Skip to main content

Maxim's Baroque Inspirations: weird and wonderful instruments

27 Oct 2022

News Story

Behind Vivaldi's innocuous title Concerto con molti strumenti (‘Concerto with many instruments’) lies one of the Baroque era’s most extravagantly scored works: besides the main body of strings, we have solo parts for (deep breath) pairs of recorders, chalumeaux, violins in tromba marina, mandolins and theorbos, along with a single cello. Quite a line-up of solo instruments, but given how many of them have fallen into disuse, a quick introduction to the less familiar seems in order.

Let’s start with the chalumeau. Its sound immediately identifies it as a member of the clarinet family, but listen more carefully as you’ll notice its range is confined to a small register. Several different sizes of chalumeau were made to counter this, but the development of the more agile clarinet led to the entire family eventually being eclipsed – though not before a good handful of composers (Telemann being the best known after Vivaldi) had fallen for its humble charms.

Curiouser and curiouser ...

Violins in tromba marina are, in all honesty, something of a mystery. There was such a thing as a stringed instrument called tromba marina, but its register was very deep and it was played with its base on the floor, so we can't be sure how this relates to the violin. Add to this the fact that Vivaldi is the only person known to have written for them - which could be a vital clue, assuming it isn't mere coincidence - and you'll see why we think we're better off waiting to see what Maxim makes of them!

As for the mandolin, purists will scoff, but to all intents and purposes, it’s an 18th century ukulele: portable, ideal for a simple accompaniment to a song, and frankly not the first instrument you’d think of for a concerto. The theorbo almost falls into the same category (its long neck makes it much less compact), though it is now most commonly seen in performances of large-scale Baroque music, as part of an expanded continuo section.

In any other context, a concerto with eleven soloists might seem a tad excessive, but look at it this way: how better to crown a programme of Baroque-influenced works, from Grieg to Górecki, than with a musical display of Venice at its most opulent?

(Look out for photos of some of these instruments on our Instagram account in the week of the concert.)

Related Stories

View All