Tag Archives: Medieval Music

Medieval Musicians

We’ve spent the last couple of months looking at and listening to medieval musical instruments and I thought it would be interesting to look at the people who played the instruments.

Just as today, music was everywhere in the Middle Ages. It was in church; it was at celebrations; it was at dances; and it was in entertainments. Much of it was played and sung by professional musicians, but lots of people would have been able to make and play basic instruments. Everybody, of course, could sing.

Whoever you were in medieval society, you heard music in church. It had a large part to play in the liturgy, since most of the offices were sung. In monasteries the singing was led by the precentor. There were those, however, who didn’t approve of music in worship, especially in convents, as it was too sensual and could lead those who heard it to sin.

The precentor wasn’t the only professional musician in the Middle Ages. Jongleurs were itinerant musicians. Whether they travelled alone or in groups, music wasn’t their only source of income. They were all round entertainers, telling stories, preforming tricks, singing and playing instruments. They were at the bottom of the ladder of paid musicians.

Minstrels were a bit higher up the social scale and had permanent employment for at least part of the year in the court of a nobleman or in a town. They also travelled, presumably in the summer, since Queen Philippa provided livery for the minstrels of her court in the winter. She would only provide clothes for them if they were working for her at that time. Unlike the jongleurs, they only played and sang. Minstrels obviously wore distinctive clothes, for men who wished to make a good impression were told not to dress like them. Monks were told not to watch their performances for fear of being led into sin.

If you’re a regular reader, you saw the picture at the top of the post last week. It shows a group of musicians entertaining a king. As an aside, you can always recognise a king in medieval art, as he’ll be wearing a crown, whether he’s in a battle, in bed or dead. The musicians in the picture are troubadours, elite court musicians.

Some troubadours were themselves nobles, but professional troubadours also performed in courts. They composed the words and music of their own songs, although these were often performed by minstrels or jongleurs. It’s unlikely that they wrote down their compositions, since the collections of troubadour songs that have been discovered were mostly written down after the death of the composer.

The tradition of troubadours began in the twelfth century in south-west France, but spread very quickly across Europe. Surprisingly, women could be troubadours. Jongleurs could become troubadours, but they had to compose and perform well and they also had to fit in at a court. Richard I was a troubadour and wrote songs in French. When we think of troubadours, we think of love songs, but they also sang about politics and morality. They composed ballads and songs for dancing.

Dancing, as it was in most ages, was very popular in the Middle Ages. There were few enclosed spaces large enough for dancing unless you were very rich, so most people danced in the open air, often in the churchyard. Dancing on top of the graves of my ancestors doesn’t appeal to me, but that obviously wasn’t a problem for my ancestors themselves. You didn’t need much in the way of instruments to get a dance going; a drum would probably be enough. Pipes were easy enough to make, though, so people would have a tune to help them to recognise the dance. Most medieval dance music wasn’t written down, but was performed from memory, as were the steps.

Music accompanied plays. These were usually performed outside in the summer, possibly with professional minstrels.

To end this series, here is a performance of Ave Maris Stella, of which we’ve heard a few versions over the last few weeks. I’ve included it partly because it’s played on a medieval organ, but mainly because of the very obvious joy of the musician, who we’ve also come across before.

Sources:
A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca
The Senses in Late Medieval England by C.M. Woolgar

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Medieval Musical Instruments Part Fourteen

In this final post of the series I’m going to be rather lazy and cover a group of instruments. This is percussion. We’ve already come across a percussion instrument when we looked at the pipe and tabor.

Medieval percussion was, of course, wider than drums. There were also nakers, tambourines, chime bells, cymbals and triangles.

Nakers were kettledrums. Like so many other medieval instruments, they came from the Middle East with returning Crusaders and the name comes from an Arabic word that means ‘to strike’. They are the ancestor of the timpani and were usually played in pairs, as they are today in mounted military bands. Since they had to be carried by the musician, they weren’t large.

They were bowl-shaped drums, originally made from clay with an animal skin stretched over the opening. The skin was attached by string around the rim of the drum and beaten with sticks. The vibrations of the skin were amplified by the interior space.

Although it’s unlikely that anyone played like this in the Middle Ages, this video will give you an idea of what it would have looked like.

Tambourines are more or less what you think they are. Animal skin is stretched over a circular wooden frame. Objects that jingle or rattle are inserted into horizontal slits in the frame. Here’s a picture of a third-century Roman woman playing one.

Triumph of Bacchus – Sousse.jpg: Unknown authorderivative work: Clusternote, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I think the chime bells are my favourite piece of medieval percussion. They are tiny bells in different sizes. The smaller the size of the bell the higher its pitch.

This video appeared on the first blog in the series, when I was writing about the medieval recorder. It starts, though, with bells. The CD cover shows someone playing a set with wooden hammers.

Here’s another piece played on bells.

Cymbals are ancient instruments. They’re shaped rather like a broad-brimmed hat. They’re made of metal and there’s a hole in the centre through which a strap could be attached. The player held the strap and hit the cymbal with a stick. The width, height and thickness of the cymbal affected its pitch and its volume, but I suspect that none of that was particularly important in any musical ensemble that wasn’t playing in a royal or aristocratic household.

The medieval triangle was like the modern triangle, being made of a metal rod bent into the form of a triangle and hit with another metal rod. It had two differences, though. There was no gap where one of the bottom corners should be and it was not in the shape of an equilateral triangle. You can see one in this fourteenth-century picture. The gentleman in red is playing a triangle and the one on the far left is playing nakers. Early medieval triangles also had jingles along the bottom, which must have made an interesting noise.

Fortunately, you don’t have to imagine the noise it made. Here’s a demonstration.

Sources:
A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Medieval Musical Instruments Part Twelve

The portative organ that we looked at last week was a small, portable organ, played by a single person. It’s close relative, the positive organ was larger and took two people to operate. It was usually set upon a table for playing.

Generally it had twice as many pipes as the portative organ and a larger keyboard. Whereas the portative organ had one bellows, the positive organ had two. This meant that the player could use two hands on the keyboard, leaving him no hands free to pump the air into the pipes. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on with the bellows in the picture at the top of the post, but I think the reality must have resembled what you’ll see in the video, rather than the weird, man-size bellows connected to the pipes by a tube that looks like it could eat the player for breakfast and hardly notice.

We noticed last week that there was a lot of co-ordination required between the hand playing the keys and the hand pumping the bellows on the portative organ. That wasn’t really possible when someone else was doing the pumping, even more so when they couldn’t see the hands of the player, so it made sense to have two bellows ensuring that the organ never ran out of air.

In this video you can see that dealing with the bellows is not as easy as you might think. The chap managing them has to make sure that there is a constant flow of air to the pipes, which means co-ordinating the bellows. He doesn’t have to push them down, just lift them up and he lifts one while the other is descending.

Sources:
A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Medieval Musical Instruments Part Eleven

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=493264

These week’s instrument is as sweet in sound as it is amusing in looks. The portative organ is, as its name suggests, an organ that could be carried. It has a single set of pipes arranged in two rows and a keyboard. The pipes are set into what is essentially a wooden box on which is mounted a structure to keep them upright.

The pipes are wooden tubes through which a set of bellows forces air. The tubes are different lengths, with the shorter ones being higher pitched and the longer ones being lower. A key is depressed and the corresponding pipe is opened. The pipe works in the same way as a recorder, with the air being split over a labium, producing the vibrations that make sounds.

The player played the keys with the right hand and pumped the bellows with the left. You’ll notice in the videos below that that this requires quite a lot of co-ordination. The portative organ had a very close relative in the positive organ, which was very similar, but sat on a table. The bellows (there were two) on this instrument were pumped by a second person, allowing the player to use both hands on the keyboard.

As you can see in the picture above, there was a strap that the player wore to keep the organ close to their body. I’m not sure why the angel is wearing it, though, as that must have made everything unstable.

It’s another quiet instrument suitable for playing indoors.

As you can hear in this video, it could be played with the ever-popular drone.

Here’s another haunting performance from Catalina Vicens.

In this video you’ll see a completely different playing style.

Sources:
A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Medieval Musical Instruments Part Ten

Lute player on far right

This week we’re looking at another stringed instrument with frets: the lute. As is the case with many medieval instruments, it came to Europe from the Arab world, where its closest relative is the oud.

The lute has a very long history. There are examples of lutes (or a very similar instrument) depicted in Egyptian art over 5,000 years ago and the carving at the top of the post dates from the first century AD. Although the lute was popular in the Middle Ages, it was during the Renaissance that it came into its own.

Like the other stringed instruments we’ve seen, it had a body and a neck. The strings were attached to tuning pegs, which were at an angle to the neck. It could be played with a plectrum, or it could be plucked with the fingers. There were frets on the fingerboard, although there was some variety in the number of them.

By Masaccio – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67530858

The body was made from thin strips of wood glued together and the sound board was glued to the front. It usually had two intricately carved holes, one behind the bridge and one just beyond the reach of the player’s fingers at the bottom of the neck. As you’ll see in one of the videos, the player could form notes by pressing strings against the soundboard itself.

The lute could have anywhere between four and ten gut strings. When there were more than five, they were strung in pairs. This was taken to extremes in the Renaissance with fifteen strings or more.

Again, like other stringed instruments it was very quiet and suitable for playing indoors only.

This video includes one of my favourite medieval tunes: the Trotto. There’s also a bit more information about the medieval lute and its construction.

There’s only one tune in this video, but it’s quite fun.

This video has no medieval music in it, in fact the music is baroque as is the lute, but I couldn’t write about the lute and not include something played by Elizabeth Kenny.

Sources:
A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Medieval Musical Instruments Part Nine

This week we’re looking at another stringed instrument. Although the citole above looks a bit like a violin, it’s probably an ancestor of the guitar. It was altered many centuries after it was made at the end of the thirteenth century. The F holes are not original and there were also changes to the fingerboard and the bridge. It’s the only surviving (mainly) medieval citole, however, so it was worth including this photograph.

Like the rebec, the back and sides were carved from a single piece of wood and the soundboard was glued to the front. The neck was very deep and a thumb hole had to be carved in it to make the instrument comfortable to play. You might just be able to see from the photograph that the distance between the back and the front was less at the bottom than it was at the top.

The citole had frets on the fingerboard, sometimes four and sometimes five. As you’ll see in the videos, it was plucked with a long, narrow plectrum. It’s a rhythmic instrument and chords could be played on it, although they might not sound quite right to our modern ears.

We’ve already learned that there were few standards for medieval instruments and, of course, there were citoles of different sizes and shapes. Unusually, though, they mostly had four strings, although the one in the photograph originally had six.

Like the rebec it had a very short period of popularity which was already waning by the end of the fourteenth century. That might explain why no other examples have been found.

To me, it looks like a very awkward instrument to play. It looks no less awkward in these videos, where it is played by people who know what they’re doing.

To my ears, this next recording sounds more like a country and western piece than an English medieval dance, but that’s probably just me.

Here’s another estampie.

Sources:
A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Medieval Musical Instruments Part Seven

No, I don’t know why he looks so angry, either.

By Unknown author – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:F107v_b.png, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53430304

This week we’re looking at another stringed instrument: the psaltery. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s an ancestor of the harpsichord and the piano.

Although some psalteries were shaped like harps, they weren’t really alike. The psaltery had metal strings, while harps had gut strings. Both were plucked with the fingers, though, although the psaltery could also be plucked with a plectrum.

The main difference, however, is that the psaltery’s strings were strung over a wooden soundboard and it was the vibrations of the strings against this that produced the sounds. It’s in this way that the psaltery resembles the harpsichord and piano.

The strings are of different lengths. The shorter strings produce higher pitched notes and longer strings produce the lower pitches. On some psalteries there was more than one string for some notes.

Psalteries came in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, and you’ll get some idea of that from the two videos below. As with many medieval instruments, variations of the psaltery continue to be used in folk music, often with a bow.

This is another medieval tune, played on an instrument that looks completely different.

Sources:
A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Medieval Musical Instruments Part Six

The vielle was a popular instrument. As you can see from the picture above, it was the stringed instrument from which the viol and the violin descended. Like them, it was played with a bow. In the thirteenth century it usually had five strings, but its shape and size could vary.

It’s made from wood and has a front and a back that are more or less flat. Apart from the two holes carved in the front, they’re identical. They’re both glued to a thin strip of wood along their edges to form an oval box. A length of wood is glued to the front and extends beyond it. This is the neck. At the far end it has pegs facing away from the instrument around which the strings are tightened. They’re tied off at the other end. It’s hidden in the top picture, but in the one below you can see the line of the bridge, a thin piece of wood which raises the strings away from the body. The vielle in the picture above has frets on the neck; the one in the picture below does not. That variety is also represented in the videos below. For quite a long time the vielle was oval, but you can see a slight inward curve in the middle of the body of the one below and that trend continued through the centuries.

You can see that the vielle could be played very much in the same way that a violin is played. The player presses the strings against the neck and pulls the bow across the strings he wants to sound. This causes them to vibrate and the sound they make is amplified by hollow box. The strings are tuned by tightening the pegs at the end of the neck.

By Master of the Codex Manesse (Foundation Painter) – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons. Original uploader was Srnec at en.wikipedia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11241323

We’ve already discovered that drones were popular in the Middle Ages and the vielle could also cater to this taste. The melody could be played on three of the strings, leaving two strings as drones.

The vielle was easy to carry and was the favourite instrument of the troubadours and jongleurs.

In this video Alexis Bennett talks a bit about playing the vielle and plays a salterello that you might recognise if you’re familiar with medieval music.

This next video showcases a larger instrument and a different playing position.

Lovely as this performance is, I suspect the medieval reality was more like this next video, in which yet another playing position is demonstrated.

Sources:
A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Medieval Musical Instruments Part Five

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53481

This week’s instrument is the hurdy-gurdy. It’s a bit of a mongrel, having both strings and a keyboard, of sorts. Like the bagpipe last week, it’s still a popular instrument in some parts of Europe.

The hurdy-gurdy is shaped like a vielle ( a predecessor to the violin), which we’ll come to later. It has three strings. More strings have been added since the Middle Ages and I’ve seen pictures of a modern one with eighteen strings. Instead of using a bow to vibrate the strings, the hurdy-gurdy player turns a handle which moves a wheel. The edge of the wheel brushes against the strings causing them to vibrate and make a sound. Two of the strings are drones, so the sound they make never changes. The player presses on the keys, which in turn press small bits of wood against the string, to play different notes.

Since the hurdy-gurdy has a drone, it could be used to replace the bagpipe and vice versa.

The hurdy-gurdy has been around for more than a thousand years. It developed from the organistrum which was so large that it required two people to play it.

Wikipedia.Commons / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

You can probably tell that the person moving the keys is pulling them upwards, rather than pressing down on them. That’s not a terribly efficient way to play an instrument, so he’s not going to be able to play anything fast. The organistrum was mainly used for church music.

Here is the Early Music Consort of London demonstrating a hurdy-gurdy with a medieval tune.

In this video a hurdy-gurdy player demonstrates the instrument and explains some of the things going on in the innards. He mentions a bridge that produces a buzzing noise, but that was an embellishment created during the Renaissance. You might recognise where he is; it’s Kenilworth Castle, which served to illustrate some points of castle architecture in the Anatomy of a Castle series.

Sources:
A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Medieval Musical Instruments Part 4

We’re sticking with wind instruments this week to look at the bagpipe. This was a popular instrument all over Europe in the Middle Ages, not just in the places you might be thinking of.

A bagpipe was made from an animal skin or bladder. The player blew into this bag through a tube. Modern ones have a valve to stop the air coming out once it was in, but I’m not sure about medieval ones. Possibly the air leaked out when the player wasn’t blowing.

The bag was squeezed by the player’s arm to provide a continuous stream of air into further tubes, one of these was the chanter on which the piper played the tunes. As is usual with wind instruments, changing the number of fingers covering the holes changed the pitch of the notes. Additional tubes provided one or more drones. A drone is a continuous, unchanging note. The drone pipes go over the shoulder and the player does nothing with them. As you’ll see in the video below, a deflated bagpipe resembles nothing so much as an octopus and is probably as difficult to control.

Since the player isn’t blowing directly into the chanter, he cannot stop the sound with his tongue, which means that the piper can’t play successive notes at the same pitch. He has to do something else to tell the listener that one note has finished and the next one has started. One way of doing this is to raise and lower a finger covering a hole very quickly to change the pitch. Listen out for that in the recordings.

Like the shawm, the tubes coming out of the bag had reeds in them to produce the sound, but it wasn’t the piper’s lips that made them vibrate; it was the air from the bag.

Here is the Early Music Consort of London demonstrating the bagpipe with two very different tunes.

The sound on the next video is a bit variable. It’s fine when the bagpipe is being played, but you might want to turn it up when Emily speaks.

Sources:
A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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