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Book Review

The History of Musical Instruments

The History of Musical Instruments
Curt Sachs
Dover Publications, 2006
ISBN 0486452654
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The History of Musical Instruments is an unabridged "republication" of the 1940 W.W. Norton edition by leading musicologist Curt Sachs, who was co-devisor of the Hornbostel-Sachs classification scheme (first published in 1914) for musical instruments. The book was a classic in 1940. It still is; and one likely to provide answers to most questions about most forms of musical production – save the voice.

The 17 chapters with an epilogue are organized chronologically into four parts: "The Primitive and Prehistoric Epoch" (9% of the book's text), "Antiquity" (31%), "The Middle Ages" (22%) and "The Modern Occident" (38%). Chapters in each part works their way through the relevant geographical regions. Naturally there is greater emphasis outside Europe in the first part and within Europe in the last. This approach allows general principles to be set out on both how sound becomes music, and how societies value and use instruments. This is no dry survey across time and location; it is an evaluation of how (families of) instruments have evolved, adapted and disappeared. And when and why. By taking a developmental approach and by contrasting the societies and their technologies one with another, our understanding of any one (type of) instrument and its uses is deepened. For example, the way in which the tonic systems of early South East Asian instruments cross-fertilised what was required of each branch of the instrument family in the region is well explained; so too the crucial movement of musicians around Europe in the 17th Century: their curiosity and adoption of previously un(der)used instruments revolutionised everything.

Lovers of western "classical" music will not be disappointed and will find it instructive to see how many instruments in the contemporary symphony orchestra and smaller ensembles relate to older folk instruments, say. Coverage of families from all five continents is thorough, expert and easy to read and understand. Electrical and electro-acoustic instruments emerging since the second world war, of course, are missing from the book. The ten-page epilogue dealing with the twentieth century really covers only the predominance of percussion and wind as well as a propensity for extremes (e.g. of some instruments' size and power) and interest in the instruments of earlier periods.

It's inconceivable that everyone will not learn something. Indeed the first chapter has an enthralling illustration and description of the gigantic slit drum found in the Americas and South East Asia; it's made full size from a tree trunk. The first incontestable evidence of a purely pneumatic organ is on a Byzantine obelisk dating from before the end of the fourth century CE. Berlioz" conception of the ideal orchestra of 465 instruments including 120 violins, 45 cellos, 40 violas, 37 double basses, 30 harps and 30 pianos would take some beating. The dulcimer is of Persian and Iraqi origin whose name was "santir', deriving from the Greek "psalterion" and is usually made from chestnut. But this is not a book of curiosities, although by their nature many musical instruments have a fascinating history. It's a resource packed full of well-developed technical, social and historical theory and detail. Where an instrument or family has developed rapidly and over a determined period of time (the viola family in the early baroque; brass in the nineteenth century, for example) Sachs painstakingly documents the changes, illustrates them and provides a musical assessment of the advances and advantages.

Indeed, the author pays particular attention to ensembles where relevant. In the fourth section of the book on what for most Classical Net readers may well be the most interesting, western musical instruments from 1400 to the 20th Century, the development of the orchestra is not overlooked. Nor are the "also-ran's" like the schryari (a shrill oboe) and the "viola pomposa" neglected. But emphasis is always given to the most fruitful branches of musical family trees.

A text book and a book heavier in text than Musical Instruments: History, Technology and Performance of Instruments of Western Music, Campbell, Greated, Myers, OUP, (ISBN: 019921185X) say, Sachs' The History of Musical Instruments is neither intimidating nor over dense. There's hardly a type of figure (drawing, notation, table, quotation and so on) except perhaps graphs (!) which isn't appropriately used every few pages to clarify, illustrate or explain something. The section on shawms, for example, lists seven registers from "Small discant" to "Double Bass" with their common approximate lengths and key. In this sense the book is utterly encyclopedic. Yet the narrative which Sachs uses to tie instrumental development to historical and geographical contexts makes this an ideal source for both linear and browsing approaches.

The book's index is thorough and follows the convenient convention of capitals for people, italics for names in other than English as well as initial capital book font for instruments. Families (such as Clarinet) are further subdivided in the index by region. There are two dozen plates (monochrome photographs) and over 160 illustrations. If written now, it's likely there'd be more of both; the photographs would benefit from being in color. Although amply annotated where helpful, that is the one weak aspect of the book. But it's very reasonably-priced ($21.95) and comprehensive at over 500 pages in total, so you might go for something like Musical Instruments of the World, Sterling (ISBN: 0806998474) for bigger, clearer and more lavish illustrations. The History of Musical Instruments is not the most up to date survey of its kind – recent research has certainly built on some of Sachs' conclusions. Nor necessarily the most eye-catching. But for comprehensiveness, accuracy and depth of information, it's a natural first choice for anyone new to the area and interested in everything from acoustics to playing technique, and specialists alike.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Sealey.