Oct 30, 2017

MINIM-UK: 3,000 years of British music through musical instruments

Royal College of Music

The United Kingdom was famously described as “The Land Without Music” in the title of a 1904 book by German music critic Oscar Adolf Hermann Schmitz. At the time Schmitz wrote this, few would have disagreed – even the British themselves. Until relatively recently, British classical musicians and composers were often overshadowed by their continental counterparts, but to claim that this sceptred isle lacks strong and vibrant musical traditions is manifestly untrue. From ancient Celtic battles to modern arena concerts music is woven into the very fabric of life here, and always has been. The UK has a long, unique, and fascinating musical history, and the story of Britain can be told through its musical objects. Here are some instruments with distinctively British accents.

Part 1—From ancient to baroque

This instrument is a replica of an ancient 2,000 year old Celtic war horn, reconstructed from fragments preserved in the National Museum of Scotland.

The carnyx featured a bill shaped like a dragon’s head, and was intended to intimidate and terrify the enemy as an army entered battle. Besides playing pitches like a conventional natural trumpet, the instrument was also capable of making strange sound effects. When played, the tongue in the dragon’s mouth actually moves as if it were roaring.

Viols are a group of bowed stringed instruments that were popular throughout Europe before the mid-18th century.

Although they look like violin family instruments, viols were constructed and played differently, with an intimate sound well suited for playing in the home.

There was an important social difference as well. While violins, violas, and cellos were often played by professionals, viols were typically the province of the genteel amateur - especially in England where these viols were made.

Listen to the division viol

When we think about British royalty and music, we might imagine the fanfare of trumpets at a coronation, or perhaps think of the Queen attending the Proms. We typically imagine the monarchy listening to music rather than playing it. However, over the centuries, many British royals have been keen players who appreciated music and its instruments.

Although this citole dates to 200 years before her reign, this instrument was owned by Queen Elizabeth I and is decorated with her coat of arms and the coat of arms of her court favourite Robert Dudley.

This virginals (like trousers, virginals, although being singular are almost always referred to in the plural) belonged to King Charles II and was kept in Whitehall Palace.

Part 2—instruments from the 17th to 19th centuries

This set of bagpipes is known to have been owned by a soldier who fought at the 1745 Battle of Culloden, where the Jacobite forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie met their final defeat.

After the battle, the soldier moved to Germany where he became a mercenary, taking this instrument with him. He settled there, married a local girl, and his set of bagpipes remained in the family for over 200 years. They were found in a barn in the late 20th century.

While not really a guitar, this instrument is certainly English. Although similar instruments were played throughout Europe during the 17th to 19th centuries, these English “guitars” (sometimes spelt “gittar”) were extremely popular in Britain around the turn of the 19th century - especially as an instrument for well-bred young ladies.

So popular were they amongst the refined classes that famous English harpsichord maker Kirkwood felt threatened. He is rumoured to have bought a number of guitars and distributed them amongst ladies of little virtue, hoping to create a less salubrious association with the instrument.

Although the piano was invented by an Italian (Bartolomeo Cristofori) around the turn of the 17th century) the vast majority of modern grand pianos are based on the late 18th-century designs of the English maker John Broadwood.

Broadwood’s pianos were popular throughout Europe, and were particularly favoured by Ludwig von Beethoven, who said of his instrument: “I will regard it as an altar on which I will offer to god Apollo my most beautiful sacrifices of spirit.” Beethoven was also known to play his Broadwood piano so violently that he broke its strings on more than one occasion.

Audio example of the piano by Broadwood

Broadwood’s pianos were not only popular with composers on the continent; the English composer Edward Elgar used an 1844 Broadwood square piano as his personal instrument, on which he composed The Dream Of Gerontius, and an early version of his Enigma Variations.

One of the most iconic traditional Welsh instruments, the crwth (pronounced “crooth”) is a lyre that is played with a bow, in a manner somewhat similar to a violin. It is not clear when the crwth became established in Wales, but by the late 18th-century the instrument was in decline. While only four historical examples of this instrument remain, in recent years the crwth has seen a revival in popularity, especially among folk musicians.

Part 3—instruments from the 19th century to the modern era

Although heavily associated with Irish, Scottish, and other Celtic folk music, the penny whistle (also known as the tin whistle) originated in Manchester, where it was invented by Robert Clarke in about 1840. The firm he founded continues to make almost identical instruments today.

The penny whistle is closely related to instruments such as the recorder and flageolet, all of which are known as “fipple flutes“. The penny whistle’s easy fingering and affordable price have made it one of the most popular folk instruments in Britain.

Although this is an ordinary banjo, it has an extraordinary story. This instrument was taken along on Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Antarctic voyage of 1914. Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance became entrapped, and was eventually sunk, by ice.

This banjo was played by the expedition’s meteorologist, Leonard Hussey, to buoy the spirits of the stranded explorers. Shackleton said of the instrument: “We must have that banjo. It is vital mental medicine”.

After much hardship Shackleton was able to rescue his crew without a single loss of human life.

The image of the Salvation Army band playing is as much a part of Christmas as mistletoe and presents underneath the tree. The Salvation Army took its brass bands seriously; so seriously that the organisation for many years actually made its own bespoke brass instruments in its own factory, solely to meet the needs of its musicians.

Although now more typically found silently decorating the walls of country pubs, the sound of the post horn would have once been some of the most familiar music heard in Britain...

... as it announced the arrival of the mail coach.

This post horn, at the Glenesk Folk Museum in northern Scotland, is particularly unusual in that its provenance is well documented; it was used as late as the 1930s on one of the very last horse-drawn mail coaches in Great Britain.

Although it was made in France, this bugle played a small but poignant part in British history. It was given to an English ship captain by a French soldier during the evacuation of Le Havre in 1940, following the fall of France to the invading German army. The French soldier had used it to sound 'Retreat' and was ashamed of it.

The UK has made significant contributions to electric and electronic music. The VCS 3 was one of the first commercially available synthesisers to be small enough for practical live performance. It was much favoured by progressive rock bands at the turn of the 1970s such as King Crimson and Pink Floyd, and it continues to be used today by bands such as LCD Soundsystem, who are looking to get a “retro” sound.

Credits: Story

Text: Matthew Hill
Implementation: Richard Martin

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