Musick Makers

From Hurdy-gurdy to the serpent's voice

Eighty-odd musical instruments, most of them elderly, reside in a climate-controlled room in the Music Building. A cosmopolitan lot, they range from an Italian archlute of the sixteenth or seventeenth century, to a graduated set of five viols made by the Frenchman Simon Gilbert and dated 1730, to a fortepiano upon which Harvard's premier Mozartian, Robinson professor of music Robert Levin, occasionally plays.

A bit decrepit but alluring is a French eighteenth-century hurdy-gurdy. At first a peasant instrument often associated with beggars, hurdy-gurdies were in time cranked by all classes. This refined example is of a sort called the vielle à roue, favored by aristocrats with Arcadian fancies in the time of Louis XIV and later. Vielle à roue, musette, flute traversière, flute à bec, and hautbois formed the orchestra of the jolly fête champêtre.

The Chinese yueqin, or moon guitar, with its rakish pegs, is represented in the collection by a twentieth-century example. Bamboo frets run along the short neck and the soundboard. Four strings, tuned in pairs at the distance of a fifth, are plucked, usually with the fingernails. The instrument's display-case label explains that "historically, the yueqin has been used to accompany songs and ballads. Today it is popular as an ensemble instrument in combination with the pipa and sanxian."

Harvard's serpent d'église--French or Belgian, of the seventeenth or eighteenth century--is a seven-foot-long tube of hollowed blocks of walnut, joined and wrapped in strips of leather painted black. Serpents have a mouthpiece of ivory, wood, or horn and a number of fingerholes. They were frequently used in Catholic churches to double men's voices in liturgical chant. Hector Berlioz disapproved. He thought the serpent suitable in church only in masses for the dead "to double the terrifying plainchant of the Dies irae." "The essentially barbaric sound of this instrument," he wrote, makes it "much better suited to the ceremonies of the bloody cult of the Druids." Professor of music Thomas F. Kelly quotes Berlioz on the serpent in his new book, First Nights: Five Musical Premieres. Kelly teaches a popular course on the same topic (see January-February, page 52). When he gets to Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, in which the composer deploys a serpent, Kelly brings Harvard's instrument to class and blows into it. Berlioz called the serpent's voice a "cold and abominable howling."  

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