The medieval harp (3/3): performance practice

Psalter, England, c. 1225 (The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, MS G.25, folio 3v).

This is the third of three articles about the medieval harp. Having outlined harp history from the earliest evidence in Egypt to the end of the medieval period in the first article, and used medieval art and written witnesses to illustrate harp symbolism in the second, this final piece lays out the evidence for questions of harp performance.  

The basis of this article is a description by the author Thomas of the playing of a harper-hero named Horn, written c. 1170, combined with other sources to built up a picture of medieval harp practice. This includes: harp tuning as a performance; the training of musicians; the various ways in which medieval harps were tuned and the musical reasons for these tunings; harp repertoire; preludes and postludes; and medieval methods of polyphonic accompaniment.

Each of these three articles begins with a performance on medieval harp of a different French estampie from c. 1300, arranged to the historically attested performance principles set out in this article. This article begins with La quinte estampie RealThe fifth Royal estampie.   

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Performing medieval music. Part 2/3: Turning monophony into polyphony

Harp, vielle and citole in the
Peterborough Psalter, England, 1300-50.

The most fundamental question of all in playing early music today is: how can the music be played to reflect historical practice? This is the second of three articles looking at historically-informed ways of performing medieval music, aiming to be a practical guide, with plenty of musical examples and illustrations, and a bibliography for those who wish to delve further.

The first article focussed on historical instrument combinations, using the illustrations of two 13th century manuscripts as representative examples. This second article distinguishes the difference between modern harmony and medieval polyphony, and the main body of the article looks at styles of medieval accompaniment by referencing historical models. For simplicity and clarity, the same passage of music is used as the basis for exploring a variety of accompaniments. Arrangements of the first section of Cantiga de Santa Maria 10 illustrate heterophony, parallel movement, fifthing, the gymel, the importance of medieval modes, drones and drone-like accompaniments, the type of organum derided by a cleric as “minstrelish little notes”, the rota and ground bass, and the motet.

For each method, there is a sound clip of a short musical performance, composed in historically informed style by Ian Pittaway, performed by Kathryn Wheeler on recorder and vielle, and by Ian Pittaway on harp, gittern and oud. There are links to 15 illustrative videos, putting the techniques in this article into practice. Finally, the question of what to do if there isn’t a tune is addressed.

The key message of this article is: once informed, be creative.

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On the medieval fiddle: a short introduction to the vielle

WaltersMuseumW37f.20vA 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 the violin 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.  

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The mysteries of the medieval fiddle: lifting the veil on the vielle

QueenMaryPsalter.Royal2BVIIf.174The vielle or medieval fiddle was the most popular instrument in its heyday for 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, which this article attempts to resolve. Our only renaissance tuning source is Johannes Tinctoris in the 15th century, which isn’t entirely clear in its meaning.

This page 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.

There are two editions of this article. This one included detailed analysis. For an introduction for the general reader, go to On the medieval fiddle: a short introduction to the vielle.

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The Psilvery Psound of the Psaltery: a brief history

Psaltery played by a cat in a Belgian Book of Hours, c. 1470.
Psaltery played by a cat in a
Belgian Book of Hours, c. 1470.

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.

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Bird on a briar: interpreting medieval notation, with a HIP harp arrangement

bird14thcenturyThe aim of this article is to arrive at a performable and historically justifiable arrangement of the problematic song, bryd one brere, c. 1290–1320. This is the oldest surviving secular love song in the English language with a complete lyric and so it is early music gold-dust, but it does have some severe holes: it is for two voices, but one 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. I’ll also delve a little into the background of the song, arguing that it is clearly influenced by the troubadour and trouvère tradition of fin’amor – refined or perfect love. The article starts with a video performance on voice and medieval harp.

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