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Many once-common instruments are now rare or obsolete. For example, some transposing instruments have fewer variants than they used to – the B♭ soprano clarinet has largely supplanted the A and C clarinets. Other instruments, like the grand piano, overshadow earlier members of their family like the fortepiano, clavichord, and harpsichord. How does this affect contemporary performance?

Specifically, do older works fall out of favor because of archaic instrumentation? Do performers adapt and arrange the works to suit contemporary instruments? Do older works keep archaic instruments in use, among professionals at least? I suspect that the answer is that “it depends.” If so I would like to know the major historical trends and broad classes are among professional musicians. What disappears, what sticks around, and what adapts?

  • Hi, folks! If you have suggestions for how to narrow the question, that would help! – Bradd Szonye Jan 14 '15 at 21:29
  • I'm not sure of the premise, Bradd. The A clarinet is out of favour in popular music and wind bands, to be sure, but wind band instruments have always tended to lie in the flat keys - the A clarinet is still useful in orchestral work. As for early instruments, that movement has only been picking up pace since the days of Dolmetsch and Landowska. I think we actually play more of the older composers than was the case at the end of the 19th century, and more often on original instruments. This seems to apply: “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” New and old seem to coexist these days. – user16935 Jan 15 '15 at 7:25
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    I disagree strongly that the A clarinet is obsolete. It is very standard for professional clarinetists to have both a Bb and an A for orchestral and solo playing. If you want obsolete, talk about Bass Trumpets, Hurdy-Gurdy, Lutes, and Ophicleides. – jjmusicnotes Jan 15 '15 at 13:32
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Older works keep older instruments in use among professionals and amateurs. You may not have any visibility of the early music community, but there are quite a lot of us and we're out there playing recorders, viols, baroque flutes and oboes, baroque violins, harpsichords, clavichords, hurdy gurdies, musette du cour, rauschpfifes, racketts, shawms, sackbuts, cornets and the list goes on and on.

During the 20th century a revival happened in early music, and the idea of historically informed performance gained a lot of traction. But to play music as it was originally meant to sound means you need instruments which can produce those sounds, so a lot of very clever people have spent a long time trying to make instruments which can do that, while other very clever people have tried to figure out what the performance technique was for these instruments based on written sources. Regrettably without a time machine we can't hear the original performances of Vivaldi or Handel to know what they sounded like to the composers, but we can come up with things we like that have some evidential justification.

That said, old music is also often played on new instruments, often very badly. Pick a random recording of Bach's keyboard music for an example - you're probably not going to get one of the good ones. Sometimes it can work to use a modern instrument's capabilities to enhance a performance of music that was written before anything capable of that was ever built, but more often you unfortunately end up with someone who only really knows how to play music written in the 19th century trampling all over some Bach and making it all mushy.

It can work though, and there are recordings out there of people who've managed to pull it off, sometimes using completely different instrument families to the original but still capturing something very wonderful in the performance. Musicianship and understanding are most definitely required.

Oh also, go to a gathering of folk musicians and ask them if the hurdy gurdy is obsolete. I dare you. Especially in Hungary.

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Archaic instruments are not only employed today for old music, as the others here have already pointed out. There is also a small but flourishing scene of composing new works for old instruments, including harpsichord, recorder, and viola da gamba.

Here's a short example- a polymetric piece composed for medieval double harp, not really playable on any modern instrument I know of:

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Not only is there the early music community that keeps old instruments alive, but there have been some instances where these instruments have crept into contemporary music. So, to flesh out Scott Wallace's answer, here are a few examples.

Kagel has a piece called Musik für Renaissance-Instrumente. There are a few compositions for the gamba family, quite a substantial modern repertoire for the recorder (mainly by Dutch and Japanese composers) and some notable works for harpsichord, e.g. by Ligeti, Xenakis, and not least Cage's and Hiller's collaboration HPSCHD.

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With transposing instruments (as the clarinet given as example) switching to a different instrument is more difficult, since you either have to rely on the musician to transpose mentally or need a new edition of his or her part. On the other hand using a C clarinet gives a sound a full tone higher without any further modification. I know no clarinetist not having B♭ and A instrument, and in classical literature there are pieces, where one has to swap even between the movements, so I can't confirm that the A clarinet faces extinction.

I consider the answer to have two parts: amateurs use what instrument they have at hand easily crossing instrument families by replacing violin by flute etc, so there is no impact at all. This is especially true for exotic stuff like crumhorns, which are increasingly difficult to obtain as mass products, so substitution by recorder ensemble is very likely.

For professionals it depends on flow of current taste and whether for recording or performance. Currently ("historically informed") for recordings the trend is towards authentic period instruments, for performances practicality restrictions (more tuning necessary for gut strings and harpsichord) influence the decision. Whether this will change is a topic of speculation in my opinion.

  • “B♭ soprano clarinet has largely supplanted the A and C clarinets” means that A and C have become obsolete because B♭ is dominant. Does it make sense now? – Bradd Szonye Jan 14 '15 at 20:34

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