Musical instruments have changed over the centuries. Many have vanished, many have altered into the forms we recognize today. The sounds of these instruments have likewise changed to account for changing tastes between eras. For example, it is surprising to many people that the predecessor of the modern oboe, with its suave, sexy sound, is the raucous shawm, so loud and shrill, it could only have been used outdoors.
There have been numerous attempts to chronicle the history of musical instruments. Most of these have been geared toward the specialist, but a few have been aimed at the curious amateur. The most notable of these musical instrument histories was David Munrow's seminal 1976 "Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance," which was issued mere weeks before the author's untimely death at the age of 33. The original set contained a large book published by Oxford University Press and contained 2 LPs (an alternate edition contained 2 cassettes). It was clear, even to the rank amateur, that Munrow was a passionate man who had unbounded enthusiasm for his subject. The musical examples followed the book nearly exactly, giving the reader the rare opportunity to hear the sounds about which you were reading. The LPs were a delightful musical program as well. This set has long been out of print, despite exhortations by music educators on both sides of the Atlantic to EMI to reissue it. They are available separately (finally), but not together.
The Belgian label Ricercar issued their own versions back in 1995. There were two editions: one devoted to the instruments of the Renaissance and one covering the instruments of the Baroque era. Each contained a small book (roughly 200 pages the size of a CD jewel box with text in French, English, and German) and three CDs. There were a few problems with these sets. First, the small size of the book made reading difficult. The illustrations were fine, if tiny, but only in black and white. The text itself was problematic, as the translations were less than stellar. Often, while reading the English text, I had to refer to the French text to make sense of the translation, which was neither accurate in places nor particularly idiomatic. The small book had issues with durability as well. The pages were glued in and tended to fall apart after only a few readings. The performances on the CDs were often indifferent and didn't hold together well as a program.
Fourteen years later and after an apparent company reorganization, Ricercar has revisited this set and the results could hardly be better! First of all, the packaging of the set is first-rate. Instead of a thin, flimsy sleeve, Ricercar has provided a hardback book format to hold the book and CD set in separate sleeves, with very thick and robust cardboard covered by a full color reproduction of the very painting David Munrow had chosen for the cover of his own book. The book itself is wonderful. There are full color photographs of museum instruments and period paintings showing each and every instrument, no matter how obscure. The organization is slightly eccentric, following its own internal logic and differs in this way from their original version. The translations are better this time around (with the same translators), although there are still some errors. I compared the original French text with the English and German versions and the main problem seemed to be an overly literal devotion to the original. The indices are a model of clarity. If the reader is looking for a particular instrument, it is easy to find, both in the text and on the CDs (here there is a problem with the text--the French version has the correct CD and track numbers for each instrument, but the English and German translations are somewhat haphazard and are unreliable). The index for each CD (8 in all!) gives the name of each piece, the name of the composer, and the instrumentation. Rather than the narrower focus of Munrow's set, this set truly encompasses the entire spectrum period instruments, from the Middle Ages to the Classical era and slightly beyond.
The musical performances are top-notch. There is some cribbing from the earlier sets, but many pieces seem to have been re-recorded especially for the set. Although the program doesn't quite hold together in the way that Munrow's did, it is very well-organized. Some of the more obscure instruments didn't quite make it from the book to the CDs. Some, like the Geigenwerk, exist only in museums. A few others, like the échelette (proto-xylophone), do exist in reproductions but are curiously omitted here. (The text does omit some interesting information about this instrument, incidentally.) This set clears up, once and for all, the long-standing confusion between the Renaissance crumhorn and the French Baroque cromorne. For that alone, the producers deserve our gratitude! Unfortunately, they reproduce the error first put forth by Curt Sachs and repeated by David Munrow about the correct nomenclature of the Schreiyerpfeife. They used the misunderstood term "Rauschpfeife," a generic term meaning "reed pipe." More than twenty-five years ago in the definitive study on the capped reed instruments, Barra Boydell showed that the correct word for the instrument was the above named "Schreiyerpfeife," a more accurate and colorful word meaning "screaming pipe." These are minor quibbles which would have added accuracy to this set, but the omissions do not detract from it. Given the scope and beauty of this set, it easily fills in the gap created by EMI's refusal to update and reissue Munrow's set. This set is not cheap, but for anyone interested in the history of musical instruments, it should not be missed! I give Ricercar my highest praise for re-visiting an earlier, flawed set and making it not just better, but a lot better!