Instruments | Xylophone | Late Romantic | Classical
The xylophone (the name means ‘sounding wood’) is a percussion instrument consisting of a series of wooden bars of ascending size, capable of producing a range of notes when struck. It originated possibly in Asia or Africa; an instrument thought to be of Chinese origin fell into the hands of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764). Early instruments consisted of blocks strung together with cords, or resting on a bed of straw. In the modern instrument, the blocks are arranged in the pattern of a piano keyboard and beneath each is a hollow tube which resonates when the bar is struck.
A folk instrument, it attracted the attention of composers in the nineteenth century. Its most famous appearance in the Romantic period is in Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals. Here it gives the impression of dancing bones in the section entitled ‘Fossils’. It is also bones that are in the programme in the same composer’s Danse macabre. The xylophone went on to be the most commonly used tuned percussion instrument in the twentieth century, the standard instrument to learn on, with a wide orchestral repertory.
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