Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

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Period Instruments. Some frequently asked questions


Period Instruments. Some frequently asked questions

 1. Why is the orchestra called “The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment”?

We are a period instrument orchestra named after the age in European history known as The Enlightenment, an era spanning the late seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This was a time of great experimentation and innovation, a period during which instruments, techniques and also the form of musical performance developed greatly.

So the name has a double resonance for us: we perform music of that period using as a starting point our knowledge of the instruments, styles and techniques of the day, but we also aim to capture the spirit of innovation and enquiry which characterises those centuries.

This is not a short name. Many people therefore refer to us simply as The OAE.

2. What is a period instrument orchestra?

Musical instruments have developed a huge amount over the centuries. As the instruments have changed so have the sounds, and also the whole nature of musical gesture. Sometimes these changes are rather superficial, but often they can make a fundamental difference to the phrasing and the texture of the music.

Period instrument orchestras try to take account of these changes when they perform. We play on instruments which are originals of the period or copies of them, and we will have read texts of the period which describe ways of playing and actual performances. In addition we try to use original versions of the music as written by a composer, rather than simply from a modern edition which may have centuries of added marks.

The aim of using period instruments is to recreate the vitality of the original performances. But because we live in an age of fast moving technological change, we tend to assume that if something is newer it must be better. With music this is not really so. Violinists the world over, for example, are agreed that modern violins can never match the best eighteenth century ones made by the finest craftsmen in Northern Italy. Modern editions of music are rarely perceived now as a ‘better’ than the original ones.

3. How have the instruments changed?

Generally speaking there was a drive between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to provide instruments with more power. As music moved out of the Court and into the modern concert hall new materials and techniques were employed. Wind instruments began to be constructed from new woods, and the addition of metal keys made from new more durable alloys increased facility. Nickel flutes, for example, replaced wooden predecessors and larger sized bores on brass instruments produced a sound more suitable to the new larger concert halls.

String instruments were taken apart and strengthened by the use of larger internal reinforcements. Bows changed shape as Pernonbuco replaced snake wood, and with more hair employed in the bow the hair became clamped with metal to hold it firmly in place. High tension metal eventually replaced gut for making strings, giving a stronger but less sweet sound.

All of these changes had an effect on the sound of instruments. To make a gross generalisation, the earlier instruments tended to be of low tension, and to have a lighter but more textured sound. The later ones are more tense, and have more power but less clarity. The aim of using period instruments is that you use the type of instrument that the composer had in their ear when the music was composed, giving appropriateness of fit. Often using these instruments is a process of revealing colours and sounds which the tension and density of later instruments can easily cover up.

4.  Are there are any disadvantages to using period instruments?

There is a cost to using old instruments. Period instruments tend to be less stable and reliable than their modern equivalents. Gut strings stay in tune less well than metal, and are more prone to break in performance. Wind instruments are also more temperamental. Moreover the old instruments were not devised for performances in modern concert halls with their large spaces, and dry acoustics. To hear these instruments at their best they should arguably be heard in halls predominantly of wood and stone, rather than the plush carpets and materials of the modern concert hall.

FAQ’s by Marshall Marcus, Head of Music at Southbank Centre, and previously Chief Executive of and a violinist in the OAE


  • Hello,

    I would be extremely grateful if someone could answer these short questions for an undergraduate essay I am doing on the performance practice of Elgar (specifically Elgar 1).

    Has the OAE ever played Elgar? (I see you are playing a programme of Debussy this year)

    What differences in instruments are there. I know the string design was the same as it is now, but with gut strings. Where the trombones and timpani skin different. Ie if the orchestra where to play Elgar 1 what would be the differences between your ensemble and a modern orchestra.

    Finally how would you approach vibrato. I have read many differing views on orchestral vibrato at the beginning of the twentieth century. Roger Norrington for example preaches that continous vibrato started in orchestras in around 1930,1940. Therefore if you were playing Elgar 1 would you play with minimal vibrato.

    With Best Wishes

    James Woodrow

    James Woodrow Sat Oct 22 2011
  • We’ll endeavour to answer these for you James. A quick answer to your first question is yes – we played The Dream of Gerontius a couple of seasons ago.

    oae Mon Oct 24 2011
  • This is not really a comment, more an enquiry.

    Some years ago I saw on TV a broadcast of the OAE under, I believe, Roger Norrington, performing JS Bach’s B minor Mass.. It was a thrilling performance , and I dearly wish I had recorded it

    My question is, was a recording of the TV programme made, and if so is it possible to buy a copy /

    Dennis Fowler Wed Oct 26 2011
  • We’ll find out for you!

    oae Wed Oct 26 2011
  • Hi,
    As far as we can work out this was a BBC Prom concert from 28th July 2000. As far as we know there is no commercially available DVD of it, but it may be worth contacting the BBC directly.

    William Norris
    Communications Director

    oae Fri Oct 28 2011
  • Many thanks.

    Dennis Fowler

    Dennis Fowler Tue Nov 1 2011
  • Hello,

    I would like to know what kind of clarinet Mr. Anthony Pay is using. Does he use different ones and how many Hz does his ibstruments have?
    Thank you.

    Andrea Brunnsteiner Mon Aug 27 2012
  • Hi Andrea, Thanks for getting in touch.

    Antony uses several different instruments, ranging in pitch between A=430Hz-440Hz, depending on the piece. He has copies of instruments by Grenser, Simiot and Ottensteiner, and originals by Proff, Doelling and Piatet, among others. He also sometimes uses more modern instruments (around 1900) by Buffet and Cuesnon, for later music.

    Hope that answers your question

    oae Tue Aug 28 2012
  • Hello
    I would like to know if it is harder to play the older instruments than it is to play the newer ones. I play the clarinet and i want to find out.

    Thank you

    Joseph Cuthbert Mon Aug 12 2013
  • Hi Joseph! It often is, yes. We’ll ask a musician from the Orchestra to answer this though – we’ll get back to you in a few days.

    oae Mon Aug 12 2013
  • Hi Joseph, we put your question to clarinetist Antony Pay, here’s what he had to say:

    The short answer is, yes. The clarinet was developed in order to make it easier to play in different keys, to make its acoustically unsatisfactory notes respond better, and to give it a wider dynamic range. So you can do more on the modern instrument, and play complicated things that wouldn’t work on the older one.

    But, composers didn’t write very complicated things to begin with; so much of the early clarinet literature is playable on the simpler instrument. Also, developments changed the nature of the clarinet, and some of us prefer how the early instrument sounds in the music that was written for it. (That’s particularly so when it’s combined with other early instruments, especially the fortepiano.)

    A general point: when you put in a lot of work on something, even a tricky something, in the end you often find you can do it, on both early and modern instruments. So then, it’s neither easy nor difficult:-)

    There is one way in which the early clarinet has an advantage. If you play an A, say, one ledger line above the stave, it’s possible to flatten it on an early instrument by putting down a finger of the right hand. Sometimes, you need a flatter A in a chord — for example, when it’s the third in an F major chord, or a seventh in a B major chord.

    You can’t do that on a modern instrument, because of all the key-linkages that are useful in other, more complicated contexts. So you have to rely more on embouchure and tongue position to alter the pitches of notes.

    I hope that answers you a bit.


    oae Tue Aug 13 2013
  • What happens when you play 20th century works? There is an OAE concert including Ravel near where I live soon which made me wonder if you will still use Baroque set-up cellos etc.?

    Ellie Sat Jan 25 2014
  • We always play on instruments appropriate to the period of the music. For that reason many of our musicians have more than one instrument! For this concert we’ll be using instruments appropriate for early 20th century repertoire – there are still many differences with modern instruments.

    oae Tue Jan 28 2014
  • I’m slowly educating my children about classical music and I would like to play for them an example of the vast difference in the same piece played on period instruments vs modern instruments. Could you suggest two recordings of the same work, one on period instruments and one on modern instruments, that I could play for them as an illustration? Thanks so much.

    christy Fri Jan 16 2015
  • Great question Christy – we’ll ask a musician or two and will get back to you!

    oae Tue Jan 20 2015
  • very cool….you guys are awesome!

    wolfgang Sun Jul 12 2015