Discovering the Birbyne

An authentic Lithuanian wind-instrument birbynė, better known as reed-pipe, originally comes from Lithuania. Its name originates from the word buzz – pipe or blow. It is a one fold instrument made out of feather, straw, bark or wood. It is believed the first prototypes of the instrument called “the first type and second type of birbynė” [1] could appear in the Stone Age. For the first time this type of instrument was mentioned as surma in the Psalter by J. Bretkūnas-Rėza in 1625. The term birbynė was first found in Lithuanian-German-Lithuanian Dictionary compiled by P. Ruigys (1747). Birbynė is also mentioned in later written works of culture and etnography by the scholars like Nesselmann G. H. („Wörterbuch der littauischen sprache“, 1850), Kukolnik P.(1854), Tyszkiewicz E. (1869), Bezzenberger A. (1882), Kurschat F. (1883) and others. In the 20th century such Lithuanian etnography researchers as M. Petrauskas, J. Žilevičius, Z. Slaviūnas-Slavinskas, S. Paliulis, P. Samuitis ir A. Vyžintas and R. Apanavičius also wrote a lot about birbynė.

According to researchers, the instrument was used by shepherds who played on it various improvisations: dances, songs, special folk music improvisations called raliavimai.

Improvements of birbynė began in 1940 when the Lithuanian folk music instrument ensemble Lietuva was established. The ensemble chose the third type of birbynė (horn). After continuous search and trials, an improved chromatic soprano birbynė was constructed by Povilas Samuitis and Pranas Serva in 1950, a double bass birbynė by Pranas Kupcikas in 1952, and a year later a tenor birbynė.

The family of improved birbynė includes soprano, tenor and double-bass instruments. The case of the instrument (soprano and tenor) is made out of ashen, maple, apple or pear wood. The case of double-bass birbynė is metal. The mouthpiece is made of vulcanite. Its shape is analogous to that of clarinet where the reed is tied by the string. At the end of the case there is a pulled-on horn of an animal (usually cow). The sound scale of soprano birbynė spans notes starting with A till E, F 3 note on G clef.

Soprano birbynė has a wide dynamic range and its timber is extremely flexible. Depending on the artist’s technique, creativity and repertoire, the instrument can sound like an oboe, flute, clarinet, saxophone or even a trumpet! In its appearance and some specific internals birbynė can be compared to the predecessor of clarinet chalumeau. This instrument, just like birbynė, doesn’t possess any valve, its mouthpiece is similar to that of birbynė and the reed is tied by the string. Diverse repertoire can be performed on birbynė: works written exclusively for birbynė as well as for variety of other winds (oboe, flute, clarinet, saxophone). The birbynė is taught at the Lithuanian Music and Theatre Academy, conservatoires and music schools.

[1] According the construction and production of sound, there are three types of birbynė: 1) with single reed not detached from case; 2) with single cut stem or double stem set in the case; and 3) with single reed tied to stem.

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