Wired for sound: the bandora and orpharion

In the early music revival, many renaissance and baroque instruments have received their due recognition: the lute in its various forms, the viol family, early violins, recorders, guitars and keyboards, for example. Less familiar and less played are two related instruments, the bandora and orpharion. Both were strung with wire and plucked, they shared the same scalloped shape and fanned frets, and both were particularly popular in England. The deep pitch of the larger bandora made it eminently suitable as the plucked bass of the mixed consort, while the orpharion shared the tuning and repertoire of the renaissance lute and was considered an interchangeable alternative.

This article gives a brief history of both instruments, with indications of their respective repertoires, the descriptive testimonies of contemporaneous writers, some lost related instruments, and videos of both the bandora and orpharion being played.

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The pavan, the priest and the pseudonym: ‘Belle qui tiens ma vie’ and Arbeau’s ‘Orchésographie’ (1589)

Belle qui tiens ma vieBeauty who holds my life – is today one of the most well-known songs of the French renaissance. It survived for posterity only due to it being a sung dance and thereby included in the personal project of Jehan Tabourot, 16th century priest, to write a book of the social dances he remembered from his youth, complete with their choreography and music. The book was Orchésographie, published in 1589 under an anagrammatic pseudonym, Thoinot Arbeau.

This article has a brief biography of Jehan Tabourot and an explanation of the importance of Orchésographie for renaissance music and dance, followed by the beautiful words and meaning of the danced song, Belle qui tiens ma vie.

We begin with a video of the song, sung in English with renaissance lute.

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L’homme armé / The armed man: the remarkable life of a 15th century song and its contemporary resonance

armedman4L’homme arméThe 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.

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The crumhorn: a short history

presentTo 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 serial to help create an unfamiliar soundscape (Doctor Who and the Silurians, 1970). 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.

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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 beautiful Boissart mandore, part 3 of 3: Creating a new mandore inspired by the ‘Boissart’ design

mandore00It 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.

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Baroque music: a brief tour of the extravagant last period of early music

Robert Tournières, Concert, France, 1690s, showing a baroque cello, virginals, singer, violin, and French baroque lute.
Robert Tournières, Concert, France, 1690s, showing a baroque cello, virginal, singer, violin, and French baroque lute.

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).

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Music of the renaissance: a whistle-stop tour

RenaissancePeriodThe renaissance marked a turning point for European culture. Beginning in Italy in the 14th century, its influence spread across Europe, affecting all aspects of culture, including music. But it was in England that the sound of the renaissance first developed, spreading out to Burgundy, Italy, and then back to England in new forms. The invention of the printing press and the spread of literacy profoundly affected music-making, with musicians in households now able to write down music, use the new printed songbooks of composers such as John Dowland, and sing from broadside ballad sheets sold in the street. The spread of printing and literacy also affects our own knowledge of the period, with surviving instructions for dances and a wealth of music. Includes 14 active links to videos of musical examples, illustrating the text.

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The lute: a thumbnail history

LuteThe lute’s beauty of tone, musical versatility and symbolic association with heaven made it once the most popular instrument in Europe, the ‘prince’ of all instruments. From the Arabian oud to the medieval, renaissance and baroque lutes, this article briefly charts the development and evolution of this versatile, beautiful and enduring instrument.

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Greensleeves: Mythology, History and Music. Part 3 of 3: Music

The remarkable longevity of a 16th century song and tune

Left to right: Adrien le Roy, French lutenist, one composer of passamezzo antico; William Kimber, English morris dancer and concertina player, one player of Bacca Pipes; Ralph Vaughan Williams, composer of Fantasia on Greensleeves; John Coltrane, jazz saxophonist, and Nomansland, trance dance band, both performers of Greensleeves.
Left to right: Adrien le Roy, French lutenist, one composer of a passamezzo antico; William Kimber, English morris dancer and concertina player, one player of Bacca Pipes; Ralph Vaughan Williams, composer of Fantasia on Greensleeves; John Coltrane, jazz saxophonist, and Nomansland, trance dance band, both performers of Greensleeves.

Greensleeves has captured the imagination of musicians for well over four centuries, testified by innumerous versions. This, the third of three articles about the mythology, history and music of Greensleeves, gives an audio flavour of the remarkable versatility and vitality of the melody and song, an à la carte menu to choose from. We begin with versions of the passamezzo antico and romanesca which are the foundation of Greensleeves; then advance to the song on period instruments; the Playford dance; two Greensleeves morris dances; the Christmas song; Ralph Vaughan Williams’ classical version; then a range of more modern interpretations: folk, blues, bluegrass, country, pop, rock, punk, black metal, jazz, flamenco, disco, trance, dubstep, Vietnamese ballet … and the ice cream van tune.

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Greensleeves: Mythology, History and Music. Part 2 of 3: History

The remarkable longevity of a 16th century song and tune  

One of the first sources for the tune, in lute tablature as greene sleues in MS. 408/2, an anonymous amateur anthology dated c. 1592–1603.
One of the first sources for the tune, in lute tablature as greene sleues in MS. 408/2, an anonymous amateur anthology dated c. 1592–1603. (All images, click for higher resolution.)

Greensleeves is well over four centuries old and is, even now, still going strong. This is a song first published in 1580, its tune used for a wide variety of other 16th and 17th century broadside ballads; used as the basis for virtuoso lute playing; that William Shakespeare used for a sophisticated joke; a tune that John Playford published for dancing to; that morris dancers still jig and kick bottoms to; that has become a Christmas favourite; and that pop singers continue to sing. This is the second of three articles, looking at the song’s mythology, its true history, and video examples of its musical transformations.

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Greensleeves: Mythology, History and Music. Part 1 of 3: Mythology

The remarkable longevity of a 16th century song and tune

101_JanePALMERGreensleeves, composed anonymously in 1580, is a song which has been a magnet for fanciful claims. This article examines the claims that Henry VIII wrote it for Anne Boleyn; that Lady Greensleeves was a loose woman or a prostitute; and that the song has Irish origins. This is the first of three articles, looking at the song’s mythology; its true history; and video examples of its musical transformations.

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The beautiful Boissart mandore, part 2 of 3: Observations on the Boissart mandore

The history of a stunning 17th(?) century instrument, observations on its lutherie, and questions over its dating.

In part 1 we looked at the pre-history of the renaissance mandore, tracing its family history in the mediaeval oud, lute and gittern. Now we examine one exquisite instrument, the Boissart mandore in the V&A, decoding its remarkable carvings and reconstructing its biography from the visible evidence of the changes it has been through. As far as I know, this is the first critical examination of the life of the Boissart mandore.

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All photographs by Ian Pittaway, included courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. On all pictures, click for higher resolution view.

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The beautiful Boissart mandore, part 1 of 3: The pre-history of the mandore

The history of a stunning 17th(?) century instrument, observations on its lutherie, and questions over its dating.

The Boissart mandore, dated by the V&A to 1640. (As with all pictures, click for higher resolution view.)
The Boissart mandore, dated by the V&A to 1640. Photograph by Ian Pittaway, included courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. (All pictures, click for higher resolution view.)

In the family of renaissance plucked instruments, the mandore is the result of a union between two mediaeval string families: the oud and the lute on one side, and the gittern on the other. The resulting offspring is a small instrument with a musically significant (but alas now largely unplayed) surviving repertoire. Some actual instruments survive, and there is no doubt that the most exquisite of these is the beautiful Boissart mandore in the Victoria and Albert Museum. This article and two to follow will: (1) trace the pre-history of the mandore; (2) examine the V&A’s beautiful Boissart mandore and attempt to reconstruct its personal history for, as far as I know, the first time; (3) describe the making of a new mandore based on the Boissart model.

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