Researchers recreate lost Bach-era horn

Researchers have used new computer modelling software to recreate the lituus, a long lost trumpet-like instrument used in the time of Bach. The development has enabled musicians to perform, for the first time in nearly 300 years, a work by Bach which calls for the use of the lituus.

Computer modelling is an emerging technology in musical instrument manufacture. The researchers were given details of how the lituus may have sounded and looked, they designed it using the software and then passed the blueprint on to instrument makers.

The new software was originally developed by a University of Edinburgh PhD student with the aim of optimising the design of modern brass instruments, and has already been used to improve trombone design. Researchers said it offers unprecedented accuracy in terms of ensuring that a brass instrument's design delivers the required shape, pitch and tone.

The Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (SCB), a Swiss music conservatoire specialising in early music, asked Edinburgh University to recreate the lituus, even though no-one alive today has heard, played or even seen a picture of it.

The SCB told the Edinburgh team what they thought the lituus may have been like in terms of the notes it produced, its tonal quality and how it might have been played. They also provided cross-section diagrams of instruments they believed to be similar to the lituus.

It then used the scientists' designs to build two identical examples of the instrument. The resulting instruments are each two-and-a-half metres long, made from pine and with a mouthpiece made of cow horn. They are thin, completely straight and have a flared "bell" at the end.

Dr Alistair Braden, the software's designer, said: "The software used this data to design an elegant, usable instrument with the required acoustic and tonal qualities. The key was to ensure that the design we generated would not only sound right but look right as well.

"It sounds broadly like a trumpet but the sound quality is different - it is more piercing and haunting and not as strident as a modern instrument."

Although made mainly of wood, the lituus is classified as a brass instrument, because of the way it is played.

Both the instruments were used in an experimental performance of the cantata O Jesu Christ, Meins Lebens Licht in Switzerland earlier this year.

Written by Bach in the 1730s, it is thought that this is the only piece of music still existing that specifies the use of the lituus, and is not thought to have been performed using the lituus since Bach's time.

Professor Murray Campbell, who supervised the software's development, said: "Crucially, the final design produced by the software could have been made by a manufacturer in Bach's time without too much difficulty."

As well as being used to design instruments, scientists hope that similar software could be used to pinpoint leaks in hard-to-access pipework and ducting in power stations and elsewhere.

Analysis of acoustic signals sent through pipework would enable computer models to be constructed that accurately show its condition, aiding safety and avoiding the need for shutdowns to carry out inspections.

The software was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

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