. Several ideas have dominated our conception of baroque vocal technique over the last thirty years, the most important being the use of voices without vibrato, the use of the male falsetto voice (thanks to the resurrection of this technique by Alfred Deller) and the use of children's voices. These three precepts are undoubtedly correct but there is nevertheless no need to make them into articles of faith. The art of singing was and still remains the prerogative of professional opera singers, the scores that were written tor them requiring powerful and flexible voices. We should not forget that Italian singing at the beginning of the 18th century was already the result of a good century of tradition and that it was this tradition that was to be the base of the bel canto school at the start of the 19th century. We will arrive at a more exact idea of what the Baroque art of song really was if we also remember that the castrati were still the most renowned singers in Europe at the start of the Romantic period.

The use of "white" voices and voices that possess no natural vibrato is certainly an over exaggeration that probably stems from ideas of what was proper for Renaissance polyphony; all singers agree that a voice without any vibrato loses the essential qualities of expression that allow it to convey emotion. A precise definition of vibrato is therefore necessary; we know that the organ stops that imitate the human voice are stops that use vibrato, this being true tor the Italian Voce Humana (cf The Organ, below) and for the French or German Vox Humana, although tradition demands that these latter two be played using a tremolo mechanism.

Counter tenor voices are one of the most typical characteristics of early music today, although they were not originally used to the exclusion of all other types of high male voice. Two very different vocal techniques were in fact used, the first being the falsetto voice that is created when a low male voice sings entirely in the head register; Alfred Deller was the prime example of this type of singing. The second is the haute contre, ideally a very high tenor voice and one that is used typically in classical French music. The great lyric roles in the tragédies of Lully and Rameau were written for this type of voice, the very low contemporary pitch then in use making these roles entirely possible for today's tenors who possess an easy high register. A French haute contre is not, therefore, a counter tenor.

Counter tenors nevertheless have the ability to sing over a very wide range that includes all the notes in both their falsetto and chest voices. This was also the case for the castrati, and today the roles sung by alto castrati can be performed by counter-tenors. The roles written for the soprano castrati have, however, not yet found any modern masculine equivalent.

Although counter tenors can sing music written for the alto castrato as well as works such as the Bach cantatas that were written specifically for their voice, certain alto parts remain that were not attributed to them. Amongst such pieces we find many works by Handel and many of the finest solos in Vivaldi's religious music, a large part of which was specifically written for the girls of the Ospedale della Pietà.

Boys' voices were widely used, most commonly in churches where women's voices were not permitted. Children's voices may often sound enchanting, but we should recognise nevertheless that they are not always perfectly trained. The art of singing requires an extensive amount of time tor true mastery; it seems certain that puberty arrived later than it does now, thereby allowing the boy singers to reach a greater mastery of their technique and a better and more convincing delivery of their solo arias.

By Jérôme Léjeune
Translation: Peter Lockwood


The Guide: 

Pitch and Tuning

The Oboe, Oboe d'amore, Oboe da Caccia

The Viol Family

The Archlute, The Theorbo

The Hunting Horn and the Trompe de Chasse

The Hurdy-Gurdy

Related CK Archives:

Antonio Vivaldi: Music for the Chapel of the Pietà

Spanish Baroque Music: An interview with Eduardo Lopez Banzo

French Baroque Music: Music at Versailles

CD Review: Baroque Masterpieces

Baroque Opera and Sacred Music by Vivaldi and Alessandro Scarlatti

A Weekend at the Festival de Beaune

Maxim Vengerov: Baroque Violinist

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