Sounds of a Lost World

You see some decidedly odd-looking musical instruments at early music concerts. What are they? What do they sound like? And why did some of them survive while others vanished? John Bryan, leader of the early music group the Rose Consort of Viols, has the answers.

‘Can you tell us something about the instruments?’ is nearly always the first question to be asked of early music ensembles at their concerts. Although it has to be admitted that the bulk of medieval and renaissance music which has survived is vocal, it is clearly a fascination for the often curious shapes and sounds of early instruments themselves which has brought many listeners into contact with the lost worlds of minstrels, court musicians and waits (musicians employed by towns rather than households or courts).

The business of resuscitating lost instrumental sounds is fraught with difficulties but has given modern listeners a wide range of possible ‘answers’, which in itself makes comparing recordings an intriguing aural experience. The further back in time you go, the fewer surviving instruments there are, and many of those now in museums have been adapted to newer musical tastes over the years, or crucial bits may be missing: the reeds from renaissance wind instruments, the strings and bridges from lutes and viols, making authentic reconstruction impossible. Other sources of information are sculptures and paintings, some more reliable than others, and literary descriptions of instruments, which again can often be interpreted in widely differing ways. We can also look at instruments from ‘folk’ cultures, especially from around the Mediterranean, to gain insight into the sounds and playing styles of European medieval instruments. By combining all these pieces of information we can assemble a fairly convincing picture of the lost worlds of instrumental sounds.

Stringed instruments have always been highly regarded for their subtlety and flexibility, both in classical Greece (Orpheus with his lute) and in biblical times (King David and his harp). The lute has a long ancestry, probably arriving in Europe at the time of the Crusades from the near East. Some early music groups make use of its present day Egyptian cousin, the ud, in performing medieval dance music. The lute’s gut strings and its amply curving, half-pear body shape, and the early guitar itself, which in the renaissance usually had only 4 or 5 strings, and was much smaller (and therefore higher-pitched) than its classical counterpart. Of the myriad varieties of plucked string instruments available to early musicians, the harp’s comparatively long strings made it useful for accompanying singers, while the metal-strung cittern and bandora were popular in theatres and more noisy environments.

How the viol established itself
Many medieval bowed strings had flat bridges, which enabled the performer to play a melody on one string while bowing drone accompaniments on the others. These vielles and rebecs had a characteristically reedy, nasal tone, which is also typical of the hurdy-gurdy, in which the bow is replaced by a wheel activated by a handle, while the strings are stopped by a series of tangents or levers.

But by 1500 musicians were seeking a stringed instrument capable of sustaining an individual line in the contrapuntal style then all the rage, and viol was born, in a variety of sizes comparable with those of treble, tenor and bass voices. All were played down between the players’ knees, and bowed ‘underhand’ (like some continental double basses) allowing the right hand to articulate precisely with direct contact between finger and bow-hair. The viols were not ancestors of the modern violin family: both sets of instruments grew up simultaneously, the violins’ brighter tone making them more suitable for dance and ceremonial music, while the viols concentrated on chamber music. There is a wonderful English repertory ‘apt for Voyces and Violls’, as well as a huge body of purely instrumental fantasias.

Some strange wind instruments
Wind instruments also came into prominence in the sixteenth century, with families of various sized recorders, transverse flutes, and many different double-reeds such as the crumhorn with its hockey-stick curved body. These brought into ‘art’ music the rustic tone of the bagpipe whose history goes far back into medieval times.

The most important double-reed was the shawm, predecessor of the oboe, but with a trumpet-like flared bell which made it ideally suited for outdoor music and the noisy dance floor. In the dance band the shawm often played with two or more sackbuts (renaissance trombones). They have a slightly narrower bore and miss the big bell of the modern trombone, resulting in a smaller, more vocal sound, which blends superbly with the cornett. This is a curious hybrid, having a small cup mouthpiece allied to a gently curving body and recorder-like finger holes. It was the most prestigious renaissance wind instrument, capable of highly virtuosic playing and able to sound surprisingly like a treble voice.

With such a variegated palette of instrumental colours available, we might wonder why so many instruments died out. Some, like the sackbut, slowly evolved into their modern successors. Others, such as the guitar and shawm, had more radical refits, but the least flexible in range or volume control (e.g. the crumhorn) could not adapt and survive. Evolutionary theory is a double-edged sword: we now realise that the lost sounds of the past were certainly not inferior to their modern replacements, but simply unsuited to new styles of music. On hearing their sounds we should be delighted not only at their variety, but at their appropriateness for the music they played.

Classic CD magazine, 1994

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