A Sagbutt, a Minnikin, and a Flemish Clackett!!

A Sagbutt, a Minnikin, and a Flemish Clackett was a short but unusual radio programme which took a Pythonesque "look" at early musical instruments. It is believed to have been written by David Cain, and I recall hearing it once, or twice a long while ago. Undoubtedly, Munrow would have heard it too. Here is an article in connection with this matter, and "related "topics...


Old before their time

Independent, The (London) ,  Mar 3, 1995   by Bayan Northcott

Late one evening, towards the end of the 1960s, the BBC Third Programme broadcast a mysterious little feature entitled - if memory serves - The Shagbutt, the Minikin and the Flemish Clackett.  These turned out to comprise a consort of exceedingly obsolete instruments from the 15th century. According to the announcer, the minikin had a keyboard action so slow that the performer - on this occasion, the redoubtable Tatiana Splod of the Schola Cantorum Neasdeniensis - was obliged to start playing fully 30 seconds ahead of the required sound, while the Flemish clackett was a monstrous Hieronymus Bosch kind of wind instrument that had to be played from inside - with constant danger to the performer of implosion. The Schola then embarked, in demonstration, upon a rondeau by Huckbald the One-Legged of Grbhausen. But before the thing had honked and twangled its way through more than a few bars, there came a pop and a series of muffled cries. The Flemish clackett had imploded.Though this naughty spoof was rebroadcast several times in subsequent years, nobody ever seems to have admitted responsibility. Yet it encapsulated an attitude to the period instrument movement that was still surprisingly widespread at the time.

Despite the earnest revivalism in the first decades of the 20th century of Arnold Dolmetsch with his viols and spinets, Wanda Landowska with her harpsichords and Paul Hindemith with his early music studio at Yale; despite the arrival in the 1950s and 1960s of a new generation of scholar-showmen, such as Noah Greenberg and his New York Pro Musica, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his Vienna Concentus Musicus and David Munrow and his Early Music Consort of London, many listeners, not to say composers, continued to regard the cult of old instruments as an antiquarian fad or even a joke.  Behind this lay an evolutionary notion of musical history that dated back at least as far as the Enlightenment: an assumption that new musical developments inevitably went hand in glove with improvements in instrumental technology.

So, following the great l9th-century drive to enhance the reliability and brilliance of all the standard instruments, the 20th century could proceed to push their new possibilities to the limit and beyond, on the reasonable assumption that, by the time they were exhausted, a new world of electronic developments would be opening up for the exploration.  Earlier versions of the standard instruments, not to mention older instruments that had disappeared altogether, were self-evident failures in the evolutionary rat-race. Their latterday revival could only be of "museal" interest - to invoke Pierre Boulez's most witheringly dismissive adjective.  Which is not to say that composers were oblivious of their charms. Way back in the 19th century, Meyerbeer had deployed the antique tone of the viola d'amore in his grand opera Les Huguenots; and, between the wars, Janacek developed a passion for the instrument - or at least, for its name - while Hindemith actually mastered it, composing a plaintive little neo-baroque chamber concerto for his own performance in 1927.

Meanwhile, seeking a sweetly nave timbre to characterise his infant son in his Symphonia Domestica, Richard Strauss hit upon the oboe d'amore.  Nor was interest confined to single instruments: in 1971, Elisabeth Lutyens tried combining players from the Early Music Consort and the London Sinfonietta in her elegy The Tears of Night - a work that came up poignantly in its revival at last summer's Proms - and the following year, Peter Maxwell Davies inserted whole sequences of what he called "muzak behind the arras" for Munrow's period players into his first opera Taverner. Yet perhaps the most prophetic experiment of the post-war period was the extraordinary Music for Renaissance Instruments composed in 1966 by the Argentinian surrealist, Mauricio Kagel: a study in cultural "alienation", the strange sounds of which were drawn from the old instruments by entirely unconventional, avant-garde playing techniques.  And on top of these still relatively isolated instances, there was the whole history of the revival of the harpsichord. Yet this tended to confound the "museal" charge from the start. For the clangorous, steel-framed instruments that Wanda Landowska ordered for her use from Pleyel - the instruments for which Manuel de Falla wrote his Concerto of 1926 and Poulenc his Concert Champtre in 1928 - were far removed from baroque models, almost amounting to new instruments and inaugurating a distinctively 20th-century tradition of powerful concert harpsichords.

Accordingly, when Elliott Carter embarked upon his vastly intricate Double Concerto for harpsichord, piano and two chamber orchestras (1961), he carefully adjusted his textures to the instrument his harpsichordist, Ralph Kirkpatrick, was using - a heavy model with all manner of stops and pedals by the New York maker, Challis. But such instruments, in turn, have tended to disappear in more recent decades with the reversion to lighter-toned "authentic" harpsichords. As a result, putting on this most advanced piece already raises "authenticity" problems of its own, which may be mitigated but not entirely solved by electronically amplifying a baroque instrument - a peculiarly post-modern predicament.

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