Listeners to BBC Radio 4’s long-running antidote to panel games, I’m sorry I haven’t a clue, will be familiar with the round, one song to the tune of another. The joke is predicated on us being used to thinking ‘These are the words and this is the tune and they belong together’. The uniting of these separated elements is made funnier by an extreme contrast of styles: the words of Girlfriend In A Coma to the tune of Tiptoe Through The Tulips; the words of A Whiter Shade of Pale to the tune of The Muppet Show; the words of Ugly Duckling to the tune of Harry Nilsson’s Without You.
The stock-in-trade of the show is satire, the programme itself being a satire of panel games. Clue has been going since 1972, chaired for nearly all of that time by late jazz trumpeter, Humphrey Lyttelton, known to cast and listeners as Humph. What Humph and the rest of the panel may not have known is that the principle of one song to the tune of another, with sometimes wildly contrasting words fitted to the same tune, was widely used in early music, the earliest evidence for which stretches back 800 years before even Humph was on air. This article, with illustrative music videos, traces the history of the practice from 16th and 17th century broadside ballads back to medieval carols, to songs with both secular and religious sets of words, and to the iconoclastic musical comedy of the goliards.
L’homme armé – The armed man – has but one verse and a fabulous melody. It is like a door ajar, inviting us into a menacing world: “Everywhere it has been proclaimed that each man shall arm himself with a coat of iron mail. The armed man should be feared.” We don’t know its origin or who composed it, only that it emerged in the middle of the 15th century as a secular song in the French language. It enjoyed huge popularity across Europe among composers of masses, who incorporated its melody as a cantus firmus. Why did this single verse about fearing the armed man have such unprecedented resonance? The answer is in a disastrous military defeat in 1453 which cut to the very heart of renaissance cultural identity, a mirror to events and issues which strike at the core of our international identity today.
With a video of the melody arranged for lute, this article outlines the history and meaning of the song from the 15th century until the present day, including the roles of Sultan Mehmet II, Pope Pius II, and the sadly all-too-real Dracula, Vlad the Impaler.
This may seem like surprising material. Indeed, this article started out as a bit of silliness based on a few farty fragments, but soon became a serious study when I uncovered the surprising historical meanings behind flatulence in the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods. A 17th century music society sang gleefully about it (for which there is a music video in this article); Thomas D’Urfey published several songs about it; and a buck does it (possibly) in the earliest surviving piece of English secular polyphony. Plus there’s Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Edward de Vere’s bottom burp in front of Queen Elizabeth, and farting musical marginalia. So rest your cheeks, wind down, and let rip with a brief history of farting.
To modern ears, the most distinctive musical wind sound of the renaissance is the crumhorn, the J shaped wind cap instrument of the 15th–17th centuries. So unusual is its sound today that it was used in a Dr. Who series to help create an unfamiliar soundscape (Doctor Who and the Silurians, 1970, if you’re curious). In the renaissance, however, it was associated with the royal court, with ceremonial occasions and religious worship. This article briefly traces its history, and its perhaps surprising link with the bagpipes. With three accompanying videos: a crumhorn / lute pairing; the sound of the crumhorn’s probable predecessor, the bladder pipe; and a pavan played by a crumhorn consort.
The early music world has been stunned recently by a controversial new find, a single previously unknown lute duet in poor handwriting. It is the only piece of music in what is otherwise an Elizabethan commonplace or household book consisting mainly of lists of building materials. This article gives a broad outline of what the manuscript tells us about the remarkable Robert Mason, a man ahead of his time. At the foot of the article is a video reconstruction of his only surviving piece of music, a lute duet bearing his name. This is being released a day ahead of my talk to the Association of Professional Renaissance Instrument Luthiers at the Festival Of Organological Lutherie.
Surrounded by music, William Shakespeare used it to create moments of comedy and light relief; tension and menace; tragedy and tenderness. He incorporated songs about fortune and fairies, love and loss, going mad and growing up; together with jigs, masques and Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite dance. Yet in today’s productions, the songs he included, clearly indicated by “sing” in the script, are often said as if they were spoken verse, or set to a new tune when the historical melody is there to be sung. This short article gives a little background to a select few of Shakespeare’s songs and tunes to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death in 1616. This article includes videos of It was a lover and his lass; Holde thy peace / Three merry men; and When that I was and a little tiny boy; and a link to tickets for From Bard To Verse, performed by early music duo, The Night Watch.
It seems like an unlikely coupling, two songs written in a 13th century manuscript to the same music: one about the sights and sounds of summer, with its singing cuckoo, growing seeds, bleating ewe and farting buck; the other a devotional song, with God sending Christ to destruction in order to free captives and crown them in heaven. Do the Middle English Sumer is icumen in and the Latin Perspice Christicola really belong together? Evidence of scribal interference suggests they make an uneasy pair.
The trees they do grow high is an originally Scottish ballad about an arranged child marriage, also known as The trees they grow so high, My bonny lad is young but he’s growing, Long a-Growing, Daily Growing, Still Growing, The Bonny Boy, and Lady Mary Ann. The song was very popular in the oral tradition in Scotland, England, Ireland, and the U.S.A. from the 18th to the 20th century. Questions about its true age (medieval?), the basis of its story (based on an actual marriage?) and its original author (Robert Burns?) have attracted conjectural claims. This article investigates the shifting narrative of the story over its lifetime and sifts the mere claims from the substantiated evidence.
Mirie it is while sumer ilast, dated to the first half of the 13th century, is the earliest surviving secular song in the English language, preserved only by the good luck of being written on a piece of paper kept with an unrelated book. We have the music and a single verse. This may be a fragment, but its wonderful melody and poignant lyric embody in microcosm the medieval struggle to get through the winter, nature’s most cruel and barren season.
This article examines the original manuscript, showing that the now-standard version of the song performed by early music revival players is not a true representation of the text. With a translation of the Middle English words into modern English, a short survey of the social background, a step by step reconstruction of the music, and a video with medieval harp accompaniment of the reconstructed song.
The Lyke-Wake Dirge, with its dark, mysterious imagery and its brooding melody, is known to singers of traditional songs through its resurrection in the repertoire of folk trio The Young Tradition in the 1960s, and its subsequent recording by The Pentangle and others. What many of its performers may not realise is that its history can be reliably traced to Elizabethan Yorkshire, with a hint from Geoffrey Chaucer that its origins may be earlier. This article uses direct testimony from the 16th and 17th century to explore its meaning, its perilous and punishing “Whinny-moor”, “Brig o’ Dread”, and “Purgatory fire”; and discovers the surprising origin of its doleful dorian melody.
A mention of the violin today is likely to conjure up images of a classical, orchestral, or jazz musician, whereas the word fiddle is more likely to suggest a traditional or folk musician, even though they’re essentially the same instrument, set up differently to suit different styles of playing. This class-based relegation of the term fiddle was not always so. Centuries before the creation of either the violin or the viola da gamba it eventually supplanted, there was the medieval fiddle, also known by its French name, the vielle. This brief introduction demonstrates that the playing style and sound of the medieval fiddle had more in common with the hurdy gurdy and the crwth (bowed lyre) than the modern violin. Includes illustrations and video examples.
This is one of two editions of this article, being a short introduction to the vielle, intended for the general reader. There is a longer version, The mysteries of the medieval fiddle: lifting the veil on the vielle, which has a detailed discussion of the different ways in which we can make sense of historical fiddle tunings and, in the light of that, a closely argued case for the relationship between the vielle and the crwth.
The vielle or medieval fiddle was the most popular instrument in its heyday for religious and secular song accompaniment. It first appeared in western Europe in the 11th century and continued to be played until the middle of the 16th century, flourishing in the 12th and 13th centuries. There is a wealth of vielle iconography, which can tell us a great deal about the variety of its form and the context of its use. There is a medieval source for its tuning, Jerome of Moravia in the 13th century, who gives 3 tunings, leaving us with some puzzles as to what exactly they mean in practice. Our only renaissance tuning source is Johannes Tinctoris in the 15th century, which isn’t entirely clear in its meaning.
This article provides a detailed discussion of the different ways in which we can make sense of historical fiddle tunings and, in the light of that, a closely argued case for the relationship between the vielle and the crwth or bowed lyre, demonstrating that they were identical in style, having more in common with the hurdy gurdy family than modern bowed strings.
The rebec is a medieval gut-strung bowed instrument with 3 strings, its body carved from a solid piece of wood. Its sound has a nasal quality, unlike the more full-sounding modern violin, which shares some of the rebec’s characteristics: strings played with a bow, a fretless neck, a curved bridge to allow strings to be bowed singly, and a soundboard carved to have a gentle upward curve. Like so many medieval musical instruments, the origins of the rebec are in Arabia and north Africa, the region of so much cultural exchange, trade and crusading in the middle ages. Perhaps surprisingly, it was still being played beyond the renaissance and to the end of the baroque period in western Europe, by now having fallen from grace from a regal courtly instrument to one of lowly street entertainment. In south-east Europe, the rebec continues to be played to this day, playing vigorous and exciting traditional music.
It is difficult to describe the joy to be had from a private viewing of the beautiful and tiny mandore in the Victoria & Albert Museum. The instrument, repaired in 1640 by the mysterious Monsieur Boissart and probably dated to c. 1570, is exquisite. You can view photographs and read my observations about it in the second of these three articles. The first article traces the history and pre-history of the mandore, with its origins in the lute and gittern familes. This, the third and final article, is a record of the design and making of a new mandore based on, but not a replica of, the V&A’s instrument. The affable and ever-accommodating maker was Paul Baker; the delighted and very lucky player is Ian Pittaway, the author of this piece. This was to be a new journey for us both: me never having played a mandore, Paul never having made one. Includes a video of the completed mandore playing 3 pieces from the John Skene mandore book of 1625-1635, accompanied by photographs of its construction.
There is something quite enchanting about the silvery sound of the psaltery. Its name probably originates in religious use, as an accompaniment to singing songs from the psalms, known as psalmody and sung from a psalter, thus the psaltery. The word is from the Old English psealm or salm and Old French psaume or saume, derived from Church Latin psalmus, which itself comes ultimately from the Greek psalmos, a song sung to a harp, and psallein, to pluck on a stringed instrument. Appearing in Europe from the 11th century, the psaltery’s wire strings rang out in religious and secular contexts until around 1500, with a little evidence of a pocket of survival for a few decades after that. Its regular appearance in manuscript iconography, church iconography and in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are evidence of its wide use and appeal. Its influence and evolution is surprisingly widespread, giving rise to the hammer dulcimer, the harpsichord family and ultimately the piano.
Putting aside the notion of being ‘historically authentic’ but embracing the idea of being ‘historically informed’, the aim is to arrive at a performable and historically justifiable arrangement of the problematic song, bryd one brere, from c. 1290–1320. This is the oldest surviving secular love song in the English language and so it is early music gold-dust, but it does have some severe holes: it is for two voices, but the second voice is missing; and some of the roughly-written notation is difficult to decipher. What follows is not the only possible musical solution; but on this journey I’ll take you through the process step by step, so you can decide for yourself if you’re convinced. Includes a video performance on voice and bray harp.
The bray harp is not a sound modern ears are used to, and even most early music groups with harps don’t use the period instrument – yet it was the standard European harp of the late medieval, renaissance and early baroque periods, from the 15th century to the 1630s, and still used until the late 18th century in some places. The bray harp gets its name from the L shaped wooden pins at the base of the strings, positioned so the strings buzz against them as they vibrate: the effect was said to sound like a donkey’s bray. It’s an older idea than the bray harp, one shared by the oldest surviving stringed instruments, made four and a half thousand years ago.
This article traces the idea behind the bray harp, its origins and popular rise. We ask why there is so little surviving early harp music and try to come to a feasible historical answer; and along the way take in Pictish stones, illuminated Psalters, Geoffrey Chaucer, harp-playing angels, and an ape playing a rota, with a video of the harp being brayed.
Coventry Carol sings the loss of slaughtered infants in a play depicting Herod’s massacre of the innocents. These mystery plays were religious community events, telling Bible stories in the vernacular with humour and pathos, from the creation right through to judgement day. They were performed annually by the local trade or craft guilds, a tradition that began in the middle ages. They were threatened in 1548, along with the banning of the Feast of Corpus Christi that was the occasion of their performance, in a royal and ecclesiastical bid to rid England of all vestiges of Catholicism.
The play that carried Coventry Carol has only been preserved through acts of good timing and good luck, surviving the general loss of many period artefacts, royal suppression of its staging, and a devastating fire that destroyed the original document.
My first hearing of it was an act of theatre that changed my life. This was way back in 1984, but even now a shiver runs down my spine each time I think of it. The experience showed me the door to early music, a door which John Renbourn later opened; and it taught me what, at its best, a song can be.
The Arabian oud, or al ‘ud, is probably best known in the west for being the predecessor of the European lute; but it does have an independent life of its own in the history of early music, rooted in medieval cultural exchange between east and west. We know, for example, that ouds played an important part in the musical life of the royal court of Spain in the 13th century and, by extension, almost certainly Spanish musical life in general. But was the oud fretted, unfretted, or both? How did western musicians come to play an eastern instrument? And did the oud really originate in desiccated human remains?
The baroque period was a time of ornate decoration, extravagance and the rise of ever larger ensembles, giving rise to opera and the early orchestra. Dance music was as popular as ever, with the renaissance galliard giving way to the baroque sarabande, chaconne, and bourée. Dancing was briefly in trouble, banned by the Puritans, during which John Playford started a remarkable series of English dance instruction books which outlived Puritan censoriousness. Singing styles among the cultural elite were florid and declamatory, while broadside ballads for the masses continued to be sung and sold in the streets and at public hangings. And, in private, John Playford and his companions met to sing about farting.
Baroque is the final period of early music (medieval, renaissance, baroque) and this is the last of 3 articles charting them. This article includes 15 illustrative videos for the music of Robert Johnson, John Blow, Tobias Hume, Thomas Arne, John Playford, Claudio Monteverdi, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and Johann Sebastian Bach (click green links).