History – The world of wooden mallet instruments
The origins of the xylophone lie in the far distant past and are difficult to trace. Most historians believe that the first xylophones appeared in eastern Asia, whence they are thought to have spread to Africa. The first evidence of the instruments is found in 9th century south-east Asia. In around 2000 BC a kind of wood-harmonicon with 16 suspended wood bars is said to have existed in China. At the same time a xylophone-like instrument called the ranat is reputed to have existed in Hindu regions. Proof that xylophones were widespread in south-east Asia is provided by numerous temple reliefs depicting people playing such instruments.
The various types of xylophone with bars made of hardwood or bamboo are still an integral part of today’s various gamelan orchestras. One single gamelan orchestra can include as many as three gambangs (trough xylophones with bars made of bamboo or hardwood). Technically, most Asian xylophones are trough xylophones, i.e. the instrument has one single hollow body which acts as a resonator for all the bars. The 14 to 20 – and sometimes more – bars are fixed with metal pins on strips of material which are attached to the edges of the wood resonator box. The bars are tuned to scales of five or seven notes. Xylophones are played together with other instruments at court, as solo instruments at various fertility rituals and at festivals for the purposes of entertainment.
Trough xylophone (“gambang”)
Exactly when the first xylophones reached Africa is unknown. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that it was long before the 14th century. Historical sources from the middle of the 14th century mention xylophones in what is now Mali, on the Niger. In the 16th century Portuguese missionaries in Ethiopia reported sophisticated xylophones with a resonator made of a calabash and a type of kazoo (mirliton) which produced resonant buzzing noises. A xylophone with the same properties, known as the ambira, was also reported by the Portuguese missionary Dos Santos in the region of Mozambique.
Xylophones are widespread in Africa, although they are not common in every region. High concentrations can be found on the west and east coasts (Angola, Mozambique). The xylophone is regarded as the quintessential African instrument, probably because it is ideally suited to expressing the innate African sense of rhythm.
The important role that this instrument has always played on the African continent is underlined by the wide variety of different types of xylophone found there. There are two main categories: xylophones with separate bars which are arranged independently of one another, and xylophones with fixed bars which are tied firmly together.
The simplest forms are the leg xylophone and the pit xylophone. Leg xylophones consist of several bars which are laid across the lap and played. The space under the legs acts as the resonator. Pit xylophones are made by placing the bars on rolled-up banana leaves over a pit which serves as the resonator.
One type of xylophone which is very important is the log xylophone, which consists of bars resting on two beams. The bars are between 12 and 22 cm long and are usually fixed by long wood pins to stop them shifting position when they are struck. In Uganda instruments of this type, called the amadinda, are widespread. Larger versions, which used to be played at the court of the king, were also known as the akadinda.
A more complex form is the so-called gourd-resonated xylophone, on which each bar has its own resonator. The resonators are usually dried and hollowed-out gourds. The gourds are chosen with great care, because their pitch must correspond exactly to that of the bar. Musicians often travel long distances to find suitable specimens. Sometimes bamboo canes, canisters or metal casings are used as resonators. These xylophones feature a special means of amplification, the mirlitons. A hole is drilled in each gourd which is then covered by a membrane (of paper or from a spider’s nest). This paper-thin covering vibrates in sympathy when the corresponding bar is struck and produces a buzzing noise.
Buzzing noises were also produced on European frame harps in the late Middle Ages by contriving to make the vibrating strings touch the hooks provided for this purpose.
The European folk instrument
It is probable that the xylophone arrived in Europe during the Crusades. In 1511 the German organist Arnold Schlick mentions it in his work Spiegel der Orgelmacher und Organisten, calling it “hültze glechter” (“wooden laughter”). It was this name by which the instrument was known in German-speaking regions. In the following years the xylophone is mentioned by many influential theoreticians of the age, including Martin Agricola and Michael Praetorius in his Theatrum instrumentorum. The name “straw fiddle” was also commonly used and referred to the fact that the bars were laid on skeins of straw. In the Middle Ages xylophones were very simple instruments without any kind of resonator. Straw fiddles were popular as virtuoso instruments in the circus and were also played by wandering minstrels. This situation remained unchanged until the 19th century.
In his famous painting Dance of Death from 1523 Hans Holbein the Younger imbues the xylophone with death imagery; a skeleton in the procession plays a portable xylophone, the sound of which thus comes to symbolize the rattling of bones. This is the first known portrayal of a xylophone in Europe.
Hans Holbein: Dance of Death, 1523
On older xylophones – also on those from the Alpine region – the bars were arranged in four rows. The two middle rows corresponded more or less to the white keys of the piano, the two outside rows to the black keys. The bars did not lie lengthwise in front of the musician, as on the modern orchestra xylophone and African and Asian instruments, but crossways, the longest bar nearest to the player, the shortest furthest from him. There were no resonators, and the bars were struck with hammers as on the dulcimer. The advantage of this bar arrangement was that certain note sequences that occurred frequently, such as broken chords, could be played at very high speed. Traveling virtuosos excited the interest of composers such as Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809–1847) and Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849) in the instrument.
The xylophone is discovered as an orchestra instrument
It was not until the 19th century that the xylophone was discovered as an orchestra instrument. Michael Josef Guzikov, a Pole, was one of the best known traveling virtuosos. The first compositions for the xylophone were probably presented in 1803 by Ignaz Schweigl and in 1810 by Ferdinand Kauer (Sei Variazioni). The French composer Camille Saint-Saëns was one of the first to use the xylophone in orchestral pieces, in his programmatic works La Danse Macabre (1875) and Le Carnaval des Animaux (1886). The instrument used was still the four-rowed version.
In 1886 Albert Roth published a xylophone tutor for the four-rowed instrument in which he also introduced a two-row chromatic arrangement of the bars following the pattern of piano keys. This led to the development of the modern orchestra xylophone with its two-row chromatic bar arrangement and resonators. From 1903, the American John Calhoun Deagan became one of the first major manufacturers of the modern orchestra xylophone, which soon established itself as the standard instrument in theater and symphony orchestras as well as in dance bands. The fact that the xylophone sounded particularly good on early records may also have contributed to its popularity. The parts entrusted to the xylophone and the growing percussion section by composers during the 20th century became ever larger and more important. Composers such as Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse, Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez and Karheinz Stockhausen are just a few of those who placed percussion instruments at the forefront of musical performance. The century of percussion had begun.