Bach’s Forgotten Horn

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In 1737-8, Johann Sebastian Bach composed and performed a cantata, "O Jesu Christ, meins lebens licht" ("O Jesus Christ, light of my life"). Among the instruments called for in the score are "two Litui." However, the Lituus is a forgotten instrument. No one has played or heard the instrument in modern times; there aren't even illustrations of one.

Musicians at a Swiss conservatory, the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (SCB), had heard of a computer program developed by a University of Edinburgh Ph.D. student to help in the design of modern brass instruments. The SCB provided a group of Edinburgh scientists with design requirements, such as notes that would have been played with the Lituus, how it sounded and how it might have been played. (Though likely made of wood, the Lituus qualifies as a brass instrument.) The result: a two-and-a-half-meter-long horn made of pine with a flared bell at one end and a mouthpiece made of cow horn at the other. And they built two.

SCB musicians played the Litui in a performance of the Bach cantata earlier this year. (Excerpts can be heard in the video below.) The instruments are not likely to be used in too many performances, though, since the Bach piece is the only known surviving work that calls for them. And I doubt many modern musicians will begin composing new works for an instrument that is so rare, awkward to transport and is reportedly difficult to play.

But the computer program could get a lot more use. If you've never met a professional brass musician, you probably don't know that they spend thousands of dollars tweaking their instruments. Not only are they trying to get an instrument perfect for the type of music they play (jazz and classical have different sound requirements), they are also trying to balance two characteristics: an instrument that sounds the best to the player (an esoteric quality, unique to every musician) and one that is the easiest for him or her to use. "Sound hard but play easy," says my brother, a bass trombone player. The Edinburgh scientists claim that the software will help the manufacturers of brass instruments fine-tune their designs to meet the needs of picky players.

My brother, though, a classical musician, isn't so sure about this claim. "The computer can help a little," he wrote to me, "but this is not the best thing since sliced bread. In fact, I know that the best instrument-repair professionals can tell you what specific areas of your instrument will affect this note or that note. Think of it this way, in cooking, we can take every ingredient in a recipe and analyze it down to its molecular level. But you still go to where there's a great chef. Nobody goes out to eat at Dell."

Just as well, then, that the scientists see another use for their computer program, or at least a similar version: pinpointing leaks in hard-to-access pipes and ducts in buildings.

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