The Sounds of Music – Pro and Con



Musical instruments have been the stuff of poetry forever. But, poets being poets, they don’t always agree. Here’s some samples of their thoughts – which side do you come down on?

Violin: Pro

Violin: Con

Sharp violins proclaim

A squeak’s heard in the orchestra

Their jealous pangs, and desperation

The leader draws across

Fury, frantic indignation

The intestines of the agile cat

Depth of pain, and height of passion

The tail of the noble hoss

(John Dryden, “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day,” 1687)

(G.T. Lanigan, “The Amateur Orlando,” 1875)

Dryden focuses on effect while Lanigan focuses on how that effect is made, brought about by one of those unfortunate sounds that sometimes emanate from the most distinguished of instruments.

Schop: ‘t Uitnement Kabinet: Lachrimae (Trio Sonnerie; Stephen Stubbs, guitar, theorbo; Andrew Lawrence-King, harp)
When a philosopher and a poet take the same side, it may be for very different reasons

Flute: Con

The flute is not an instrument with a good moral effect. It is too exciting.

(Aristotle, Politics, 322 BC)

Flute: Con

The music of the flute is enervating to the mind.

(Ovid, Remedia Amoris, 10 BC)

Exciting and energizing or draining to the mind – how do you consider the sound of the flute? Here’s a movement that takes you to both extremes.

Telemann: Flute Sonata in G Minor: III. Andante – Allegro – Andante – Allegro – Andante (Michael Schmidt-Casdorff, baroque flute; Münchner Cammer-Music)

Clarinet: Pro

Clarinet: Con

Ah, if we only had some clarinets, too! You cannot imagine the effect of a symphony with flutes, oboes, and clarinets!

Clarionet, n.: An instrument of torture operated by a person with cotton in his ears.

Mozart, letter to his father, 3 December 1778

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911



What’s wonderful here is that Mozart is enthusing about the innovative new hot instrument of the orchestra – available only a few years earlier, the clarinet became the focus of Mozart’s attention and talent. Bierce, on the other hand, had had quite enough already!

Mozart: Symphony No. 39 in E-Flat Major, K. 543, III. Menuetto (New York Philharmonic; Leonard Bernstein, cond.)

Oboe: Pro

Oboe: Con

A boxen hautboy, loud and sweet of sound,

All varnished and with brazen ringlets round,

I to the victor give.

What’s wrong with oboes?


Define a lady

She owns an oboe yet refuses to play it.

(Ambrose Philips, “Pastorals,” 1709)

Two jokes

Most things written against the oboe have to do with the very difficult problem of tuning. Philips solves this by only referring to the sound and giving the instrument to the victor, while the two jokes don’t even want the sound to escape!

Those of us who are instrumentalists have love/hate relationships with our instruments, depending on how the practicing is going, how difficult the piece, and trying so hard to get our fingers to do what our brains and intellect want. Pity, then, the poor singer, who can never put down his instrument and walk away. It follows him everywhere…

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