1. Why is the orchestra called “The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment”?
We are a period instrument orchestra named after the age in European history known as The Enlightenment, an era spanning the late seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This was a time of great experimentation and innovation, a period during which instruments, techniques and also the form of musical performance developed greatly.
So the name has a double resonance for us: we perform music of that period using as a starting point our knowledge of the instruments, styles and techniques of the day, but we also aim to capture the spirit of innovation and enquiry which characterises those centuries.
This is not a short name. Many people therefore refer to us simply as The OAE.
2. What is a period instrument orchestra?
Musical instruments have developed a huge amount over the centuries. As the instruments have changed so have the sounds, and also the whole nature of musical gesture. Sometimes these changes are rather superficial, but often they can make a fundamental difference to the phrasing and the texture of the music.
Period instrument orchestras try to take account of these changes when they perform. We play on instruments which are originals of the period or copies of them, and we will have read texts of the period which describe ways of playing and actual performances. In addition we try to use original versions of the music as written by a composer, rather than simply from a modern edition which may have centuries of added marks.
The aim of using period instruments is to recreate the vitality of the original performances. But because we live in an age of fast moving technological change, we tend to assume that if something is newer it must be better. With music this is not really so. Violinists the world over, for example, are agreed that modern violins can never match the best eighteenth century ones made by the finest craftsmen in Northern Italy. Modern editions of music are rarely perceived now as a ‘better’ than the original ones.
3. How have the instruments changed?
Generally speaking there was a drive between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to provide instruments with more power. As music moved out of the Court and into the modern concert hall new materials and techniques were employed. Wind instruments began to be constructed from new woods, and the addition of metal keys made from new more durable alloys increased facility. Nickel flutes, for example, replaced wooden predecessors and larger sized bores on brass instruments produced a sound more suitable to the new larger concert halls.
String instruments were taken apart and strengthened by the use of larger internal reinforcements. Bows changed shape as Pernonbuco replaced snake wood, and with more hair employed in the bow the hair became clamped with metal to hold it firmly in place. High tension metal eventually replaced gut for making strings, giving a stronger but less sweet sound.
All of these changes had an effect on the sound of instruments. To make a gross generalisation, the earlier instruments tended to be of low tension, and to have a lighter but more textured sound. The later ones are more tense, and have more power but less clarity. The aim of using period instruments is that you use the type of instrument that the composer had in their ear when the music was composed, giving appropriateness of fit. Often using these instruments is a process of revealing colours and sounds which the tension and density of later instruments can easily cover up.
4. Are there are any disadvantages to using period instruments?
There is a cost to using old instruments. Period instruments tend to be less stable and reliable than their modern equivalents. Gut strings stay in tune less well than metal, and are more prone to break in performance. Wind instruments are also more temperamental. Moreover the old instruments were not devised for performances in modern concert halls with their large spaces, and dry acoustics. To hear these instruments at their best they should arguably be heard in halls predominantly of wood and stone, rather than the plush carpets and materials of the modern concert hall.
FAQ’s by Marshall Marcus, Head of Music at Southbank Centre, and previously Chief Executive of and a violinist in the OAE