Berlioz in London
Report on Musical Instruments
Made to the French Commission
This Report is available also in French
In April 1851 Berlioz was appointed by the Minister of Agriculture and Trade to represent France as a juror on the international commission examining musical instruments at the celebrated Universal Exhibition in London. He stayed there from May till the end of July. For further details see the page Berlioz in London on this site, and in particular the entries on 27 Queen Anne Street and Crystal Palace, 1851 Exhibition.
The report that Berlioz wrote was subsequently published by the Imprimerie Nationale in Paris in 1854 and again in 1855; the full French text may be found on this site. An English translation was issued at the time but does not seem to have been reprinted since, and copies of it are in any case very rare. The following translation was made by Michel Austin specially for this site; all rights of reproduction are reserved.
With the complete text translated below one may compare Berlioz’s Treatise on Instrumentation and Orchestration, and in particular the chapter on new musical instruments which he added to the second edition (1855) of the work. The concluding paragraph of that chapter repeats almost word for word the final section of this report. Substantial extracts of the Treatise are available on this site, both in the French original and in an English translation).
A separate page reproduces a facsimile of the title page of the original report.
COMPOSITION OF THE 1st SECTION OF THE Xth JURY
Sir Henry Bishop, President and Reporter, professor of Music.................................England.
Messrs Sigismund THALBERG, Vice-president, professor of Music.........................Austria.
W. STERNDALE BENNETT, professor at the Royal Academy of Music, London........England.
J. Robert BLACK, doctor...........................................................................................United States.
Cipriani POTTER, principal of the Royal Academy of Music, London.....................England.
Dr SCHAFHAUTL, professor of geology, etc..............................................................Zollverein.
George SMART, organist of the Royal Chapel...............................................................England.
Henry WILDE, professor at the Royal Academy of Music, London ..........................England.
Rev. W. CAZALET, superintendent of the Royal Academy of Music, London..........England.
James STEWART, piano maker, London..........................................................................England.
William TELFORD, organ maker, Dublin.......................................................................England.
Although it may be difficult to predict how far improvements in musical instruments may develop in future, it must be admitted that the art of instrument making is nowadays among the most advanced. In some branches this difficult art remained for long in its infancy, at a time when in others it had already reached a degree of excellence which has not been surpassed or even equalled since.
When makers such as Stradivarius, the Amati family, and Guarnerius were producing the wonderful violins, violas and cellos which are in such keen demand by virtuoso players, the majority of wind instruments, built according to empirical methods, were of poor quality. They lacked true intonation, sonority, and could only play a very limited range of notes.
But now these same instruments, built according to rational principles, leave very little to be desired. Their range has been enhanced with additional notes, their timbre has become purer, and the families of instruments have gradually been completed.
It is in France and Germany that the two progressive movements have developed almost simultaneously, and these have brought about the revolution in the manufacture of wind instruments that we are referring to.
It would not be relevant to mention here all the factors that have contributed to this development. We are only concerned here with those instruments which were displayed at the Universal Exhibition of 1851.
Pianos are used in every corner of the globe where civilisation has penetrated and have become a very important branch of trade. The successive improvements they have received, first at the hands of a French maker, then from makers in England and Germany, have developed the power and beauty of their tone in such a way that even the best instruments that were made some forty years ago could not give an idea of the instrument’s potential.
During the same period harps were restricted in practice to a limited number of keys and several chords could not be played. Nowadays they can cope with every key and every harmonic combination.
Organs, which by their nature seem condemned to remain static in design, have acquired a number of improvements. But it is to be regretted that some of the stops that were included in their design, probably at a time when the science of harmony was non-existent and musical taste rudimentary, are still preserved and remain in almost general use, to the shame of artistic taste. Some organ builders admit that the use of those stops is a tradition inherited from a barbaric past; yet at the moment none of them would have the courage to confront prejudices head on by abolishing them.
Percussion instruments have not progressed very much. With the exception of a new mechanism developed for the timpani to make it possible to tune them quickly, there has otherwise been little change in the last half century.
Despite the strict control exercised by the council of presidents over the workings of the specialist juries, of which the author of this report was a member, and perhaps because of this strictness, it is generally agreed that equity was observed in the distribution of prizes.
Given this the French jury should not feel in any way embarrassed in recognising the vast superiority of the French exhibits in a competition that was open to all nations. It was in practice on its own in defending the interests of its compatriots, while England had four representatives, and the fairness of the competing nations awarded to French exhibitors the largest share in the prizes that were awarded.
The number of prize medals given to French makers of musical instruments compared to those obtained by foreign makers demonstrates officially the superiority of the former. If I believed the opposite, I would have no hesitation in saying so. On the contrary, a scrupulous and, I believe, completely impartial examination, led me to the conviction that France nowadays holds the first rank in the art of making musical instruments in general. England and Germany come next and compete for pre-eminence in the second rank in a few specialist branches. One regrets to say that on this solemn occasion Italy and Spain have not seriously taken part in the contest, and that several German and French makers who would probably have held their ground with distinction have also abstained.
Among French makers whose success at the Universal Exhibition has been the most brilliant and the least disputed must be mentioned in the first place Messrs Érard, Sax, Vuillaume and Ducroquet.
The first two stand out particularly in the first rank of inventors.
M. ÉRARD has developed, perfected and completed the mechanism of the piano, and has added to the harp the pedal system with double movement. This has enabled this instrument to become if not chromatic (which it will never be), but at least free to play in every key, as I have mentioned above, and to play every existing chord. It would be pointless to emphasise here the quality of M. Érard’s pianos, as regards their beauty of tone, the fine touch of their keyboard, and the solid construction of the instrument. Their wide distribution in every part of the world, and the preference that most great virtuosos declare for them, speak loudly in their favour. The inventions of this able maker, in particular his repetition action, has had a major influence in furthering the art of piano playing, so much so that the best piano makers nowadays are those who imitate Érard’s instruments most faithfully.
The brass instruments with mouthpieces and reeds made by M. SAX are deservedly famous. M. Sax has completed and perfected the family of brass instruments with mouthpieces and valves; it now covers a vast range which extends from the little soprano saxhorn in B flat to the huge double-bass saxhorn with four valves, also in B flat. The accurate intonation of each of the different members of the family of saxhorns and saxotrombas which he has created, the beauty of their timbre and the ease of tone production whether in the low, middle or high range, are incomparable. Given these qualities it will henceforth be almost impossible to introduce into new military bands most of the wretched instruments with keys which old cavalry bands and some infantry orchestras still use, to the cruel mortification of civilised ears. His cornets are the best that are known.
M. Sax has also created the saxophone, a delightful brass instrument with a clarinet mouthpiece; it has a new timbre which lends itself equally well to the most delicate nuances and subtlest half-tones as to the majestic strains of religious music. M. Sax has provided us with a complete family of saxophones, and if composers do not as yet appreciate the value of the new voice which they owe to the genius of the inventor, the cause is to be found solely in the lack of experience on the part of players. The saxophone is a difficult instrument, the mastery of which requires long and dedicated study, and so far it has been played very little and imperfectly.
M. Sax has also contributed various improvements to bass clarinets and to ordinary clarinets. He has extended the range of the latter by a semitone in the lower range and by a few notes at the top; this has been achieved by making it easier to produce a number of notes that previously were almost unusable. He has also introduced a new valve to the slide trombone, which is activated by the thumb of the player’s left hand. This has bridged the gap which exists on this instrument between the lowest note [E] on the diatonic scale and the so-called pedal notes [from deep B flat downwards], which on every slide trombone is an augmented fourth below it. This leaves a gap of five notes which before the invention of M. Sax’s new mechanism could not be used.
His brass bassoon, which has a new system of keys and holes, is really perfect.
M. Sax has also invented for brass instruments with valves a device which is as simple as it is ingenious. This makes it possible to play a glissando on these instruments, as can be done with the violin, the slide trombone etc. and with voices, by moving from one note to another through all the enharmonic intervals.
Finally M. Sax has added to the bugles of infantry bands a series of portable tubes, which when fitted to these instruments turn them into cornets in various keys. This therefore modifies the monotonous character of the basic bugle by enabling it to produce every interval on the musical scale.
The manufacture of bowed instruments – violins, violas, cellos and double-basses – seems to have been brought to the pinnacle of perfection by the ancient makers whose names I have mentioned above. No attempt is therefore made nowadays to innovate in this craft, but rather to imitate as faithfully as possible the best old instruments and to penetrate the secrets of how they were made. More than anyone else M. VUILLAUME has advanced on this path. Through extensive research he has managed to discover the principal reason for the excellent sonority of old violins from the famous makers, and he replicates them with remarkable fidelity. As a result the majority of violinists who, because of their exorbitant price, are unable to purchase instruments from the great masters, such as Stradivarius and Amati, can purchase for a modest sum modern instruments which resemble them in their timbre, the power of their sound and even the shape and antique look which this skilled copier is able to give them. M. Vuillaume exhibited a large contrabass which goes down an octave lower than the fourth string [C] of the cello. A special mechanism of keys replaces the player’s left fingers which would not be strong enough to play on such large and taut strings.
The octobass (this is the name which M. Vuillaume has given to his new instrument) produces a sound of rare beauty, full and strong but without any roughness. It would be desirable to have at least two of these instruments in all orchestras of any importance.
The organ exhibited by M. DUCROQUET caught the attention of the countless visitors to Crystal Palace through the power and variety of its registers. A number of improvements in design which can be observed in its construction have also earned their author the plaudits of all competent judges.
The juries nevertheless awarded a great medal to three English organ builders, namely Messrs WILLIS, HILL and DAVISON. The intricate art of building organs is indeed highly developed in England.
Although Messrs BROADWOOD and COLLARD were deprived by, respectively, the group jury and the council of presidents of the great medal awarded to them by the special jury, the excellence of their pianos must nevertheless be recognised. After those of M. Érard, they are obviously the best that were heard at the Universal Exhibition.
M. BOËHM (from Munich) obtained a great medal for his use of a new system of boring for wind instruments with holes, such as flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons. Gordon is the real inventor of the system; but the ingenious application of it made by M. Boëhm, especially for flutes, probably deserved to be brought to the notice of musicians and of the general public by the distinction that was awarded to him. M. Boëhm makes most of his flutes in silver. The sound of these instruments has a soft and crystalline quality, though it is less full and powerful than that of flutes made of wood. The new system has the advantage of making the intonation of wind instruments with holes almost flawless, and it enables players to play without effort in keys which were almost unmanageable on older instruments.
The fingering on Boëhm’s instruments is fundamentally different from that used on other instruments of the same kind; hence the resistance of many players to the general introduction of the new system. To start all over again the study of the instrument involves too much effort, and one can appreciate that even among young virtuosos the example given by Messrs Dorus and Brunot, who did not hesitate to begin again their training for the flute, has found few imitators. Nevertheless we have little doubt that before long the system of Gordon and Boëhm will triumph, and the juries of the Universal Exhibition must be congratulated for grasping this fact.
We do not have any other outstanding distinctions to mention among those awarded to makers of musical instruments; there are only eight in all, four of which belong to France, three to England (but only for organs) and one to Bavaria.
Among medals of the second rank, called prize medals, of which the number is fairly high, mention must be made of Messrs WARD and PARK (from London), the first for his bassoons, the second for his brass instruments; Messrs RUDAL and ROSE (from London), for their flutes made after Boëhm’s system; M. MABILLON (from Brussels), for his clarinets; M. UHLMANN (from Vienna in Austria), for his oboes, clarinets and basset-horns.
France has been also noted for the excellent flutes of M. GODEFROY, for the oboes of M. TRIBERT and the clarinets of M. BUFFET. In these three special areas the Parisian makers I have just mentioned had considerable success.
M. ANTOINE COURTOIS and M. GAUTROT (from Paris) have well deserved the prize medal given to them for their brass instruments – horns, trumpets, bombardons, and cornets.
We may also mention, among exhibitors who received an award, Messrs PAPE, ROLLER and HERTZ (from Paris), for their pianos; M. DEBAIN, for his harmoniums; and finally M. STODART (from London), for his square pianos.
The conclusions that can easily be drawn from these remarks are therefore altogether positive as regards the present state of instrument making in general, and as regards France in particular. We will not argue against a respectable view which tends to suggest that the recent inventions of instrument makers are fatal to the art of music. The influence exercised by these inventions in their particular sphere is the same as with all advances in civilisation; the misuse that can be and without doubt is made of them, proves nothing against their worth.
The Hector Berlioz website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 17 July 2000 (French version) and 1 January 2002 (English version).
©2000 Michel Austin. All rights of reproduction reserved.
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