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Gunther Schuller

Publisher: AMP

Museum Piece for Renaissance Instruments and Orchestra (1970)
Publisher
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Category
Soloists and Orchestra
Sub Category
Soloists and Large Orchestra
Year Composed
1970
Duration
19 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
2srec+arec.2s shawm.a,t,b crumhorn./2cor.sackbut/hpd.lu.regal/3vadg
Programme Note
Gunther Schuller Museum Piece for Renaissance Instruments and Orchestra (1970)
Composer’s Note
Museum Piece is the fulfillment of a long-time desire to compose a work which would juxtapose the sonorities and special qualities of Renaissance instruments with the instruments of the modern symphony orchestra. I thought it particularly apt to write such a work on this occasion, since the Boston Museum of Fine Arts owns a fine collection of old instruments—some of which are being used in these performances—and further, it would enable three of Boston’s most venerable institutions to collaborate on this project: the museum through it s commissioning of the work and permitting the use of its old instruments, the Boston Symphony for supplying the ‘modern orchestra’, the New England Conservatory for supplying the fifteen soloists, all members of the Conservatory’s Collegium Musicum (Director: Daniel Pinkham).

The piece is in four movements. In the first of these, Rustic Shimmerings, a very light, transparent, shimmering background in solo instruments of the orchestra sets off the one-by-one entrance of the Renaissance instruments: soprano and alto records, soprano shawm, alto and bass crumhorns, cornetto and sackbut. This initial flurry of sound leads to a sustained section in which three gambas and the regal (a small Renaissance reed organ) provide a ‘pedal point’ accompaniment for a recorder cadenza. A chatty Allegro for the full solo ensemble forms the main body of the movement, ending quietly with a lyric Renaissance bass flute solo, accompanied sparsely by lute and harpsichord.

By way of contrast, the second movement is a lively Scherzo titled A Play of Sonorities (duets and trios). As this title implies, various duet and trio combinations are played against each other, with a particular emphasis on alternating the ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ counterparts. Thus, two flutes are juxtaposed with two recorders, two oboes with two shawms, two bassoons with bass shawm and a bass racket (an ancestor of the modern bassoon), two clarinets with two crumhorns. The three old ‘brass’ instruments—two cornets and sackbut (N.B. the cornets are not really brass instruments, but made of wood)—are contrasted with their modern bras counterparts. Various ideas used on one set of pairs return in other instrumental pairings, slightly varied, until towards the end full Renaissance ensemble is involved.

In the third movement, the title Serenades refers to the separate serenade-like musics which are played, at times simultaneously, by three small sub-groupings of the total solo ensemble. One plays on stage and consists of alto shawm accompanied by gamba, lute, regal and harpsichord. A second ensemble, located offstage on the left, comprises alto recorder with lute and gamba. The third ‘band’ (off-stage right) consists of cornetto, sackbut, (and later, alto crumhorn) and percussion. The three groups play quite different kinds of music, ranging from the melancholy statements of the on-stage group to the jaunty dance patterns of the cornetto-sackbut ensemble. The orchestra, used very sparingly, provides various links between these loosely co-coordinated solo groups. At one point the off-stage group on the right quotes an excerpt from Johannes Cesaris’ ballade Bonté Bialté (ca. 1420), one of the finest examples of early fifteenth century three-part polyphony, boldly anticipating the tonal harmony of much later periods.

Movement four provides a stately finale to the work. Cast in very broad lines, the basic mood is interrupted only once by a multiple cadenza for all the keyboard and plucked instruments of both ‘orchestras’.

I am well aware of the fact that the ‘old’ instruments used in Museum Piece are not all strictly speaking ‘Renaissance’ instruments. Some are of later vintage and are more correctly identified with the Baroque period. Without wishing to get into long musicological arguments over the precise definition of terms, I have in these notes referred to the solo instruments as Renaissance instruments—for the sake of keeping things terminologically a little less cluttered than they already are.

— Gunther Schuller

Performances
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