The Sacbut

Why would anyone want to play a sacbut? Ben Peck not only plays one, he directs the New York Cornet and Sacbut Ensemble. He is "the best and only alto sacbut player in New York," according to a friend -- and probably the person who asks that question most often.

After all, there are still people who don't know that the sacbut is the forerunner of the modern trombone, was used to swell professionals of kings and dukes, and blared brightly from the balconies of Venice during the golden age of that musical city. And if you don't know what one is, you don't wonder "Why play it?"

But, says Peck, the first thing modern musicians ask themselves on blowing into the mouthpiece of one of these venerable horns (actually, he plays a faithful copy, made in Germany) and down its rather irregular handmade bore is why one would bother coaxing tunes out of it. At an international trumpet seminar, "I gave my sacbut to someone and he said 'It's a beautiful sacbut.' Then he played it and said, 'Blecch. Ugliest thing. Can't stand it.' They feel very different. It's very much like giving someone that drives a Maserati a Model T and saying, 'Appreciate it as an automobile.' And you don't, of course. You have to drive it for a long time, think how it was back then, and slow yourself down and drive on a country road. But after a while, you could sort of imagine that it might have been, you know, decent. . . .

"A modern trombone plays much easier and twice as loud . . . the same is true of a trumpet. In fact, a cornetto [a wooden horn, forerunner of the trumpet] is even worse, because a cornetto's such a different instrument. It takes people a couple of years to find the virtue in them."

Ben Peck has been driving down country roads, in the musical sense, for about 10 years, ever since he began to play early music at the Yale School of Music in a small group to get to know people. Now he directs the only professional cornet and sacbut ensemble in the country. He has gotten top modern brass players to play these "not-so-hot instruments" -- as he calls them -- with him. And he keeps finding virtue in the instruments, and trying to convert people to listening to their Renaissance utterances. Someone else from the trumpet seminar stopped Peck on the street to say that "the thing that really struck me was how awful these instruments sound by themselves and how well they sound together." By themselves, he says, the instruments sound airy and have no resonance. Together, it's a different story.

"You need a family of instruments, that was a typical Renaissance ideal. . . . Little cornet, big cornet, then little sacbut, middle-size sacbut, and big sacbut make a family." The modern brass quintet, he feels, is not such a happy family, interrupted as it is by the French born, which blows in the opposite direction and is conical, rather than cylindrical like other brass instruments. The alto sacbut, which he plays, is the missing link between the low register and the high. And, when playing with a vocal choir, the unresonant sacbut doesn't cover the voices like modern brass. Where a trombone has to play mezzopiano to give even a bellowing choir a break, the sacbut is not a threat. "When we're playing soft, the choir comes in very softly. When we play loud we match the choir's loudness, so we can play loud and blow hard," very satisfying for a brass player, he says.

Recently, four members of the New York Cornet and Sacbut Ensemble perched together on folding chairs in the lobby of the New England Conservatory of Music and delivered fanfares and lilting songs -- flourishes from another age -- as harpsichord shoppers shuffled through. Dressed in floppy-sleeved, big-collared shirts and looking owlishly over their instruments at the music on their stands, they had a pleasantly historical look. Ben Peck wears glasses and is very tall, and as the slide of his sacbut stretches out between his knees and he blows earnestly, he has the look of an angular, medieval knight. That, however, would be going back too far. What Peck and company are interested in is the brassy sounds of the 1500s and 1600s. Actually, any sounds from that era will do.

Early music (that is, what came before Bach) wasn't written with notations about expression -- nothing about volume, no crescendos or decrescendos, not even tempo. So the way it really sounded is left to the imagination, though there is a lot of research into the occasions on which it was played, whether or not musicians could read music, and other details. Composers didn't even mention which instruments played what, so anything is fair game for any instrument. Fortunately, people still dance at about the same speed and the human voice is expressive in the same way as it was 400 years ago. The New York Cornet and Sacbut Ensemble, and other early-music groups, listen to choirs singing madrigals to get a feeling for expression. Peck can dance a galliard and, he says, "I know how a pavane works," so when they play a pavane they have the actual dance in mind, and they play madrigals the way they like to hear them sung, whether they are accompanied by singers or not.

Other than that, it's a matter of interpretation. And of course, people don't agree on how it should sound. Peck's interpretation is not particularly controversial; it's just very musical, says Valerie Horst, director of an early-music workshop in Amherst, Mass., for the American Recorder Society, and a close friend of Mr. Peck. "He's the one [in the group] who knows how to phrase Renaissance music to really make it work," she says. This involves "conjecturing from paper" as well as what one has listened to from other early musicians, and anything uncovered by scholars. "He's the sould of the group," she says.

The sacbut is not "pickable uppable" by amateurs, says Peck, because to play any brass instrument well one has to spend time developing the proper "embouchure," the way the mouth hits the mouthpiece (best started, he says, in junior high band). Likewise, professional sacbut and cornet players are hard to come by.

"He's done a terrific thing," says Kay Jaffee of the Waverly Consort, a professional New York early-music group. "He has enlisted a number of leading brass players in New York to take up the old counterparts and play them seriously." Everyone in the group plays free-lance, both in modern orchestras and early-music ones. Having players of their stature "has been a tremendous help in the early-music making of New York," says Mrs. Jaffee. The Waverly Consort calls on all of them.

Paul Echolls, a choral director and ensemble coach for several ensembles, says of the sacbut, "It looks like a trombone, but it's not a trombone. It can be made to sound like a trombone but it does not want to sound like a trombone. Ben Peck has found, especially with the alto sacbut, what the sacbut might want to sound like." As for the way they sound together, they thinks the New york cornet and Sacbut Ensemble is "closer than anyone else in the country to getting a sound that's convincing."

How does Peck think early brass sounded? Brilliant and glorious, in two words. Other groups, especially English ones, tend to play "a little on the staid side," he says. "But my conception and my group's conception, and maybe it's the kind of guys we are . . . we're a little more flamboyant. I'd say that's part of the essence of brass instruments. . . . Kings were the only people allowed to have trumpets in some parts of Europe for a long time. . . . The king could have 15 and his cousin the duke could only have six. It's an absolute symbol, a living symbol of power. All right, now how did these trumpet players play when the king came in?"

"Loud?" I venture.

"Well, loud, and with as much brilliance as possible. There are descriptions of playing in Venice, brass playing about 1600, which is the golden age in Venice, which is a very ornate city. Venice was a very Baroque city even then. Venice is Venice. They took tremendous civic pride" in their music, art, and churches. At that time, he says, ambassadors and traveling Englishmen (the first of a long and indefatigable line) were writing home about the brilliant brass playing. What they mean by "brilliant" is debated. But Peck thinks it means forceful, bright, and loud.

"Brass players enjoy playing loud. I do, and I always have. That may have been trained into me by Romantic music. People say Baroque music wasn't like that. Except look at the way Bach uses trumpets in the 'Gloria' or in a huge piece. Or a happy piece. It's not a sad instrument. It's glorious."

That's the only way to describe "A Venetian Festival," a recent concert in Harvard's Sanders Theater staged by the Boston Camerata, in which the NEw York Cornet and Sacbut Ensemble took part. From up in the balcony pealed the voices of the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum. "E Viva Veniesia!" sang the Camerata members, walking down the aisles, and their voices were multiplied by the Harvard- Radcliffe Collegium Musicum up in the balcony. In among them and the strains of harpsichords, viols, and recorders came the song of the sacbut and cornet, burnished but cutting through all these voices on its own. throughout the concert, the ensemble would appear in various parts of this old, ornate, and many-leveled theater, echoing in the hallway at one point, sounding from the stage sometimes, and flying from the rafters at another. It was a royal sound, the aural equivalent of a bright banner.Unbelievably beautiful as it all was, these sounds could actually have come forth on a Sunday after church in Renaissance Venice.

The same composers wrote both sacred and "top 40-type" music in those days, says Peck. "Things were melding more back then. It's an easier balance somehow. There were distinctions, but it wasn't quite so black and white. Life was much smaller and simpler. It's easier to imagine this all happening in cities the size of Rochester, N.Y., or smaller. In a city like New York or Boston it's easier for things to get departmentalized," he says.

The fact that the great masterpieces and pop tunes of the era are in the same musical language "is why I think there's hope for the early-music field. . . . You can lure a lot of people into it because some of the stuff is not so esoteric." The pop tunes prepare listeners for the masterpieces. He doesn't sound wistful or nostalgic for the well-melded centuries whose music he plays. After all, he is living in the still-small world of people who think about what music sounded like before Bach, and he knows both the sacred and profane songs. And he's the best and only person to play them on the alto sacbut.

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