Snakes, Dragons and Early Synthesizers: Historical Musical Instruments in the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek

18.11.2015 Wiebke Hauschildt (Online Editor)

Instruments that are so expensive that their inventors recommend that you build them yourself, Hector Berlioz delivers fatal marketing blows and Japanese dragons. While researching historical musical instruments, one encounters anecdotes and stories that are out of the ordinary, sometimes tragic and therefore even more worth the telling. These holdings originally come from the Musikinstrumenten-Museum in Berlin, which is one of the newest Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek data partners.

Currently, the museum owns around 3,300 instruments, 800 of which can be seen in the permanent exhibit and around 500 which can be found as digital representations in the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek. The following comprises a small selection of the most extraordinary musical instruments and their histories including sound samples.

The Stössel bass lute: Faster learning, more comfortable grip

The Stössel bass lute pictured here was built sometime between 1920 and 1930. Invented by Georg Stössel, a violin maker in Cologne, it has 13 additional strings that are plucked as when playing a zither. In contrast, the Stössel lute normally has five, seven or nine strings.

Its inventor built the first of his lutes in 1914 with the fundamental idea of simplifying the difficult grips of traditional stringed instruments. These lutes are supposed to be easier to learn and more comfortable to play. Stössel had them patented in 1915 and built diverse and various models of the instrument in the years following. However, these all burnt up in his workshop during an air raid on Cologne in 1943.

This is what the Stössel bass lute sounds like.

The koto, the dragon instrument

"Rokudan no Shirabe", composed by Yatsuhaschi Kengyo, is one of the best known pieces for this Japanese instrument, which is classified as a half-tube zither. What is not so easy to see in the photo is that the koto is a very large instrument. It measures 1.8 metres long and 25 centimetres wide and is usually played while sitting or kneeling.

What is exceptional about this instrument is that the strings are strung over movable bridges. The notes can be adjusted or even tuned by moving these while playing. The strings are plucked with the right hand while the left hand creates acoustic effects or presses down on the strings to raise or lower a note by a whole or half step. This can be seen very clearly in the video (see link above).

The koto is a very old instrument. It was brought from China to Japan during the Nara Period (710 – 793). Its form is likened to that of a dragon. The top of the koto is called the "dragon's shell" while the bottom is the "dragon's belly". The front and back are named the "dragon's horns" and the "dragon's tail" respectively.

The Mixturtrautonium: An early synthesizer

"Whoever would like to have a Trautonium has to build it themselves," is what Oskar Sala, co-developer of the Trautonium, had to say about the stiff market price of this instrument. The price tag was also the reason for its lack of success, which is why there are only ten of these historical instruments on the market today.

The Trautonium was developed by Friedrich Trautwein (1888 – 1956) and Oskar Sala (1910 – 2002), who gave the first performance on the instrument at the Berlin "Neue Musik" festival in 1930. After the two inventors stopped collaborating, Oskar Sala continued work on developing the instrument until coming up with the Mixturtrautonium.

The Trautonium is considered an "early synthesizer". Using a resistor wire spanned over a long metal plate that it touches when the instrument is played, the frequency of the relaxation oscillation is specified and thereby the pitch of the note. As Oskar Sala told NDR in 1986, this mechanism was modelled after the human larynx, which also works with relaxation oscillation. In this NDR documentary, it is possible to see Oskar Sala with his instrument and get an impression of his Trautonium's sounds.

The Trautonium became famous after being used for the score of the Alfred Hitchcock Film "The Birds".

The serpent: Hector Berlioz is not a Fan

According to Composer Hector Berlioz, at best, the only thing the serpent would ever be good for is a requiem, as he stated in the "Traité d’instrumentation" in 1844. He said it sounded like "cold, abhorrent howling". The serpent is a historical brass instrument which is said to have been invented by a canon named Guillaume in Auxerre, France in 1590. In contrast to the association with "howling" that came from Berlioz, the generally accepted opinion in the 16th century was that the sound was very similar to the human voice. Georg Friedrich Handel used the instrument in his "Water Music" and his "Music for the Royal Fireworks". For a long time, the serpent was the only bass instrument that was loud enough for larger choirs or open-air performances.

However, in the 18th century, ideals in vocal music changed and the serpent no longer matched the human voice for listeners of the time – including Berlioz.  The serpent lingered until the 19th century as an accompanying instrument for choral music and was used in particular in orchestras for English and French military music.

The jazz musician Michel Godard rediscovered the historical instrument for his own music at the end of the 20th century – and this is how (good!) it sounds: Michel Godard Trio in the Innichen Stiftskirche.
More musical instruments in the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (around 11,100 results)