Saving their skins

Last week we looked at the assimilation of birds – their calls and songs – into classical compositions. But how about other members of the animal kingdom? Well, none of them make a contribution of such beauty and significance to the classical catalogue, but they maintain a presence nonetheless, either in instruments that copy their sound, physically resemble them or are in part constructed by them.

elephant-tuskThe latter category involving endangered species is the most contentious but, happily, instruments have been gradually developing to obviate the need to poach animal body parts. When antique pianos were built, the scale of the slaughter of elephants for their ivory tusks that were used to face the keys wasn’t so troubling for the general psyche; even so, manufacturers such as Steinway were ahead of legislation when they started to replace ivory with high quality plastic in the 1960s.instrument-passport

CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) put severe restrictions on the non-commercial movement of instruments but has now introduced multi-entry passports for instruments made prior to the ban of specified animal parts. Since restrictions exist on the use of tortoiseshell, mother of pearl and exotic leathers – all used in the manufacturing of bows – this will significantly ease the frustrations previously experienced on orchestral tours.python

In Chinese culture, the huqin is an ancient bowed instrument that traditionally had its sound box covered with python skin. Tens of thousands of the animals may now start to slither more easily after the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra in 2011 invented a synthetic material to take its place; China manufactures some half a million stringed instruments each year. The added bonus is that the resultant sound is better and more reliable in the region’s often humid climate.

lion-roarInstruments can be made to mimic animal sounds (French horns can do a neat job of elephant trumpeting), but the lion’s-roar drum is constructed solely to reproduce that terrifying growl. The effect belies its simplicity of construction that puts it somewhere between a percussion and a string instrument: a drum open at one end, a length of string attached to the drum head and a block of resin to create friction. One notable example of the use of the instrument is in Edgar Varese’s Ionisation (Naxos 8.557882), where it’s one of a vast array of percussion instruments.

Wurlitzer organs have a box of tricks hidden in their depths that can imitate natural sounds, including a variety of animals, but the technology is far from modern. When Matteo Ricci, the 16th-century Jesuit priest made his missionary foray into China in 1583, he took with him gifts to oil his way into the Emperor’s confidence, including an organ that produced precisely the same effects, much to the amazement of the townsfolk wherever it was displayedserpent-instrument

Examples of instruments that have had their standard shape re-modelled to incorporate both animal and human features are not uncommon. The serpent, however, was simply born that way, in a double-S format perfectly matching its name. The instrument dates from the Renaissance period, when it was developed to provide a mellow, deeper tone than was available on other instruments at the time. Although made of wood, it produces the sound by lip vibrations into a cupped mouthpiece and so is classified, confusingly, as a brass instrument. The result lay somewhere between a bassoon and a French horn and eventually morphed into the modern tuba.

If you’ve never heard the instrument, The Serpent Website ( gives some pointers, including this one by the 18th-century British musician and historian, Charles Burney:

“The Serpent is not only overblown and detestably out of tune, but exactly resembling in tone that of a great hungry, or rather angry Essex calf.”

Willi Apel, the distinguished German-American musicologist who died in 1988, tended to agree:

“A drain pipe suffering from intestinal disorder.”

OphicleideEn route to its reincarnation as the tuba, however, the serpent passed through a stage of development as an instrument known as the ophicleide, shedding the characteristic shape, if not the DNA, of its ancestor. Berlioz used the instrument in La Symphonie Fantastique (Naxos 8.572886); Mendelssohn included it in his A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Naxos 8.570794).

When the conductor Charles Dutoit first heard the instrument, this is what he had to say:

“Wonderful…THAT is the sound that Berlioz wanted!”

Fellow conductor Edo de Waart begged to differ:

“That sounds disgusting! What is it?”

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