The sad demise of the crumhorn

But if the children aren’t forced to learn the crumhorn then how will we all collect our Arts Council subsidies for pieces that require the crumhorn?

They are the big beasts of the orchestra, famous for their booming depths and resounding crescendos.

But the days of the oboe, bassoon, french horn and tuba could be numbered, an arts chief has warned, as interest from the younger generations has dwindled to such a low that the instruments now risk becoming extinct.

Lucy Noble, the Royal Albert Hall’s artistic and commercial director, has blamed the demise of these orchestral instruments on the fact that the “YouTube generation” has less exposure to live music.

There is actually an easy answer here. The process of learning to play an instrument comes in two parts. Learning the instrument and learning music. Once that second is learned then it’s very, very, much easier to learn another of the first. So, change the relative wages for these instruments an we’ll get, say, clarinettists or saxophone players lining up to perform on the contrabassoon. It’s really not necessary to start at age 5 on one in order to be able to play it when 25 you know.

15 thoughts on “The sad demise of the crumhorn”

  1. There is, of course, another answer. None of these instruments were developed for their own sake. They were the technical hack, of the time, to hit the notes other instruments couldn’t manage. In fact, the whole reason for orchestras was to get the volume necessary to play music to large audiences, so they could hear it.
    Tech has moved on. Now they have amplifiers & synthesisers. You can get an oboe to make any sound you want it to. Or make any instrument sound like an oboe.
    Or isn’t it actually about the music. And purely the wankery?

  2. Even more than that, there’s real similarities. A tuba has the same fingering as a trumpet, euphonium, trumpet and french horn. As a former tuba player I could also play the euph.

    But here’s the other thing: there’s plenty of french horn players already. I worked with one. He was a business analyst by day, but occassionally the batsignal would go when someone was ill and he’d ask to go early to play with the LSO at the Royal Albert Hall. He was good enough for them, but working as a business analyst most of the time.

    And here’s the other thought: if there’s a decline in live music (and orchestras), why do we need so many horn players?

  3. bloke in spain,

    Good point. Even if you see someone like Earth, Wind and Fire who have a large live band, it’s maybe a dozen musicians. The choir are now 3 women with microphones. Bass is doing what tubas and trombones did. Guitar is doing what a lot of the strings were doing. Keyboards covering some higher brass sounds. And singers carry the melody with microphones.

    The other thing that killed live classical music that she’s not acknowledging is the CD. Classical music wasn’t good on vinyl, but CD comes close. A lot of people stopped going when CD players got cheap enough.

  4. @BoM4

    It’s getting it the right way round. The guy who wrote the music wanted a particular sound. The orchestra & its instruments were an attempt to get that sound. Whether they did or not is an unknown. Maybe playing with modern tech is closer to what the composer would have wanted.

  5. I agree with Bloke in Spain to a certain extent but people going to classical concerts are going there to get what they believe is a live, more or less authentic experience.
    Logically, to hear the music perfectly one might be better off listening on a hi-fi or sitting in a concert hall with a lossless recording playing of the finest performances ever, perhaps with Hi-def video recording of the orchestra. This isn’t far off the recordings of live performances shown in cinemas, which are great for people who can’t go to the original performance, but a different experience.
    And I’m sure that isn’t the experience most regular concert-goers prefer.

    It’s also true that the instruments developed to fulfill a need. The electric guitar for example was originally developed because the acoustic guitar wasn’t loud enough to punch through other instruments to be a solo instrument in an ensemble, but few people would argue that they produce an identical sound or feel, even though the acoustic guitar can now be amplified to the same volume.
    Like it or not, it is a different experience to see and hear a bassoon player than to see and hear a keyboard player producing the theoretically identical sound.

  6. bloke in spain
    July 29, 2018 at 11:20 am

    True, but the composers composed with the particular instruments in mind because that’s what they had to work with.
    Maybe if the synth, electric guitar and sax had existed at the time then Beethoven would have composed the 9th for them, but we just don’t know.
    More importantly, he would undoubtedly have composed the piece differently because of the different characteristics of the instruments.

    An analogy is with the buggering around with old films. “They would have shot in colour if they had the choice” is the cry of the colorizer
    Maybe, maybe not, but the point is that knowing that they were filming in b/w the filmmakers made all sorts of aesthetic decisions differently to those they would have made if they were shooting in colour. You can’t just slap colour on the end result and claim that this is what would have been.

  7. “Once that second is learned then it’s very, very, much easier to learn another of the first.”

    Only to some extent. I’m a fairly good keyboard musician – I can play a decent range of stuff on a piano, and have leveraged that to become a tolerable church organist. I’m also capable of getting a tune out of a piano accordion at a push.
    I would love to play the violin – I really like the sound of bowed strings – but I’m enough of a perfectionist that I’ve accepted that in my early 30s I’m too old to learn to play from scratch to a standard I’d feel was adequate. That natural ability to learn you have as a child dies off, and that’s the long and short of it.

  8. Violin from piano, but a lot of the instruments mentioned are the more unusual members of families of instruments where swapping isn’t so difficult.
    My child decided to switch to the baritone sax after playing alto for 4 years and picked it up straight away (ok sax are all designed to play similar so easy one I know) and to Tim’s
    point already knew to read music. Was the only Bari sax I the school and there were numerous alto/tenor sax players so lots more opportunity with band etc
    The desire to stand out will always push some people to certain instruments (oboe vs clarinet)

  9. Disagree, to the extent that learning music is the easy part IMO. Learning to play an instrument with the degree of skill required to perform at a high level professionally – let alone in a solo capacity – is really not very easy at all. Nor is maintaining it.
    (I work in the music industry professionally; the music part on the classical side is my bread and butter).

  10. As a former bass clarinetist… double reed instruments are a whole new variety of fucking difficult. So oboe and bassoon definitely need training from a pretty young age.

  11. People take up learning instruments at all sorts of ages.

    I learnt a little of the bugle when I was a teen. Now I have a mandolin and looking to get a mandocello. And very slowly learning to read music.

    A century ago most people with even a small amount of leisure would have learnt some music, maybe play a couple of instruments. Group singing or playing together was a form of entertainment and those who didn’t play could learn to sing.

    Groups organised themselves – and paraded through the town or did concerts in places.

    Now there is less demand. I love music, I have a wide selection of it on CD and enjoy some classical. Live concert classical is great for its visual impact, its aural impact can be hit or miss depending where you sit. Usually better experience at home with CD or using streaming service.

    There’s still considerable demand for music judging by the music shops. Whether there is still demand to get to great level for sufficient players of an instrument in an area….?

    I met a guy recently who plays the bass. I kid him about his bass cello – a monster cello. He’s in his 70s and he’s the only one in the area that he knows of. Great sound from next to the cello section in an orchestra, gone when he’s gone. The visual imagery of seeing him play cannot be recreated by electronic means, not least him wrestling it into position with 3 other guys.

    The world moves on. The instruments of 400 years ago aren’t in use much today, only the popular surviving…..

  12. Don’t the Youtube generation have much much more opportunity to see a wider variety of music. They may go to less live orchestral performances, but I doubt they were able to sit in seats where they could clearly see the instruments being played anyway. Youtube potentially gives the opportunity for those instruments to be showcased and information about them preserved.

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