picture of C. Monteverdi
lab51 clef icon Claudio Monteverdi
L'Orfeo
(Mantua, February 24, 1607)
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Monteverdi's Orchestra in L'Orfeo:
Instruments Named in the 1615 Edition

Italian [alternate spelling]

2 gravicembano/i [gravicembalo/i]
2 contrabasso/i de viola
10 viola/e da brazzo [braccio]
1 arpa doppia
2 violino/i piccolo alla francese
2 chitarrone/i
2 organo/i di legno
3 basso/i da gamba
4 trombone/i
1 regale
2 cornetto/i
1 flautino alla vigesima seconda
1 clarino
3 tromba/e sordina

English

harpsichord/s
double bass viol/s
violin/s (not modern, but not a viol either)
harp
kit/s (dancing master's violin)
arch-lute or big guitar (theorbo-like)
small organ/s with wooden pipes
bass viol/s
trombone/s
regal (small organ)
cornett/s (a kind of trumpet, but not a cornet)
sopranino recorder
long trumpet, played high
trumpet/s (muted, no valves)

 

Note: the plural form (in both the Italian and English) is after the slash; as such, it replaces or adjoins the letter immediately before the slash. For the original list of instruments ("Stromenti"), see p. 3 in sourcebook vol. 1.

Even though Monteverdi was unusually specific about his instrumentation, there is still some room for debate about exactly which kind of historical instrument to use. Most musicians also agree that the addition of a few percussion instruments, particularly drums (for the Toccata), is justifiable.

Direct descendants of the double-bass viol, the violin, the harp, the trombone, and the trumpet are found in the modern orchestra, but all of the twentieth-century versions look and sound quite different from their seventeenth-century ancestors. The other instruments Monteverdi requires are archaic. (As a result of these and other inconsistencies, links to the Glossary from the Italian terms and the English terms do not always go to the same Glossary entry.)

So what do we hear when Orfeo is played today? For the most part, modern players involved in old music play modern replicas of old instruments. In cases where no surviving model exists, twentieth-century instrument makers rely on iconographic clues, historical manuals for building instruments, and other written evidence. Occasionally, original instruments from centuries past have survived intact, and it is always a privilege for a musician to own and play such a rare instrument. More often, unfortunately, old instruments are found in more or less unplayable condition, and restorers must make a series of difficult decisions about how to make the instrument playable again without compromising its historical integrity.

 

Text by Carlo Caballero, 1997