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7 May 2010

Time Machine Music

writing for baroque instruments in a modern way

St John's Lutheran Church in Southgate, Melbourne Image: St John's Lutheran Church in Southgate, Melbourne  
© St John's Lutheran Church

St John's Lutheran Church in Southgate, Melbourne, is well known not only for complete performances of Bach's cantatas with authentic instruments at a baroque pitch, but also for commissioning new works by Melbourne composers for those same instruments. In April last year, I attended the world premiere of a new work of mine commissioned by St John's.

The commission grew out of the fact that the church had bought two brand-new oboes da caccia from the United States. They were made by the Sand Dalton company in Washington state, and were to be dedicated at a service that would include a performance of Bach's Cantata BWV 1, which calls for the rare instruments, and a new work by me as well. Oboes da caccia are transposing instruments in F, like a cor anglais, but with a much stronger tone - hence the 'hunting' (da caccia) part. They are also in baroque pitch (A=415Hz), which means that, to our ears, their C sounds almost like E.

Combine this with the fact that the church's main organ is in modern pitch, but the small chamber organ I was including in the score was in baroque pitch, and you get a score in three different keys!

I chose to base the piece on a Lutheran hymn called Was Gott Tut, since the Musical Director, Graham Lieschke, suggested the congregation might like to join in at the end. This was another interesting factor - how many contemporary composers write a piece that will involve mass singing by an untrained congregation in the world premiere?

As it was, pitch problems notwithstanding, the work went very well. The actual oboes da caccia have a very characteristic sound and could be heard easily above two organs and a lot of people singing. I wrote the piece in a slightly more traditional style than normal, and this seemed to suit the occasion. The congregation (the audience?) sang at the right time and were obviously used to doing so, and the oboes were promptly put to more good use in the Bach cantata that followed.

I have never written for period instruments before, but would certainly do so again. It was like stepping inside a musical time machine, and I can safely say I am probably one of the very first contemporary composers to write for a pair of baroque German hunting oboes!

Further links

Andrew Batterham - AMC profile
Andrew Batterham - personal homepage

Andrew Batterham is a composer active in several musical fields, including jazz, corporate, art music and songwriting. He has been commissioned and performed throughout Australia and overseas, and currently earns a crust running a music business.


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