The Chalumeau

"such an interesting, individual sound that the whole world of music would sustain a grievous loss if the instrument ever became obsolete"
C.F.D. Schubart  (Ideen zu einer Ästhetik der Tonkunst - Vienna, 1806)

In our repertoire, you can hear the lesser known Soprano Chalumeau, a single-reed woodwind instrument beloved in Vienna in the first half of the 18th century and scored in dozens of cantatas as well as over forty operas and oratorios.

The chalumeau could be defined as the baroque cousin of the clarinet, as the first document confirming its use dates back to 1687 when the Duke of Römhild-Sachsen commissioned the purchase of chalumeaux for musical needs at his court in Nuremberg. Performance on chalumeau has been neglected for nearly 3 centuries, but has re-emerged in today’s historically-informed performance movement.

Significant technical improvements were made by the builder and inventor of the clarinet, Johann Christoph Denner, who since 1707 had been commissioned chalumeaux (from Basson du chalumeau to the Soprano Chalumeau), making the instrument a worthy component of the woodwind family and a proud contender to the recorder, with whom it shares many technical and structural similarities.

In the German-speaking lands, Christoph Graupner, Kapellmeister at the Darmstadt Court, and Georg Philipp Telemann, Kantor in Hamburg and himself a skilled chalumeau player, dedicated to the instrument a wide and varied repertoire, leveraging the soft sound both in solos and in accompanying roles alongside the traversiere, bassoon, viola d'Amore and viola da gamba.
The Viennese audience was deeply fascinated by this new instrument and the virtuosity of its performers, who were usually oboe players. Between 1710 and 1721, there were five oboists serving at the viennese court and at least two of them played chalumeau: Joseph Lorber and Andrè Wittman. Johann Joseph Fux wrote that they were not only brilliant virtuoso on the oboe, but also on the flute allemande and the chalumeau. In mai 1706 at the Pietà in Venice, Lodovico Erdtman, a german celebrated virtuoso, was appointed as teacher for oboe (Aboè) and "Salamuri", a venetian name for chalumeau and records show the purchase of two instruments to be used for the students at the Ospedale.

Due to its limited range (only twelve notes), the chalumeau was constructed in 4 different sizes: soprano, alto, tenor and bass and its velvety and intimate sonorities were valued to express the drama of pastoral or love scenes. However, the chalumeau quickly lost the favour of composers when the clarinet appeared on the scene in the mid 18th century, featuring numerous advantages: an extension to 3 ½ octaves, a more stable intonation, and flexibility in dynamics, better suited to the new musical demands of the rising Classical style.
The clarinet would soon become a key element in the ranks of the nascent European court orchestra together with the oboe, flute and bassoon.The classicism of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven was just around the corner, so the chalumeau has been relegated to a forgotten baroque memory. Christoph Willibald Gluck would be one of the last composers to write for the instrument, originally scoring it in his 1762 opera Orfeo ed Euridice. When the same opera was adapted for the Paris stage in 1774 as Orphée et Eurydice, these parts were "updated" to clarinet parts. 

The Context

The period between 1640 and 1740 of the Austrian Baroque is characterized by the influence and dominance of Italian musicians, artists, architects and poets. These were the years when the music production of the court reached its peak thanks to composers as Francesco Bartolomeo Conti, Antonio Maria Bononcini, Antonio Caldara, Marc'Antonio Ziani, Giuseppe Porsile, librettists as Apostolo Zeno, Pietro Metastasio, Giovanni Claudio Pasquini, Silvio Stampiglia, Pietro Pariati and Giuseppe Galli da Bibbiena, nominated in 1727 first court’s scenographer and painter. 
For the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, the intention to affirm cultural sovereignty and to compete with the gloss of other European courts became a priority. Commemorative and celebratory festive works were regularly commissioned to exalt the glory and supremacy of the imperial family, who enjoyed an atmosphere of rare artistic quality.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

The Habsburgs were art collectors and music lovers and were intimately involved in the orchestral and operatic events of the court. Music and dancing lessons were a substancial part of the education of the aristocracy and rulers and their consorts were often taking leading roles in symbolic theatrical productions. With the advent of the Protestant Reformation (1517-1648), the Roman papacy lost some of its power and influence, allowing the Habsburg Court to rise to prominence as patrons of the arts.

The Italian influence was popular with the Habsburgs also for other reasons: the intermarriages of some Habsburgs with noble Italian families spread the culture to Vienna; the italian Opera was originally brought from Mantova to Vienna by the Empress Eleonora of Gonzaga, when she married Ferdinand II in 1622 and became the most relevant art form of the Baroque age. In addition, many Protestant landowners had lost their property and moved away due to the Counter-Reformation (1560-1648) and were replaced by Italian merchants who were rewarded for their loyalty to the Emperor and the Catholic Church. Italian musicians, artists and architects had moved to Austria to seek their fortune and to find permanent employment at the court.  Within this context, the work and inspiration of many composers flourished, including Francesco Bartolomeo Conti, Antonio Caldara, Giovanni and Antonio Maria Bononcini, Marc'Antonio Ziani, Attilio Ariosti, Giuseppe Porsile who are the core of our project.