When we go to a concert of orchestral music today, we hear most every piece played on the same range of instruments — instruments we know and love, to be sure, but instruments designed and operated within quite strict parameters. The pleasing quality of the sounds they produce may make us believe that we’re hearing everything just as the composer originally intended, but we usually aren’t. To hear what the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, and Haydn would have had in their head as they composed back in their day, you’d have to have an orchestra go so far as to play it not with modern instruments, but the same ones orchestras used back in those composers’ lifetimes.
Enter London’s Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, which takes its name from the era of the late 18th century from which it draws most of its repertoire — and from which it draws most of its instruments, a vital part of its mission to achieve period-accurate sound. You can read more about the OAE’s instruments on its web site, or better yet, head over to its Youtube channel to hear those instruments demonstrated and their historical backgrounds explained. Here we have four of the OAE’s videos: on the clarinet they use for Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, on the contrabassoon they use for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Haydn’s Creation, the organ they use for Handel’s Organ Concerto, and an oboe like the one Haydn would have known.
“We love the music we play,” says OAE double bassist Cecelia Bruggemeyer, “and we love asking questions about the music we play.” So when you use an instrument like the 300-year-old bass she shows off in another video, “you suddenly find it doesn’t necessarily do the things a modern instrument will do, and that sets up a whole train of questions.” These include, “What would Bach have heard? How might the players in his day have played? What does that mean for us, playing today? What does that mean for live music now, with this historic information? We’re not trying to re-create the past. We’re trying to make something that’s exciting now but using what was from the past” — not a bad metaphor, come to think of it, for the entire enterprise of classical-music performance in the 21st century.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.