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Researchers Resurrect Extinct Musical Instrument

May 31, 2009

A new computer program has helped researchers recreate a long extinct musical instrument known as the Lituus.

Though the 8-foot long trumpet-like instrument was popular in ancient Rome and throughout the middle-ages, it began to fall out of favor with composers some 300 years ago.  Johann Sebastian Bach’s “O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht” “” composed in 1736 “” is one of the last known pieces of music to have been written for the instrument.

For the first time in hundreds of years, classical music buffs have been able to hear this famous composition as Bach intended it to sound.

A team of researchers from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland worked together on the project to recreate the Lituus based solely on its range of notes and rough idea of its general shape.

What they produced was a 2.4 meter-long, thin, straight horn with a flared bell at the end.

Experts say that due to its size, it is an extremely awkward and difficult instrument to play and is able to produce only a limited range of notes.  However, if played correctly, they say it lends Bach’s famous work a haunting, melancholy tone not achievable with modern instruments.

The software used to reconstruct the Lituus was designed by PhD student Alistair Braden. When developing the program, he had originally envisioned it as a means to help improve the design of modern brass instruments.

But when Dr. Braden and his supervising professor Murray Campell were asked for help by the Swiss-based music conservatoir Schola Cantorum Basiliensis to reproduce the Lituus “” which no living person had ever played, heard or even seen “” they were unable resist the challenge.

Classical music experts from the SCB advised the Scottish research duo regarding how the instrument might have looked and what its likely tonal qualities were, while also providing cross-section diagrams of instruments they believed to be closely related to the Lituus.

“The software used this data to design an elegant, usable instrument with the required acoustic and tonal qualities,” explained Professor Campbell.  “The key was to ensure that the design we generated would not only sound right but look right as well.”

“Crucially, the final design produced by the software could have been made by a manufacturer in Bach’s time without too much difficulty,” he added.

The designs produced by the program were used as a blueprint to craft two identical examples of the ancient horn, which were used by the SCB earlier this year in an experimental performance of “O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht” in Switzerland.

Bach’s classical masterpiece is the only known musical composition in the world to specify the use of the Lituus.

“Sophisticated computer modeling software has a huge role to play in the way we make music in the future,” said Campbell.

The researchers say that the program also has potential for musicians seeking to customize their instrument to their individual musical needs, potentially opening a new world of refinement and precision for players of musical styles as disparate as jazz and classical.

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