Works in Progress - Autumn 2009

Bach to the Lituus

By Sam Kean | June 27, 2013


For the first time in 300 years, human beings can hear the clarion call of the lituus. Scientists in Scotland recently helped build two litui for special performances of a Bach cantata, the only known song with parts for this Seussian horn.

Based on the Bach score, scholars at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland, knew a little about the lituus’s musical qualities, but there are no known pictures of it, and they didn’t want to build costly prototypes. So they turned to Alistair Braden, a Ph.D. student at the University of Edinburgh who helps design trombones. Braden used a computer program he’d written to tweak various designs and optimize virtually the lituus’s pitch, tone, and timbre.

Braden’s best design was an eight-foot-long, sanded-pine horn with a flared bell and a mouthpiece of ox horn, materials available to instrument makers in Bach’s time. The Schola Cantorum used two litui this summer to give the first authentic performance of the composer’s “O Jesu Christ, meins lebens licht” in centuries.

The instrument has “an eerily haunting tone quality which suits Bach’s funereal motet perfectly,” Braden says. “It sounds broadly like a modern trumpet but with a much more compact, covered, less strident sound.”

In the future, the British musicologist’s software could help design new instruments with unique sounds, or customize existing instruments for the style and habits of different players. And Braden’s not ruling out more resurrections: “I for one would be delighted to see it used again for the re-creation of other lost instruments.” Still, even instruments for which there are surviving examples present a challenge. “How are we to know,” Braden asks, “that the surviving instruments were considered to be good examples by contemporary players?”

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