David Valdés

Xylophone in Richard Strauss´ "Salome".

We, percussionists, very often play on instruments that, in reality, are not those that the composer indicated. We have the keyboard xylophone in Bluebeard (B. Bartok), a part impossible to play on a regular xylophone; the glockenspiel parts in many works (“Magic Flute”, Mahler #7, «Daphnis et Chloe», etc.), which are impossible to play by a single player using sticks, sleigh bells instead of Turkish crescent (“Pomp and Circumstance”) and many other examples.

 
Sometimes we do not know that our instruments were different in past times, that they featured a different disposition of the keys and, when played on modern instruments, the parts become more complicated because the keys are now arranged in a different way. That is the case we will dicuss today, the famous and hard xylophone part in Richard Strauss´ “Salome”.
 
The instrument Strauss wrote for is the «strohfiedel», «straw fiddle» or «four row xylophone». It was named like that because the wooden slats layed on bunches of straw. More precisely, Strauss asked in “Salome” for  «holz und stroh instrument» (literally, “wood and straw instrument”). Here you can see the beginning of the opera:

Here you can see its complete name (“Holz & Strohinstrument”) at the beginning of the “Dance of the Seven Veils” (which is very often played as an independent piece):

Danza de los siete velos. Dominio público.
Obviously, this is the xylophone that Strauss had in mind when he was writing the part:
Strohinstrument. © Lefima
Strohinstrument. © Lefima

This “primitive” version of the xylophone had a trapezoidal shape and the pitches were arranged as follows:

Disposición de las notas en un Strohfiedel.

This is the excerpt that drives percussionists mad:

Pasaje infernal en Do Mayor. Dominio público.
Played on a modern instrument (the keys arranged in a piano keyboard style) it is a hard nut to crack, as we have to avoid crossing the sticks and, because it is in C major, we have no “black keys” to use as a reference.
 
If, on the contrary, we use the original instrument for which Strauss orchestrated the part, things become much easier. Having a look at the graphic above we can see that, due to the particular arrangement of the keys in the “strohfidel”, we just have to move each hand up and down one row each, making for a very simple and musical passage, without crossings nor complicated shifts. We can clerarly see that Strauss knew the instrument and that he wrote the part adapting to the “strohfiedel”. When played on a modern xylophone all that simplicity and logic gets lost because we are using a different instrument that uses a totally different arrangement of the keys. Can you see why it is important to know the original instruments that the composers score for? 😉
 
Even more, have a look at these two excerpts:
Material temático tocado en el xilófono. Dominio público.

When played on a «strohfiedel» both are much easier because of the disposition of the keys.

 

My opinion is that, whenever possible, we have to play the parts on the instruments they were originally written for, as that facilitates things very much.

 

What do you think about this part?, have you played it?, would you play it on a “strohfiedel”?

 

 

…et in Arcadia ego.

© David Valdés