Four Centuries of Musical Instruments

This volume is a catalog of the rare and antique instruments in the Marlowe A. Sigal collection of Newton Centre, Massachusetts. The photographs taken by Mr. Sigal of the instruments in his collection are beautifully printed in glorious color reproductions by the publisher. It is a large format volume of about 300 pages, comprehensively indexed. The text is for the most part limited to summary descriptions of the instruments, the makers, the dates of manufacture, and other relevant technical and historical data.

The book is organized by type of instrument (keyboard instruments, single-reed instruments, double-reed instruments, etc.). Although there are brass instruments in the collection, of the winds the reed instruments and flutes are the most numerous and take pride of place. Mr. Sigal began his collection with keyboard instruments, and those are some of the most significant instruments historically in his collection. Particularly in a field as vast as historical musical instruments, no collection can be truly comprehensive. The Sigal collection, not surprisingly, reflects the tastes and preferences of its founder and curator.

Some of the instruments are of particular historical significance, such as the 1761 Joseph Kirkman harpsichord said to have belonged to Queen Charlotte and played by the nine-year-old Mozart for the Royal Family at Buckingham House in 1764. A few of the instruments have been restored to playable condition, but most remain in their original acquired condition. Seeing early versions of familiar instruments such as flutes and oboes provides insight into just how difficult were the technical requirements for performing the music of composers before about 1870, when the Boehm system came into general use for reed instruments and flutes.

Equally interesting are examples of instruments, once popular in their day, that have all but disappeared from general use. An example is are the reed organ, popular among amateur musicians until about 1900, of which five are illustrated. There are also about a dozen pages of color photographs, all especially well presented, of square pianos, an instrument that was popular in the late 18th Century but that became extinct as a performing instrument by about 1825.

Virtually every page discloses another treasure. To a former saxophonist and clarinetist, of particular interest is a 13-key “combination clarinet” by James Clinton of 1892 with an extendable head joint that enables the instrument to transpose from A to Bb and vice versa. Also of interest are the English horns, which, until about 1890 were bent with a “knee joint” in the middle of the instrument. This feature disappeared in an early modern instrument, the F. Lorée, Paris, of 1893, and is now gone for good. Some instruments have completely disappeared from performing ensembles, such as the “slide saxophone” of 1930 and the sarrusophone.

Some instruments are displayed for the first time to most lovers of instrumental music, such as the tenor rothphone, manufactured by Bottali Fratelli of Milan in 1915, and completely unknown today. Some instruments survived well into the 20th Century, such as the C-Melody tenor saxophone, before disappearing from jazz ensembles after World War II. A fine example from the collection is the 1922 instrument manufactured by the legendary instrument maker C. Buescher Co. of America’s instrument-making capital, Elkhart, Indiana.

For those interested in string instruments, the collection at the Smithsonian in Washington is indispensable. A visit to the Berlin Philharmonic’s priceless collection of historical instruments at the museum located adjacent to the Philharmonie in Berlin cannot be missed. But for those interested in musical instruments whose pleasures are limited to a favorite armchair, Four Centuries of Musical Instruments gives hours of pleasure.

Four Centuries of Musical Instruments
Albert R. Rice, author; Marlowe A. Sigal,  photographer
288 pages, hard back
Schiffer Publishing, Ltd

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