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7 Rarely Used Orchestral Instruments

Composers have long pushed the boundaries of classical music by writing parts for new and innovative instruments—but not all of them have ended up a permanent fixture in the orchestra …

1. SARRUSOPHONE

The sarrusophone (above) was invented in 1856 and named in honor of the French military bandleader Pierre-Auguste Sarrus. It was originally developed as a replacement for relatively quieter woodwind instruments in military bands: its rich, deep, saxophone-like tone was stronger and better suited to outdoor performances than that of smaller woodwind instruments, like the oboe.

Although never a particularly widely used instrument, the sarrusophone enjoyed a burst of popularity in the early 1900s when a number of big-name composers—including Maurice Ravel, Frederick Delius and Igor Stravinsky—wrote parts for it in a number of their compositions. But probably the most famous work to include a sarrusophone part is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by the French composer Paul Dukas, which was famously put to use in the 1940 Disney movie, Fantasia. Nowadays, however, the unfamiliarity and unpopularity of sarrusophones means that these parts are more often than not taken by the contrabasson.

2. GLASS ARMONICA

Invented by Benjamin Franklin, the glass armonica (or “harmonica”) comprises a revolving set of glass cups or rings which produce a shimmering sound when played with dampened fingers. Despite its relative obscurity, plenty of classical composers—among them several major names, including Mozart and Beethoven—have written works for the glass harmonica, although it seldom appears in larger ensemble or orchestral settings. One well known exception is Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals: in the Carnival’s famous Aquarium movement, an echo of the flute melody is played one beat later on the glass harmonica.

3. HECKELPHONE


The heckelphone is essentially a cross between a bassoon and an oboe that was invented by the German instrument maker Wilhelm Heckel—apparently at the request of Richard Wagner—in the late 19th century, although it didn’t make its first appearance in classical music repertoire until the early 1900s.

In compositions of the time, the heckelphone was often listed under the title of “bass oboe,” but that designation was also given to the similar hautbois baryton, another deep-pitched woodwind instrument, making it all but impossible to tell which instrument the composers in question wanted: Gustav Holst’s famous Planets suite, for instance, includes a part for a bass oboe, but it’s unclear whether he had the heckelphone in mind or not. One composer who made his intentions clear, however, was Richard Strauss, who singled out the heckelphone in the score for his enormous Alpine Symphony in 1915.

4. THEREMIN

Invented by Leon Theremin in the early 1920s, this bizarre electronic instrument is probably best known to modern audiences for providing the spooky, high-pitched droning sound used in classic sci-fi movie soundtracks like Bernard Herrmann’s The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). But several more composers of the early-to-mid 20th century wrote parts for the theremin in their orchestral works, including composer and musical theorist Joseph Schillinger: his First Airphonic Suite (1929) made superb use of the theremin’s curious sound alongside a full symphony orchestra. Here is a video of a theremin being played by a cat.

5. WAGNER TUBA

It’s not strictly speaking a tuba, but it was at least invented at the request of Richard Wagner: Wagner tubas or Wagnertuben first became popular in the mid-19th century and were first used by Wagner in his score for Das Rheingold (1854) as a richly-toned instrument intended to fill the tonal space between the tuba, the trombone and the French horn. Since then, Wagner tubas have been used (albeit relatively infrequently) by a number of famous composers, including Igor Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, and Béla Bartók.

6. PREPARED PIANO

Classical composers have been writing piano concertos since the late Romantic period; Mozart wrote his first piano concerto in the mid-1760s when he was just 11 years old (largely based on others' works). Since then, the piano concerto has become one of the most popular of all orchestral arrangements, with Beethoven’s Emperor (1811) and Edward Grieg’s Concerto in A minor (1868) being among the most famous and most frequently performed.

Maverick American composer John Cage, of course, had to go one better by writing a concerto for prepared piano—namely, a piano with everything from drawing pins and rubber bands to corks, forks and cotton balls inserted among the strings and hammers to give the instrument a bizarre range of percussive sounds and tones. Written for piano and chamber orchestra, the concerto premiered in New York in 1952.

7. CANNON

Admittedly, a cannon can hardly be classed as a musical instrument—but that didn’t stop Tchaikovsky from writing “a battery of cannons” into the score of his monumental 1812 Overture in 1882. Although actual cannon fire is sometimes used in larger (and, for obvious reasons, outdoor) performances of the 1812, typically most modern performances replace the cannons with audio recordings or theatrical sound effects, or else hand the 16 cannon blasts the score requires over to a similarly loud percussion instrument, like a bass drum or timpani. No matter how it’s handled, however, the effect is a rousing conclusion to a piece of music Tchaikovsky himself dismissed as “very loud and noisy.”

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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