Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.
If there's a way of making money, then make music, even if the instrument you're being asked to write for is a little on the bizarre side! That's been the philosophy of many composers who have written for obscure instruments in the past.
And then there are those who show interest in the latest newcomer on the scene and find a place for them in their new composition. This article will explore nine strange instruments and amazing compositions written to elevate their unique sounds.
9 Unconventional Instruments in Classical Music
- The musical saw
- The arpeggione
- Mechanical Clocks
- The Lira Organizzata or organ lyre
- The Baryton
- The Glass Harmonica
- The Theremin
- The Ondes Martenot
- The Celesta
1. The Musical Saw
I first came across the musical saw listening to a recording of Khachaturian's piano concerto on the radio, and I was immediately captivated by its other worldly tones. I couldn't work out what it was and was amazed when the announcer mentioned its inclusion in the piece.
Even more astonishing is that actual saws—yes, those tools for cutting wood we store in the shed at the bottom of the garden—double up to take a place in the orchestra. All you need is a violin or cello bow primed with rosin to draw over the teeth, clamp the saw between your knees, and you're kitted out. If you've no bow handy, simply use a dowel.
Of course, there is more skill to it than that, and although you find players in Russia and rural America using hardware store saws, many professionals buy custom made saws which are easy to flex and include a handle at the thinner end to help in the bending process. Bending the musical saw into a flattish 'S' shape causes the blade not to vibrate at the points which are curved, dampening any unwanted sounds.
By varying where the player places the bow along the saw they can alter the pitch. The wider end produces deeper notes climbing up the scale towards the tip, ranging in total about two octaves or so. To produce vibrato—that slightly wobbly sound that string players make—the player can either shake their knee or tremble their hand.
Although it has found its niche mainly on the folk music scene, Khachaturian isn't the only classical composer who saw fit to use it, so to speak. Shostakovich scored for it in his operas Lady Macbeth of Metnsk District, and The Nose and his music for the film The New Babylon.1
Khachaturian Piano Concerto, Second Movement the Musical Saw
2. The Arpeggione
This looks similar to a bass viol, bowed like a cello, and has six strings and tuned like a guitar. Pose those qualities to someone who is interested in classical music, and what would they come up with?2
Unless they're very knowledgeable, it's unlikely they'd nail the correct answer—the arpeggione. I have rather a soft spot for it even though the only piece I know of specifically for the arpeggione is by Schubert. Delightfully lyrical and flecked with pathos, it remains a popular concert venue work for cellists and violists, who have claimed it as their own.
Naturally its fortunes have revived in the recent upsurge in original instrument performance, and there are recordings of this lovely work available on the arpeggione itself.
Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata
3. Mechanical Clocks
The German word for this type of clock was flötenuhr, and Haydn wrote over 30 of what we might list as time pieces for the timepiece at the luxury end of the market, at the behest of a musician friend who had developed clocks that could play music. Joseph Niemecz was a multi-talented monk, librarian, and chaplain to the Esterhazy family, who Haydn also worked for. Not only did Neimecz play several instruments, but he was something of an inventor of musical curiosities including musical clocks of which four still survive.
In good marketing fashion, Haydn indicated that these miniatures could be played just as easily yourself should you have access to an organ, closely reproducing the sound of the tooting clock.
One of the pieces written for a clock presented to Prince Nicolas II of Esterhazy found its way into Haydn's symphony No 101, affectionately know as 'The Clock.' The tick-tock accompaniment in the second movement was lifted from the one of the 12 miniatures he wrote for the musical clock.3
Handel, too, wrote music for clocks made by Charles Clay, one of which is now housed in the Handel House Museum in London and another at Windsor castle. Clays's clocks struck every quarter of an hour, and he asked Handel to provide the music for several of them. The sound was provided by chimes or pump organs and are given an airing today on regular organs.
The clocks feature excerpts from various works Handel had already composed - mainly arias from his operas and assorted keyboard pieces - and was a way of furthering the circulation of his music.4
Haydn Fugue For Mechanical Clock
Description of the Lira Organizzata
4. The Lira Organizzata
Haydn seemed to attract peculiar instruments, or rather his patrons did, by putting in a request to the well respected composer. He was to dash off a few pieces and immortalise the anachronistic instrument they'd set their heart on conquering.
Take the Lira Organizzata or organ lyre. You don't get many of these to the pound, especially as these days it's a mere curiosity. Similar to a hurdy-gurdy (describe) which is played with a bow, the sound was produced by means of a wooden wheel powering a set of bellows for an mini organ was constructed inside the body of the instrument. Five concertos from 1786 for the instrument by Haydn have survived as well as 8 Notturnos written between 1788-1790. In true cavalier style the rakish King of Naples, Ferdinand IV had this weird hybrid, part string, part organ, cobbled together to be different from anyone else, and commissioned them for himself to play.¹
There were other lira organizzata in circulation but the instrument was pretty well confined to Italian shores, and became virtually extinct. There remains one in captivity in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Far from regarding the odd lira organizzata as a obstacle to be overcome, Haydn's writing is witty and bright, embracing it's quirky operations. His works for the, let's be honest, bonkers, instrument live on in the more traditional guises of oboe and flute in his adaptations for the concertos, preserving the reedy tone of the lira organizzata, and wind and strings for the notturnos.5
Haydn Concerto No 5 in F major For 2 Lira Organizzata
5. The Baryton
Between 1765 and 1775, Haydn was introduced to the baryton. This time it was the Esterhazy household which was responsible. Prince Nikolaus took a shine to this complicated looking instrument and was determined it wasn't going to get the better of him. It still survives, resplendent with its double f holes and delicate ornamentation around the curved edges and along the fingerboard, and you can see a photo of it above.
Dutifully, Haydn fulfilled his role of writing music for the prince and produced a staggering 126 trios for viola, cello and baryton for him to choose from.
The baryton displays the characteristics of both a viola da gamba - an early renaissance instrument shaped like a double bass and played with a bow, and a bandora, which was plucked, vaguely resembling a many-stringed mandolin. So what do you do if you want the best of both worlds? Combine them, of course.
The result - strings at the front as normal that are bowed, and more behind the neck which can be plucked with the thumb. Additionally, the front ones were made of gut and the hidden strings behind were metal which vibrated sympathetically when the gut strings were bowed and helped the instrument resonate and stand out (wholly fitting for a prince). Up to forty sympathetic strings could be thumbed at the back, so it must have taken some considerable skill to manage them all, and by all accounts the prince was quite a dab hand.
The baryton, which was never particularly in vogue, didn't last long after Haydn left the scene. Happily for the rather unwieldy instrument it's been brought back to life via early music specialists together with Haydn's compositions which can be heard in their original form.6
Haydn Divertimento No 113 for Baryton Trio
6. The Glass Harmonica
During the last year of his life in 1791, Mozart wrote pieces for the glass harmonica, or armonica as it was also known. He had first become acquainted with the instrument as a child prodigy on tour around Europe with his father who ambitiously arranged concerts to show off his talented son. Mozart reacquainted himself with the glass harmonica when he met Marianne Kirchgaessner.7
Marianne Kirchgaessner was a celebrated German glass harmonica player. Blinded by smallpox at the age of four she showed prodigious talent at the instrument. She visited many countries during a series of European concerts, encountering many composers including Mozart. He wrote a quintet for her - flute, oboe, viola and cello being the other instruments and also the Adagio for solo glass harmonica.8
The glass harmonica started out as a set of upright glasses or goblets filled with varying quantities of water which produced a gradation of pitches which were rubbed around the rim by fingers. At this stage the instrument was called the glass harp but it was Benjamin Franklin of lightening conductor experiments fame, who radically modified the design by turning the vessels on their side and revolving them via a wheel. The operator could rest their fingers on the prescribed bowls without the tedium of circular rubbing. A copy of the instrument can be seen above.
At the height of its popularity there were claims that this instrument was likely to be detrimental to one's health. Such was the penetratingly eerie sound emanating from the glasses, the German musicologist Freidlich Rochlitz warned, ‘If you are suffering from any kind of nervous disorder, you should not play it; if you are not yet ill you should not play it; if you are feeling melancholy you should not play it.'9
So when Donizetti was looking for an instrument to aptly colour his mad scene in his opera Lucia di Lammermoor, the glass harmonica was an obvious choice - already he would be feeding into its association with mental illness.
These days we are a little more sophisticated in our assessment of mental instability and the glass harmonica enjoys a limited following without recourse to medication.
Mozart's Adagio For Glass Harmonica
7. The Theremin
Invented in 1919, the theremin, also known as the etherphone or termenvox, came on the scene as a happy accident. It is the only musical instrument which doesn't have hands actually placed directly on it.
It was named after its inventor, Russian scientist Lev Termen, also known as Leon Theremin, who was researching dielectric applications when he observed something unusual. Now I have to confess here that, much to my father's disappointment (he was a scientist of sorts) I was useless at physics and chemistry as a child and I haven't improved much since. As I understand it dielectrics function like a capacitor or insulator in an electric circuit, but he was using them in functions far beyond my understanding but they included work to do with x-rays and measuring gases in jars which also included sound.
While he was in his laboratory he heard these audio tones change pitch as he moved his hand around. As he had studied the cello, he started motioning the tunes he used to play and hit on the idea of an electronic new instrument, one of the first of its kind. By the following year it was ready to go, fixing up an antenna instead of a foot pedal for controlling volume, and he was able to unleash his first performance on the brave new world. Today's theremins ordinarily use two antennae, one for controlling pitch, one to amplify volume and is connected to a loudspeaker.
During 1927, Termen toured the United States with what must have seemed like a new-fangled invention, which actually was a great success and it has come to be taken up by composers who are looking to reproduce an spectral atmosphere.10
Sound-wise the theremin has some affinity with the musical saw - their ghostly sounds aren't a million miles apart. It's not surprising then that Shostakovich made use of it in his film score for Odna, as he had an interest in the musical saw.
Through a commission from Lucie Bigelow Rosen, a wealthy protogée of Lev Theremin, the Czech composer Martinu wrote a fantasia for theremin, oboe and string quartet.
In the 1950s, Robert Moog popularised it by building theremins and incorporating it into his synthesizers. Its expressive tones been widely used in film music.
The feature-length documentary film by Steve M. Martin about Lev Termen, Theremin: An Electric Odyssey was released in 1993 and won the Documentary Filmmaker's Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival the next year.11
Lev Thermen Playing His Theramin
8. The Onde Martenot
A favourite of Messiaen, another electronic musical instrument invention came about at a similar time to the theramin. In 1928, the ondes Martenot was unveiled. Akin to the sound of the theramin, it made use of oscillating vacuum tubes. The first version, created by Maurice Martenot, required the ondist to wear a metal ring on their index finger and pass it up and down a wire to charm up strains worthy of the paranormal.
Martenot wasn't satisfied with his his initial experiments and eventually settled on three loud speakers, one has a gong installed inside, and in a second, twelve strings which can be tuned. Also the overall range was extended to four octaves. A A control box full of switches aids the alteration of timbres.12
Probably the most famous use of the onde Martenot is in the Thuranglia symphony by Messiaen although his first work for the strange sounding instrument, Fêtes des Belles Eaux called for six of them. If you could imagine how solar wind might fill your ears, think ondes Martenot - in fact the word ondes is French for wind.
Production of Martenot's version ceased in 1988. These days the ondes Martenot has been superceded by the Ondéa and other comparable electronic instruments but I imagine getting hold of an original is like finding hen's teeth.
Messiaen Fete des Belles Eaux
9. The Celesta
After 1886 when the celesta was invented by Parisian Auguste Mustel there was a mad scramble to be the first composer to include it in a full orchestral score and then having it performed. Another Frenchman, Ernest Chausson, made it over the finishing line first in 1888 at the premiere of his incidental music for a version of Shakespeare's The Tempest.13
Although Tchaikovsky narrowly missed out it is his use of the celesta with its delicate bell like tones that has brought this soft and gentle tinkling to wide recognition in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from his ballet The Nutcracker. So beautifully did he capture the wintry grace, it's almost as if the celesta was invented to show off the crystalline fairy. As she gracefully twirls in a glittering tutu you can easily visualise icicles glinting in the scenery.
The celesta looks and is played like a small upright piano of four to five octaves. Inside the case metal bars struck by hammers produce its glockenspiel-type ringing. It isn't much louder than an actual glockenspiel so is confined to passages where the orchestral scoring is sparse or is doubled up by other instruments.
Bartok was enamoured by the celesta's sweet tone and wrote an influential work, Music For Strings, Percussion and Celeste for it, a piece I poured over in great detail as a music student and have great admiration for. Some find he is an acquired taste but he absolutely did ring the changes in this influential musical landmark.
Tchaikovsky: Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy From the Nutcracker Suite
1 Wikipedia Musical saw
2 Wiipedia Arpeggione
3 Interlude.hk Mechanical clocks
5 Allmusic Haydn concertos for lira organizzata
6 Wikipedia Baryton
7 Wikipedia Glass harmonica
8 Infogalactica Planetry Knowledge
10 Wikipedia Theramin
11 Film affinity
12 The Guardian Onde martenot
© 2018 Frances Metcalfe
Frances Metcalfe on June 20, 2019:
Yes, an amusing comment about cannons. Though I'm not totally sure about ammunition as a musical instrument and Tchaikovsky hated the 1812!
Jared Gabriel Johns-Hokland on June 17, 2019:
They forgot about cannons... ;)
Tchaikovsky - 1812 Overture
Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on February 24, 2018:
I'd forgotten about spoons, Flourish! But can't recall them being used in classical music, only seen them on variety-type shows. Clever though.
Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on February 24, 2018:
Hi Linda. Thank you so much for your comments. I was at school in the 70s just as the early music enthusiasts were beginning to emerge fro the shadows and one of my fellow pupils was into viol and recorder consorts, so I was pretty much brought up on more unusual instruments.
Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on February 23, 2018:
Thank you for you comments Chitrangada. I so enjoyed listening to the recordings - I was happily transported back in time to the the short eras of the baryton and lira organizzata!
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on February 22, 2018:
This is a very interesting and enjoyable article. Thank you for introducing me to some new instruments. They are certainly weird and wonderful, as your title says!
Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on February 22, 2018:
Great article with lot of interesting information! I am familiar with some of these musical instruments. Thanks for sharing the details about the ones, which I wasn’t aware of.
The pictures and videos are great. Thank You!