Why Historical Instruments?

Paul McCreesh

Artistic Director

For me, the use of historical instruments is not really a philosophical position, but a practical approach to music making. It is somewhat arrogant to suggest that every development in instrument making and technology, playing techniques and size of forces represents an improvement on what has come before. Every composer writes in a way that best suits the instruments of their time, exploiting the sonorities of those instruments and celebrating their capabilities. For all the technical advantages of changes made to instruments over the centuries, there have been compromises to the colours and sound-world of some of the instruments. Re-creating, as closely as possible, the original sound-world is crucial to our understanding and appreciation repertoire of any given period.

This interest in old instruments and playing techniques is a passion shared by many of my colleagues at Gabrieli. I greatly admire the incredible level of (sometimes fanatical!) detail that our wonderful musicians bring to their research and performing, whether it be Olly Webber’s expertise in string making, Jeremy West building early wind instruments or our string players meeting in their own time to run workshops on seventeenth century bow techniques! This is a truly collaborative aspect of our work and there are few ensembles that take this area of our work so seriously!

Catherine Martin

Leader, Gabrieli Players

I trained as a modern violinist, and expected to be doing that as a job; in fact 20th century music was what I really enjoyed playing. In my final post-graduate year, I went to a concert of period instruments and was blown away by the sound. I don’t know why this had never happened to me previously; I’d just never had much interest in historical performance. I decided I had to get a baroque violin and find out more about the repertoire. I had never enjoyed playing 18th century music on my modern violin, but when I started playing on gut strings, I felt I had discovered a whole sound world that I had been missing out on. I still enjoy playing music from all centuries, and enjoy playing later music on the modern violin, but my passion is now the early repertoire.

Jan Waterfield

Harpsichord, Gabrieli Players

I’m not so sure that playing the ‘right’ historical instrument is so important to me! Trying to play old music in the way that it might have been played is a huge part of my life and I really love the string and wind sounds of my Gabrieli colleagues, but I am by no means a purist when it comes to instruments. Maybe it’s because as a continuo player, you are always improvising, always having your attention on the harmonies and construct of the music and as such, the actual sound world takes a slightly secondary place. Anyway, being an occasional professional accordionist and having once played some of J.S.Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ variations on an Indian harmonium, I have probably forsworn all claims to authenticity.