Sunday, 13 March 2011

Boschian instruments

Addendum: an anonymous commenter kindly drew my attention to the existence of this radio clip on YouTube. Thanks!

On the subject of musical instruments, I was just reminded of something that ought to be broadcast again: a 1968 Radio 3 spoof by Michael Mason concerning three alleged 15th century musical instruments.

Francis Bacon, who had written in 1624 of "Diverse Instruments of Musick likewise to you unknowne", would have despaired. The Shagbut was described in the programme as "a two-man trombone, formed mainly of boiled leather and twenty-five feet of tubing. Neither aesthetically pleasing nor practical". The Minikin was referred to as "a sort of arthritic virginal, with its mechanism taking exactly a minute from keyboard to string, mainly because the instrument was six yards long". There was, quite naturally, a time lapse before the Minikin could give forth its rather plingy sound - and it filled this with a "ratchety-gratchety" coughing and spluttering. The bass line was provided by the Flemish Clacket - a lute of the larger sort. Apparently it was some fifty feet in height! Since it didn't possess a fingerboard, it was played from the inside, with the tuner outside.
- The BBC Radiophonic Workshop: the first 25 years, Desmond Briscoe, Roy Curtis-Bramwell, BBC Radiophonic Workshop, BBC, 1983

A Radio Times clip reproduced at Hugh's Corner: Music matters gives the details:

9.25 Stereo
The Shagbut, Minikin and Flemish Clacket
Schola Polyphonica Neasdeniensis
Peter Weevil and John Throgmorton (shagbut)
Tatiana Splod (minikin)
and H.G. Hogg (Flemish clacket)
Introduced by Hugo Turvey

Hucbald the Onelegged (of Grobhausen, fl. 1452)
Instrumental Rondo: Haro! Poppzgeyen ist das Wieselungenslied
(First broadcast in 1968)

According to various accounts, nearly the entire broadcast - a satire on the preciousness of the Early Music scene - was taken up by sotto voce arguments during attempts to tune the instruments. The recital finally got under way, only to be curtailed after a few seconds when the Flemish clacket imploded.

Two of the instrument names, by the way, are not entirely fictional. "Shagbut" is a genuine historical name for the trombone (alongside sackbutt, sagbutt and other variants), and a "minikin" (as discussed here in a paper on German etymologies) was a treble lute string.

The programme gets a mention in New Notes for Old Instruments, an essay by the music Bayan Northcott (from The Way We Listen Now and Other Writings on Music, 2009) which explains a deal of the context: how listeners, and even composers, tended to regard the cult of early music as an antiquarian fad, or even a joke. Northcott memorably describes the Flemish clacket as "a monstrous Hieronymus Bosch kind of instrument", evidently referring to the hybrid instruments in the Hell section of Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights, and oddly enough, in 2010 the curators of the Bate Collection, Oxford University's museum of musical instruments, commissioned the creation of reproductions of these for a special exhibition: see the Bate news article The Garden of Earthly Delights, and Descent into Hell for larger images.

I get the impression that Oxford were a little sore about the double-edged media coverage; as they explain in a "Behind the headlines" feature, How the Bate's instruments of torture split the media, the most effective publicity for the exhibition was a Guardian article, Shocking news from Oxford: you can't play a flute with your bottom (Sam Leigh, Guardian, 7 November 2010) that ridiculed the project for taking Bosch's surreal designs literally. Even the straight article in the Times was solidly negative (though I love the punning headline):

Inharmonious Bosch and his instruments of torture

Hieronymus Bosch 's hellish vision of cruelty and depravity in The Garden of Earthly Delights has been converted into an equally gruelling sound by museum curators based at the University of Oxford in a failed experiment. Musicians at the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments spent months recreating the musical instruments in Bosch's 16th-century painting in the hope that they would give an insight into early music - but Andy Lamb, the manager of the museum, said that the instruments sound unbearable.
Two of the instruments - a flute and a drum - produce a reasonable sound, but the remaining eight are either impossible to make or painful to hear. The trumpet does not have a natural harmonic series. It has also been coiled so many times that it would be impractical to play. The harp's strings are of a length and weight that do not give an octave.
The lute cannot be tuned without collapsing. The shawm, a woodwind instrument like an oboe, is strangely proportioned. Of the bagpipes, Mr Lamb said: "If you look at the finger holes in the painting the spacing doesn't make sense."
The flute took weeks to make, and the other instruments even longer, but Mr Lamb denied that it was a waste of time.
- Jack Malvern, The Times, November 3, 2010

Detail, Bosch, Garden of Earthly
, from Wikimedia Commons
I strongly suspect the musicians' dungeon in the brilliant The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. was also inspired by Bosch. The scene where Dr Terwiliker is having a drummer tortured (0:53 in the trailer) ...

"The lovely rumbling sound you hear" BOOM! BOOM! — "is one of my favorite prisoners. He was a bass drummer in an orchestra I once conducted. Do you know the part in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony where the drummer is supposed to go 'ah-boom-boom-boom Boom'? Well, this stupid lout always went 'ah-boom-boom-boom Boom. Boom.' One extra boom. He'll be here forever." He approaches a cell with a man striking a huge drum, and Zabladowski asks, "You mean he has to keep beating that drum forever?" Dr. T. blithely sneers, "Oh, that isn't the man I'm punishing. My man is inside the drum."
- That Old Feeling: Seuss on First, Richard Corliss, Time, March 2, 2004

... is very reminiscent of the man-in-drum portion in the Bosch painting.

Bosch's hybrid lute-harp is, incidentally, also reminiscent of the composite self-playing stringed instrument in Animusic's animation Resonant Chamber (see previously).

- Ray

1 comment:

  1. The Shagbut, Minikin, and Flemish Clacket is well worth a listen.

    It's on YouTube.