• String
  • keyboard
  • woodwind
  • brass
  • percussion

Nineteenth century

The nineteenth century was a period where major developments occurred in the musical instrument-making field. The greatest part of this century musically is usually referred to as the period of Romanticism. This period in the history of music is characterized by a greater freedom in the form of musical works, in the harmony and rhythm of music. The differences in dynamics within the musical works were more intense. This reflected the changing taste of composers and the audiences.

The orchestra was literally transformed. New instruments became a regular part of the orchestra and the number of pre-existing instruments in each section increased. Some orchestras were gigantic! In the middle of the nineteenth century the French conductor and composer Louis Jullien arranged ‘monster concerts’ in Paris, London and later America with an orchestra and choir consisting of a few hundred musicians! Another characteristic of the musical life of the time was that some distinguished performers were admired and adored as rockstars or popstars are today. Among these virtuosos, as they were called, were Nicolò Paganini, a distinguished violinist, and Franz Liszt, a great composer and one of the most prominent piano virtuosos of the time.

The industrial revolution had a major impact on the design of musical instruments. Better quality and more durable materials were available to makers, allowing instruments to be made inexpensively and in larger numbers. The improved manufacturing techniques had as a result:

  • Pre-existing musical instruments were much improved during the nineteenth century
  • New instruments appeared at the same time

The construction of pianos, for example, was improved and the piano during the nineteenth century had a much greater volume of sound due to its improved method of construction.

Broadwood grand piano

Grand pianoforte, Johann Friedrich Kulbörs, Breslau, c. 1805


Mechanised keywork, the set of intricate keys, rings and rods on woodwind instruments, was another ingenious invention of the industrial revolution. Before its application to woodwind instruments, players found certain notes difficult to play in tune, and had to resort to a range of alternative fingerings and control with the embouchure (how the player held the mouthpiece in his/her mouth) to keep certain notes in tune. Mechanised keywork allowed players to play more difficult musical passages in a range of keys, and helped to keep the instrument in tune while playing. It also made larger instruments, such as the contrabassoon, easier to play, fitting all the keys in a close area that was more comfortable for the player’s hands.

Clarinet in A by Rudall Carte & Co, London (2549).Clarinet in A, simple system with patent C sharp, E. Albert, Brussels, c.1865

The most characteristic development in musical instruments during that time was the development of valves and their application on brass instruments. Several brass instruments were now made with valves, such as the trumpet or the horn. Before this additional pieces of tubing were added, called ‘crooks’. Some players were not so keen to take up this new brass invention, preferring the different sound obtained by playing with different crooks. Here’s an example of an orchestral hand horn, and its successor, a valved horn.


Ventilwaldhorn (valved horn), A.H. Rott, Prague, Bohemia, c. 1900


The tuba was an instrument which was created during the first half of the century. The euphonium, baritone and tenor horn were other instruments that appeared during the same time. These new instruments were originally developed to be used in band music. Here you can see and hear some examples of such instruments in the collection.

Kaiserbaryton (euphonium) in Bb, 4 valves, Cerveny, Königgrätz, c 1900

The vivid imagination of musical instrument makers sometimes resulted in the making of super-sized or strange looking instruments! Newspapers of the time often included comical drawings of these exaggerated instruments. Adolphe Sax for example, the inventor of the saxophone and maker of several brass instruments, made a tuba whose tubing was 17 meters long! Another French maker Jean Baptiste Vuillaume around the middle of the century made an enormous double bass which was 3.5 meters long! The museum collection has some strange looking instruments made during the nineteenth century: Would you like to meet some of them?


875 Gemelli/Duplex horn, Pelitti, Milan, probably c 1870

Echo cornet in C etc. F. Besson, London, c 1883 (1451).

Echo cornet in C, Besson & Co, London, c. 1875


The Orchestra

Orchestras during the Romantic period were mainly theatre orchestras, which played music for plays or operas, as well as concert orchestras. During the early nineteenth century the composition of instrument types in the orchestra started changing. In the woodwind section in addition to the flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon, the piccolo flute, the cor anglais, the bass clarinet and the contrabassoon made their appearance

Cor anglais, or english horn

Cor anglais in F, 10-key, Triébert, Paris, c. 1825

In the brass section in addition to horns, trumpets, and trombones a bass instrument was added to create a full, bass sound. This instrument was originally the ophicleide, but later in the century the ophicleide was replaced by the tuba. The euphonium was sometimes used in the lower brass section as well as a special type of tuba, the Wagner tuba.

The Conductor

Today when we attend a concert given by an orchestra it seems natural that there is a conductor: a conductor is someone standing in front of the orchestra, coordinating the sound, speed and dynamics by moving his or her hands and holding a baton. Did you know that this was not always the case? Before the nineteenth century a member of the orchestra, such as the principal violin player who used his bow as a baton, or the harpsichord player assumed the responsibility for leading the orchestra. From the early nineteenth century it became more and more common that the conductor was not a musician of the orchestra and would have the sole responsibility of conducting the orchestra. With larger orchestras it was necessary to use a baton, or stick, so everyone could see the directions of the conductor. Many rehearsals are required before performing in public. The musicians watch the conductor closely to understand the conductor’s directions through his/her movements, but they also watch the conductor’s facial expressions that communicate so many of the subtle details of the music. One could say just as each musician played his/her instrument, the conductor ‘plays’ the ensemble!

Chamber Music

Chamber music, that is music written for small ensembles, continued playing an important role in musical life during the 19th century, just as in previous centuries. The difference is that public appearances of chamber ensembles increased. The string quartet consisting of two violins, a viola and a violoncello, remained popular among composers. Moreover, larger chamber ensembles started becoming more and more popular, such as quintets, sextets and septets with or without piano and wind instruments.