The ‘plucked giga’: a medieval musical mystery

Two ‘plucked gigas’ in Rylands Beatus Latin MS 8, late 12th or early 13th century.

It wasn’t until the second half of the 1970s that previous confusion about medieval plucked instruments was cleared up and clarified. Until then, the gittern was confused with both the citole and the mandora, for example, and the cetra was still not known to exist at all. On this journey of musical and historical discovery, there are still some instruments that have yet to be identified. One is seen in 12th–14th century manuscripts and in a carving in Lincoln Cathedral. For the purpose of this feature, it is called the ‘plucked giga’. This article sets out the little that is known and appeals for any leads that may help in its identification.  

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Music for a plague: an interview with Falsobordone

Falsobordone are a Swedish early music duo consisting of Erik Ask-Upmark (harp, bagpipes, organetto, symphony, trumpet, shawm, recorders, flute, rauschpfeife, citole, bells, voice) and Anna Rynefors (rebec, bagpipes, percussion, voice). Their latest album, 1350, is a beautifully presented collection of medieval music based around the 14th century bubonic plague or Black Death or, as it was then known, the pestilence. After well over a year of the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions, there are clear thematic links with the present.

When Erik asked me if I’d like to review their very enjoyable, superbly produced album, I wanted to do something better. A review is one just person’s opinion, and it always boils down in essence to a single point: I like it or I don’t like it. Since making an album is a creative, collaborative process, surely discussing an album merits a similar creative and collaborative process, and the musicians who did all the hard work deserve a right of reply. So I asked Erik and Anna for an interview, and was delighted when they agreed.

In June 2021 we discussed: their musical origins in early music and folk music and how that affects their playing now; the conception of 1350 as an album and a multi-media performance; how historical music knowledge is both essential and problematic; and the importance of engaging with a modern audience, giving them a whole experience not just of medieval music but of the times in which it arose.

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“the verray develes officeres”: minstrels and the medieval church

In the middle ages, minstrels were regularly accused by church commentators of vanity, idleness, inflaming carnal desire, lechery, and leading others into vice. In the 12th century, Bishop of Chartres John of Salisbury expressed the view that all minstrels should be exterminated. Because of this reputation, the church wanted to ensure that its most sacred music was different in kind to minstrel music, and restated several times that only the voice and organ were allowed in the liturgy, not instruments of minstrelsy. Still some writers complained bitterly of secular styles of music corrupting singers’ voices in sacred chant.

How can we account for the contradiction between clergy’s invectives against minstrels and the innumerable quantity of medieval and renaissance paintings in which gitterns, shawms, harps, fiddles, lutes – the instruments of minstrels – are shown in worship of the Virgin Mary and in praise of the infant Jesus? How can we reconcile the critiques of clerics against minstrels with their regular appearance in religious manuscripts, their likenesses carved in churches, and their employment by the church? This article seeks answers through the evidence of medieval Christian moralists; church councils; music treatises; religious paintings; records of church ceremonies; and the relationship of the church with organised minstrelsy.

Images from the Luttrell Psalter, 1325-1340 (BL Add MS 42130). Top row, left to right: church singers (f. 171v); bishop (f. 31r); pilgrim (f. 32r); nun (f. 51v). This row, left to right, players of: harp (f. 174v); pipe and tabor (f. 164v); organistrum, also called the symphony (f. 176r); portative organ (f. 176r).

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Jheronimus Bosch and the music of hell. Part 3/3: Music and musicians in the complete works of Bosch

In Part 1, we explored the modern myth that the ‘music’ on the backside of a sinner in Jheronimus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights is real and playable. We saw that it is not Gregorian notation, as is repeatedly claimed, but a faux and unreadable imitation of Strichnotation. As the present article will show, Bosch painted equally faux and unreadable Strichnotation in two more paintings and one drawing.   

In Part 2, we surveyed all the musical imagery and the overall schema of The Garden of Earthly Delights, exploring historical sources for the meaning of each musician punished in hell, their instruments used as torture devices against them.    

That leads us to the central question of this third and final article on Bosch’s relationship with music. Here we survey the rest of Bosch’s entire works, his paintings and drawings, for music and musicians. Every musical image is presented with a brief description and explanation, referencing literature Bosch would have known. The sum total of Bosch’s musical depictions raises the question: What was the nature of his beliefs that he imagined all musicians as wicked sinners and monstrous creatures who are eternally punished in hell? We search for answers in his locality, his biography, and the clues he left with his brush.   

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Jheronimus Bosch and the music of hell. Part 2/3: The Garden of Earthly Delights

In part 1, we examined the repeated claim that the hell panel of Jheronimus Bosch’s painting of 1495–1505, The Garden of Earthly Delights, includes readable Gregorian notation painted on a sinner’s bottom, and provided evidence that this is not the case.

In part 2 we explore the message about music in the whole triptych. We will see Bosch’s preaching with paint, the symbolism of sin in his Garden, featuring Lucifer’s lutes, hell’s hurdy gurdy, Beelzebub’s bray harp, Diabolus’ drum, a recorder in the rectum, Satan’s shawm, a terrifying trumpet and triangle, a brazen bagpipe, and the unplayable music on the sinner’s bottom and in the book he is lying on.

This article makes reference to literature from Bosch’s Netherlands and beyond, from his lifetime and before, to explore the rich meaning of his imagery: the nakedness of his figures, a massive mussel, oversize strawberries, a bird-man on a commode devouring sinners, demonic serpents, giant instruments of music made into instruments of torture for musical sinners, and the choir of hell.

Finally, in part 3 we seek the answer to the question posed by this painting and by all of Bosch’s work: what did Bosch have against music, and against musicians?

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Jheronimus Bosch and the music of hell. Part 1/3: The modern myth of Bosch’s butt music

In recent years, a story about a detail in Jheronimus Bosch’s painting of 1495–1505, The Garden of Earthly Delights, has been repeatedly told: that a sinner on the hell panel of the triptych has real music painted on his bottom, only recently discovered. Periodically, articles and videos reappear on social media with a performance of the same attempt to make sense of it, created by Amelia Hamrick in 2014. Is this oft-repeated butt music credible?

To put Bosch’s painting in its historical context, a previous article, Performable music in medieval and renaissance art, examined the role of both faux music notation and playable music in medieval and renaissance art. This article explains why the paint on the sinner’s bottom does not represent real music, and why attempts to interpret the ‘music’ are based on erroneous assumptions and misunderstandings. A second article, available here, explains the rich symbolism of The Garden, including the meaning of musicians tortured by their own instruments, silenced by the demons of hell. A third and final article, available here, surveys the musical symbolism in all Bosch’s works, and asks why his depictions of music are always grotesque, associated with sin, punishment and hell.

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Performable music in medieval and renaissance art

In the medieval and renaissance periods there were plentiful images of musical instruments and singers in manuscripts, paintings and sculpture, and many manuscripts of music notation survive from those eras. There are rare instances which bring these two elements together: an artist’s image of singers and musicians in which an actual piece of music is shown, readable and performable by the viewer.

That is the subject of this article, sifting out the faux music from the real, addressing questions of message, symbolism and meaning, asking why artists chose to include performable music, and how this painted sound adds to the communication of the artist and the significance of the art.  

This article ranges from face-pulling singing monks to Marian antiphons, from a lute-playing Mary Magdalene to a unique survival of Gloria notation, from Jheronimus Bosch’s egg to lustful monks, with paintings, soundfiles and video examples of music notation in art. It can be read stand-alone, or as a precursor to three essays about music in the art of Jheronimus Bosch, the first of which focusses on the alleged ‘butt music’ in Bosch’s painting of 1495–1505, The Garden of Earthly Delights, available to read here.

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Tarleton’s Resurrection. Part 4/4: Tributes to Tarleton – with a musical discovery from the 16th century

This is the last of four articles about the life and music of Elizabethan clown, Richard Tarleton. Having examined the historical context of clowning; described his comic and serious stage roles and plays; and gathered the evidence for his pipe and tabor style and modern claims that he was a ballad writer; this final article surveys the way Tarleton was remembered posthumously, on the stage, in song, in books, in rhetoric, and in the commercial use of his famous image.   

In particular, this article investigates a broadside tribute to Tarleton registered 23 days after his death, A pretie new ballad, intituled willie and peggie. This essay includes a video performance of the ballad, reuniting its words and music after 400 years.

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Tarleton’s Resurrection. Part 3/4: Richard Tarleton the musician and broadside writer

Elizabethan actor and comedian Richard Tarleton is remembered most for his quick-witted and clever quips, his physical comedy, and for the image of him playing pipe and tabor. Despite the fact that this famous representation shows him as a musician, Tarleton the musician has remained a neglected subject in both historical and modern accounts.

This article aims to put that right, with a description of Tarleton’s taboring; an investigation into the meaning of the surviving tune that bears his name, called both Tarletons jigg and Tarletons Willy; an understanding of his theatrical role as the creator of extempore comedy songs; and a survey of the evidence for Tarleton as a composer of ballads, particularly the comedic genre known as the medley.

This is the third of four articles about the life and music of Elizabethan clown, Richard Tarleton. The final article will examine posthumous tributes, including the performance of a 16th century ballad about him, its words and music newly reunited after 400 years. 

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Tarleton’s Resurrection. Part 2/4: Tarleton the player and playwright

In the first of four articles about Elizabethan actor, comedian and musician Richard Tarleton, we saw that he played the fool as a member of the royal acting troupe, The Queen’s Players, who performed at court and on tour, and that Tarleton’s stage costume was not the stereotypical jester with ass ears, bells and baubles, but a country clown with pipe and tabor, russet coat, slops and startups.

In this second article, we explore the 16th and 17th century accounts of Tarleton’s stage clowning, his extempore physical and verbal wit which delighted mass audiences. So well-loved was his foolery that in contemporaneous and posthumous accounts it overshadowed the pathos of his serious acting, also accounted for here. Similarly neglected in modern accounts is Tarleton the serious and successful playwright, writing in the tradition of the morality play, so this article includes an evidenced reconstruction of one of his lost scripts, The Secound parte of the Seven Deadlie Sinns.

A third article explores Richard Tarleton the musician, and the fourth article reunites, for the first time in 400 years, the words and music of a 16th century ballad written in posthumous tribute.

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Tarleton’s Resurrection. Part 1/4: Tarleton’s place in the history of fools, clowns and jesters

Richard Tarleton – fool, actor, playwright, poet, musician and legend – was the foremost stage clown of his age, celebrated in his own lifetime and well beyond. As an actor, he was a star of the stage when permanent theatre buildings were new, a fool or comedian of great physical and verbal wit, a serious player of affecting pathos, and a member of Queen Elizabeth I’s own acting company, The Queen’s Players. As a successful playwright, he wrote in the tradition of morality plays. As a poet and essayist, he wrote on the theme of natural disasters and divine displeasure. As a musician, he was a player of pipe and tabor and a creator of extempore comedy songs. As a legend, much-loved and much-missed after his sudden death, he was a byword for exemplary wit, his name used to sell literature for decades, his image still used and recognised two centuries later.   

This is the first of four articles trawling 16th and 17th century sources to build up a picture of the man. This introductory article begins with a short history of fools in their three types – natural, ungodly, and artificial – to put Tarleton in his historical context; clarifies what contemporaneous writers meant when they described him as a jester; then describes his ‘country fool’ clown’s costume and notable physical appearance. Two neglected topics comprise the second and third articles. Part 2: Tarleton the player and playwright considers his range as a comic and serious actor and his style as a playwight, with an evidenced reconstruction of his lost play, The Secound parte of the Seven Deadlie Sinns. Part 3: Richard Tarleton the musician and broadside writer examines his style as a taborer; describes Tarleton as a comedic creator of extempore songs from themes called out by the audience; and surveys the evidence for Tarleton as a composer of ballads. Part 4: Tributes to Tarleton – with a musical discovery from the 16th century summarises the broadside ballads, books and plays which praised Tarleton and used his persona after his premature death. In particular, a musical biography of Richard Tarleton, A pretie new ballad, intituled willie and peggie, has its words and music reunited after 400 years of separation in a featured video performance.

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The guitar: a brief history from the renaissance to the modern day

A French 4 course renaissance guitar from c. 1570. The origins of the guitar are much-discussed and much-disputed, and some pretty wild and unsubstantiated claims are made for its heritage, based on vaguely guitary-looking instruments in medieval and even pre-medieval iconography, about which we often know little or nothing beyond an indistinguishable drawing, painting or carving; or based on instruments which have guitary-sounding names. This article is an attempt to slice through the fog with a brief history of the instrument, charting its development from the renaissance, through the baroque period to the modern day, based only on what can be claimed with evidence. The article is illustrated with pictures, videos and sound recordings, beginning with a short video of guitar history.

This is an expanded version of an article originally published in 2015, with a new video.

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Sumer is icumen in / Perspice Christicola: silencing the cuckoo

Cuckoo, cuckoo, well sing you, cuckoo …
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well sing you, cuckoo …

Sumer is icumen in is the earliest surviving complete English secular song, sung in this article’s video with all six voices indicated in the manuscript, Harley 978, circa 1250. Sumer and another song, Perspice Christicola, are laid out on the page to the same melody. It seems an unlikely coupling: 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 the captives of sin and crown them in heaven.

A later scribe returned to the page to add rhythm to the originally non-mensural (not indicating rhythm) notation and, in doing so, also changed the pitches of some notes. The changed notes are strategic, removing the musical cuckoo call, and this scribal interference suggests that the Middle English secular Sumer is icumen in and the Latin devotional Perspice Christicola made an uneasy pair. The version of Sumer recorded for this article restores the originally-written pitches, with the effect of reinstating the cascading cuckoo call, a central musical effect erased in the amended notes usually sung.

This is a revised version of an article originally published in February 2016.

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Coventry Carol: the power of a song

Angelo Visconti, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1860-1861, Italy.
Angelo Visconti, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1860-1861, Italy.

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. The mystery plays 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.

This article was first published on 19th July 2015, now updated to include an interview with the author, Ian Pittaway, in an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music, and his performance of the song for the programme with Andy Casserley in the early music duo, The Night Watch. A video of the recording of the song for Soul Music is included in this article. The Coventry Carol edition of Soul Music was broadcast on Christmas Day 2019.

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The first dancing master’s manual: Domenico da Piacenza and the art of dance

Early music and dance enthusiasts will be familiar with the work of authors such as John Playford, who published the series of dance instruction books called The (English) Dancing Master from 1651 onwards, and with Jehan Tabourot, who in 1588 wrote instructions for the dances of his youth under the anagrammatic pen name, Thoinot Arbeau, published in France as Orchésographie in 1589. There is evidence of earlier dancing masters – dance instructors – from the medieval period, but the first to write surviving choreography were in the renaissance of 15th century Italy, and the earliest of these was Domenico da Piacenza (c. 1390/1400–1476/7). This article briefly outlines Domenico’s dance manual of c. 1450, the social context of his dances, his wide influence, and some ways in which his choreography and music notation can be interpreted using one example, La giloxia (The jealousy), a video of which begins this article.    

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Foweles in þe frith (birds in the wood): mystery and beauty in a 13th century song

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 1156 B, folio 4r, 15th century. (As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

The 13th century song, Foweles in þe frith, is among the earliest that survive in the English language. The manuscript has two complete polyphonic voices but only one verse, and so the meaning of its nature imagery and lament for the “beste of bon and blod” has been much debated.

This article places Foweles in þe frith in the context of other surviving secular songs in English; then decodes and deciphers its words and debates its various interpretations: is it a lover’s lament; sorrow for a lost animal; or a song of religious contemplation?

The melody was written by the scribe in notation usually presumed to be non-mensural (non-rhythmic). I argue that the music shows rhythm, clearly written on the page according to medieval musical principles, performed in the video which begins the article.

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Bird on a briar (bryd one brere): constructing the missing voice

bryd one brerebird on a briar – is the earliest surviving English secular love song with a complete lyric, dated c. 1290–1320. The music was written on the back of a papal bull with a poor pen, so interpreting the notation is problematic in parts. A previous article (available here) addressed interpretation of the music and the poetic meaning of the words.

This article addresses a second problem of interpretation: the song was clearly intended for two voices, but the primary voice is missing, leaving us only with the second voice, the polyphonic accompaniment. Using the principles of medieval English polyphony, author Ian Pittaway has constructed three possible versions of the lead voice, based on the gymel, contrary motion, and the mixolydian mode. While we cannot know if any one of these constructions was the intention of the composer, the exercise serves as an illustration of the principles of English polyphony at the turn of the 14th century and an attempt to sing the song in the originally intended manner.

All three two-voice versions of bird on a briar are sung in a multi-tracked illustrative video by Ian Pittaway. In October 2019, all three versions were used in a concert performance by the early music ensemble Les Reverdies de Montréal, a video of which ends this article.

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The English estampie: interpreting a medieval dance(?) tune

One of the earliest surviving pieces of English instrumental music has survived with the 13th–14th century manuscript, Douce 139, now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. It is exciting in its musical drive and complexity, but interpretation has its problems. The scribe appears to have changed his mind partway through on several issues of notation, leaving us to make judgements about intention. The music is untitled, and is often named Estampie or English Dance in modern sources.

This article works through the puzzles in order to gain some performable answers. What is an estampie? Is the Douce 139 piece an estampie? How can the musical problems left by the scribe’s imperfect notation be reconciled? Drawing on music theorist, Johannes de Grocheio, writing in c. 1300, this article looks for solutions, with a video of one possible interpretation on citole.

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In defence of the unhistorical drama

This is an article I never thought I’d write, from a viewpoint I never thought I’d have. Being nerdy about historical music and instruments, I’ve been one of those people who have tutted and rolled my eyes in dismay when historical anomalies, inaccuracies and impossibilities appear in historical films and novels. I’ve played small parts in such films myself, playing historical music. My role as musician in one TV series marked my transformation from annoyed nerd to a more informed person about the multiple processes involved in creating such dramas, and the necessity of putting complete accuracy aside. This article explains how and why, and my realisation of the truth that everyone involved in living history is choosy about which parts we re-enact and which aspects of modernity we’d rather keep. As I’ll show, the same is necessarily true of film-makers, for more complex reasons.

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The scandalous la volta: “such a lewd and unchaste dance”

La volta (or volte or volt or, in England, lavolta) was reputedly the favourite dance of Queen Elizabeth I, performed by couples with much leaping, lifting and turning. The dance, a variation of the galliard, was considered scandalous by the moralists of the day. Just as today we hear talk of ‘gateway drugs’ leading to harder and more destructive substances, la volta was considered a ‘gateway dance’, leading to more destructive vices. This article describes the key point of the choreography, discusses the moral opprobium it attracted, and weighs up the evidence for the Queen dancing this “lewd and unchaste dance”.

We begin with a performance of two voltas by The Night Watch.

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