Who would think that a great Renaissance invention was born five hundred years after the Renaissance? Yet it happened recently. Using old technology neglected for nearly half a millennium, a new, authentic and affordable Renaissance musical instrument is improving how professional and amateur musicians play and spread delight. But first some background.
Renaissance music advanced the idea of different instruments playing different melodies in unison (polyphony). Before that, musicians more or less belted out the same tune. However, they next craved a bass instrument but lacked both the gigantic, modern bass-fiddles and the sunglasses worn indoors by hep-cat players. Then some anonymous soul invented the rackett in the 1500s (and so, alas, we cannot attribute it to anyone named Sir Thomas Rackett). Now, we all know that longer wind instruments have deeper sounds; which is why a piccolo sounds shriller than an alphorn. The rackett, then, is a portable but deeply pitched instrument, often the size of a large coffee can with a reed stuck on top. If sawn in half it would look like the cylinder of a revolver, but with nine chambers instead of the usual six (and lacking bullets of course). Chamber One is linked at the bottom with Chamber Two, which connects at the top with Chamber Three and so on, making a continuous bore about nine feet long. Hence its deep sound, briefly demonstrated here. It was a work of genius.
Other Renaissance musical engineers developed the crumhorn. It rather resembles a child’s recorder but with a hook at the end; and, like the later clarinet, a bell-shaped bottom to amplify the sound. More importantly it has a pierced wooden cap over the double reed, which will not stick into the player’s mouth like the naked single reed of a clarinet, or the double reeds of a bassoon or the early German, raucous, rauschpfeife (or noise-pipe). Capped double reeds survive in Scottish bagpipes, in which part of the flute-like chanter is a wooden capsule containing the reed, activated by blowing from the mouth or the bag. Any capped reed instrument requires a puff of air to fill a small chamber and start the reed oscillating, but then it demands less wind than a recorder or penny-whistle. Encapsulated, the reed cannot be manipulated by the musician’s mouth. This stops the player from tonguing the bluesy growl of a modern saxophone, but saves music students from torturing their lips while learning embouchure. With capped reeds, if you can blow you can go. Lastly, capped reed instruments produce a gentle buzzing sound that so delighted King Henry VIII and modern listeners too. You can hear a brief consort (quartet) of crumhorns here, and catch the buzz (so to speak).
And there it all sat until now. These fabulous instruments fell out of fashion until the 20th Century sparked interest in authentic Renaissance music. Scholars and engineers began to study the few surviving instruments, usually in European palaces and museums; then entrepreneurs began to build accurate replicas, allowing musicians to form period ensembles. While modern reproductions can be expensive (a thousand dollars and more for a good recorder or crumhorn, and a very basic rackett), recording technology and the Internet lets more of us listen to more Renaissance music than even Renaissance people could have hoped to hear, unless they were aristocrats with in-house musicians.
Into this happy scenario comes the Kelhorn, the first advance in true Renaissance musical instruments since the Renaissance itself. I do not mean a modern, high-tech instrument that allegedly improves upon its predecessor and permits new music accordingly (such as yesteryear’s valved trumpet or today’s electrified hurdy-gurdy)—I mean applying historical Renaissance technology to make a new instrument that would have needed no explanation to pre-Baroque greats such as John Dunstaple (1390-1453), Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), and Tielman Susato (1500-1561) after whom the modern inventor’s company is named. They would have listened, nodded, bought several and gone back to composing madrigals.
Susato penny-whistles, etc., have been respected by a generation of musicians. More recently, their similarly plastic consort of crumhorns has been well-received for sound, as well as for costing less than half of the modern wooden equivalents. The North Carolina company is the laboratory of Mr George Kelischek, who describes himself as “a Renaissance man, but I travel by jet.” Creative and apparently unstoppable, the 85-year-old, German immigrant seems to combine a (German) sense of precision and (German) engineering, with a (German) love of proper music played properly, with a (possibly American) can-do spirit. This is best demonstrated by his eponymous Kelhorn, which is hardly the first musical instrument named for its inventor. Adolphe Sax patented the saxophone in 1840, and a fellow named Stroh contrived the largely forgotten Stroh violin—a normal peg-head and neck attached to a phonograph diaphragm and a tin horn, allowing it to play in jazz bands before electrical amplification—but as melodious as a cat in a microwave.
Kelhorns are what you might get if a rackett married a crumhorn and they had beautiful children. Like the crumhorn it contains a capped double reed, allowing virtually anyone to play it (maybe even members of the British Royal Family, who appear to have problems moving their lips). Unlike either parent, the Kelhorn is inexpensive—more than a cardboard Wal-Mart guitar of course, but similar to second-rank wooden recorders. And like both parents, the hardwood instrument buzzes gently and mellifluously; neither honking like a badly-played clarinet (Mencken: “O what mighty aches from little oak-horns grow!”), nor brazen like rauschpfeiffen or whoopee-cushions. Instead it buzzes like a friendly bee in a meadow. But its true genius, hidden from sight, is a genetic trait inherited from its rackett father.
Instead of the rackett’s many connected bores, the nine-note Kelhorn has just one that snakes back and forth down its inner length. That extra travel provides its delightfully low tone—a traditional Great Bass woodwind (which should almost need little wheels to move around), becomes no longer than one’s hand and forearm, permitting even small fingers to reach the holes. Its main engineering principle is also used by the Renaissance serpent; a cumbersome but photogenic horn that winds like its namesake. You can hear the different Kelhorns here.
Kelhorns are now part of many Renaissance ensembles, although there are few recordings on YouTube yet. They will come, inevitably. Despite turning up half a millennium late for the Renaissance, they contain true Renaissance engineering and sound; which explains why ordinarily fastidious period musicians have begun to embrace them. Call it modern and the Kelhorn will peer quizzically over its shoulder like one of Vermeer’s damsels, for its spiritual home is full of tapestries and people wearing ruff collars.
So someone loving the past and its cultures, and studying them deeply with the mind of an engineer, lets us graduate from listening to Renaissance music to actually playing it with greater fluency and affordability. This is an almost-magical junction between past and present, romance and engineering, the ear and the mind, the heart and the hand. Respectfully enhancing the past affects the past, present and future, while fortifying Western culture.
Something similar happened in 1877 with Thomas Edison and his phonograph. The curator of his Menlo Park laboratory (now relocated to Michigan’s Greenfield Village) once told me that when the inventor sent his sketches downstairs to the machinists, they had no idea of what they were asked to build. The technology had not changed since the days of Renaissance clockmakers in Nuremburg. Once they built the first one, and heard human voices preserved on wax cylinders, they realised that they could just as easily have heard recordings of Martin Luther singing his own hymns, had someone else built it earlier. Such is the power of an idea reapplying old technology, whether to enhance the past or to preserve the present.
Our bureaucratic world still contains individual Kelischeks and Edisons, if only we look carefully. A friend’s grandfather, only recently dead, spent his life designing and building the first trireme warship since Classical times—it now patrols the Mediterranean with grad-students as volunteer oarsmen (and possibly less whipping). Within my lifetime someone founded dendrochronology; dating wood by the rings of trees, that gives new precision and insight to archaeologists and paleo-ecologists—it, too, brings the past to life. On a lesser scale, Etsy thrives on craftspeople sewing medieval costumes for folks who watched hobbit movies, graduated to reading Tolkien, and often move on to proper medieval history—while playing the tabor pipe with one hand and drumming with the other.
In addition to fuelling culture, imagination also makes the economic world go ‘round. About sixty years ago, “the American economist Robert Solow calculated that 87 per cent of economic growth came not from applying more capital or more labour, but from innovation…” says UK scientist Matt Ridley. That includes today’s 22nd and 16th Century inventions. Are you inspired? Nourish your imagination and choose your century.
Meanwhile, what is next for Mr. Kelischek? If Leonardo left us sketches of aeronautical musical instruments, he might just improve them and serenade as he flies past your window!
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.