Oakeley, Sir Herbert (Stanley)

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(It.: ‘little goose’).

A Vessel flute with a hollow body, originally in the shape of a large elongated egg. The standard Western ocarina was invented and named in about 1853 by Giuseppe Luigi Donati (b Budrio, 2 Dec 1836; d Milan, 14 Feb 1925). The term ‘ocarina’ has since been applied to other vessel flutes; this article will discuss the history of the vessel flute worldwide.

Ocarinas are usually made with ducts; that on Donati’s model is contained within a spout which protrudes part way along the main body of the instrument. The player’s breath is directed through this extended mouthpiece to a sharp edge, causing the mass of air in the instrument to vibrate. On other shapes of ocarina, the mouthpiece may be found at any convenient point on the body and may also be incorporated into the design (e.g. in the form of a bird’s tail). Ocarinas without ducts are played by directing breath over a hole. The sound of the ocarina is largely free of upper harmonics, and it cannot normally be overblown to play an upper octave. Ocarinas may be made with or without finger-holes, which may be placed anywhere on the body since the size of the hole, rather than its position, determines the tuning. The pitch of the lowest note is established mainly by the ocarina’s internal volume and, to a lesser extent, by the dimensions of the mouth-hole and by the angle and strength of the player’s breath. When all the finger-holes are closed, the ocarina acts as a Stopped pipe, thus sounding about an octave lower than an open-ended flute of similar size. Vessel flutes with very few or no finger-holes are classed as whistles when used purely for bird calls or as signalling devices (e.g. cuckoo whistle, sports whistle); when used for musical purposes they are classed as flutes. The most versatile ocarinas have four or more finger-holes for playing up to 20 chromatic notes. They may be made with a single chamber or with multiple chambers for playing more than one note simultaneously.

The earliest predecessors of the ocarina were made of natural materials such as stone, wood, bone, shell and gourd. By 4000 bce the Chinese were making clay whistles and early versions of the Xun. Throughout Latin America, pre-Columbian clay vessel flutes were made in large numbers and various forms, including those of animals, birds (fig.1) and people. In Africa, vessel flutes are made mainly from gourds and fruit shells. The rhonge is a vessel flute of the Tsonga people, made of a ripe dry sala fruit, played mostly by herd-boys (see South africa, §I, 4(i)). Kenyan bushmen blow into animal shells or cupped hands to imitate the call of the honey-guide bird. Whirling aerophones in the form of gourds tied to lengths of twine and swung through the air to make a sound as they travel (a distinctive note is produced internally by a hole cut in the side) have been found in the rainforests of the Amazon and Papua New Guinea.

In Europe, by the mid-19th century, clay bird-whistles had become popular as children’s toys, and were sold at markets and fairs. Donati’s ocarina was a transformation of the simple clay whistle, having up to 10 finger- and thumb-holes and tuned to a full Western scale. By 1863 Donati had joined with others to perform five-part harmony on different-sized ocarinas. They played traditional tunes from their home region and arrangements of popular themes from Italian opera. Donati continued to make ocarinas in Budrio, while his fellow performers toured concert halls across Europe from 1870 onwards. They amazed audiences with their wonderful sound, skilful execution and unusual appearance dressed as the ‘Mountaineers of the Apennines’ (fig.2). Some of these performers became makers themselves, returning to Budrio, where the tradition of ocarina making and playing continues to the present day. Others went on to establish manufacturing and sales in other parts of Europe, including Paris and London. Donati’s success led him to move to larger premises in Bologna; he eventually settled in Milan, where he continued making ocarinas into his old age.

The basic form of the Italian (‘submarine’) ocarina has remained largely unchanged, although its length can vary from as little as 6 cm to 48 cm. In Eastern Europe, a simplified seven-hole version has been made. Further adaptations in other parts of Europe and Japan include the addition of tuning-slides (fig.3), keys to cover the larger holes, and the splitting of the smaller holes for playing semitones. In the USA, Bing Crosby was one of many who played the ocarina (‘sweet potato pipe’) as a novelty instrument in the era of jazz and swing. Its portability made it a favourite instrument with generations of children. American servicemen brought bakelite ocarinas to Europe during World War II; plastic versions eventually took their place alongside those made of clay, porcelain and metal.

The ‘English’ ocarina, along with the ‘four-hole system’ of tuning, was first developed in the early 1960s by the ethnomusicologist and musical inventor John Taylor (b Wolverhampton, 12 Sept 1940). In 1963 he discovered that a diatonic octave could be played by cross-fingering four holes of different sizes; the resultant four-hole system became a standard method of tuning and by the 1970s had spread to many parts of the English-speaking world through Taylor’s students and friends. The system comprises one small, one medium and two large finger-holes. A pentatonic scale is sounded by opening one hole at a time; cross-fingering and half-covering holes produces a full chromatic octave. Like its Italian predecessor, the English ocarina has been developed in a number of ways. Its range has been extended by the addition of extra holes, and different sizes of body have been made to produce consorts ranging over five octaves. The four-hole system has been adapted for one hand by placing three holes on top and one underneath, resulting in the development of sophisticated double-chambered instruments. Although other tuning methods are known, the Italian and English systems are the most widely used, as is reflected in the range of published music, teaching methods and recordings available. During the 1980s the ‘Poly-oc’ plastic four-hole ocarina (fig.4) was developed by John North Langley (b Adelaide, 26 Nov 1944) specifically for use in schools along with ocarina tablature.

Ocarinas have been used to play most types of music. The most distinguished exponent, Mosé Tapiero, made more than 30 recordings before World War I and demonstrated a virtuosity usually associated with more complex instruments.


A. Adversi: L’ocarina di Budrio (Bologna, 1963)

D. and C. Liggins: The Secret History of the Ocarina: 125 Years of Ocarinas in the English-speaking World (Kettering, 2000)


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