When studying botany in college, I found the humble bean being described as ‘kidney-shaped’. And as a student of anatomy in medical college, it was amusing to find the kidney described as ‘bean-shaped’.
How about a sound-producing instrument used to describe a flower which in turn inspires and lends its name to another musical instrument? This is the curious story of the campanula.
Campanula is Latin for little bell and is used to describe the bell-shaped flowers of a certain plant genus therefore named Campanulaceae. Sometime in the 1980s, the renowned luthier Helmut Bleffert (whose award-winning cellos have found pride of place in the ranks of the Berlin Philharmonic and in the hands of equally distinguished musicians around the world) was awarded a contract to design an instrument modelled on a plant. This is not such a bizarre idea: after all, stringed instruments are made from wood, so why not go further and get their shape from the plant kingdom as well? In Indian music, the resonating chamber of the sitar is fashioned from a gourd.
Bleffert took the bellflower as his model. The campanula has some similarities with the viola d’amore of the Baroque period and with the Hardanger fiddle from Norway. Bleffert’s creation has four playing strings tuned in fifths as on a modern cello; and 16 additional ‘sympathetic’ or resonating strings fixed to the front of the instrument and tuned with pegs applied at the foot of the neck.
Georg Faust, former principal cellist in the Berlin Philharmonic, describes his experience with the instrument going back to 1986, when Bleffert presented the idea to him, in a blog post in this month’s issue of The Strad magazine. Faust had no free time to experiment with the campanula in 1986, being busy with the orchestra under Herbert von Karajan, and also as leader of the 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic, and as chamber musician and soloist. It was only when he left the Berlin Philharmonic three years ago that he had more time “to investigate the musical and human message of the Campanula”.
If you listen to the video clip of the campanula being played, it really does sound like “playing in a cathedral”, as Faust puts it. The echoes of the resonating strings add depth and colour to the timbre of the instrument in a most intriguing manner.
The qualities of the instrument make it the ideal instrument for “fantasizing and improvising”, and make one’s own playing slower and more attentive, according to Faust.
The first Campanula festival was held in Schifferstadt, Germany in August last year, and Faust played the instrument at the Musical Instrument Museum in November. The luthier Bleffert has also fashioned Campanula violins and violas, which were also performed at the November concert.
So what would chamber music featuring these instruments sound like? A string trio or quartet? “Just magic”, if you ask Faust, who has first-hand experience.
Stefanie John, who is featured playing the instrument in a video clip on The Strad post and on Bleffert’s site, is similarly bewitched by the Campanula’s possibilities. The reverberating resonances arising when playing upon it inspire her to seek alternative phrasing for the work she is playing. She pauses more often to listen to the sound-world being created, which makes the playing much more introspective.
Ms John’s passion for the instrument extended to actually building one herself, under Bleffert’s supervision. She now plays exclusively on the instrument she has built herself, which gives her much satisfaction.
So is the Campanula “old wine in a new bottle”, a throw-back to similar instruments from the Baroque and Renaissance eras, or does it have a viable future. Faust certainly believes it does. “I am very convinced that the Campanula is ready to step on stage and enrich our musical lives. As any classical string player can just take a Campanula and play without having to learn new techniques, it offers a wonderful option for new musical experiences.”
This is a huge advantage. As the principal strings of a Campanula cello, viola or violin (perhaps even double-bass sometime in the future?) are tuned just as their modern counterparts and played no differently, it becomes easy to take up, and enter a whole new experience in string-playing.
(An edited version of this article was published on 22 February 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)