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 first 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.
This first article discusses the use of instruments and instrument combinations in medieval music. The illustrations in two manuscripts are used as typical representative examples: the 13th century Iberian Cantigas de Santa Maria and the 14th century English Queen Mary Psalter. The second article gives practical methods for making arrangements of medieval monophonic music according to historical principles, with an example to illustrate each method; and the third article discusses questions of style, including the performance of the non-mensural (non-rhythmic) music of the troubadours, ornamentation, and the medieval voice.
Matching instruments and music
Whereas modern music is usually written with a particular instrument in mind, in the medieval period this seems not, on the whole, to have been the case. Surviving medieval sources almost never indicate the instrument to be played, which suggests that they performed with any instrument, appropriate to the type of music and the skills of the musician. The music that was noted down as a single line melody must have been played not only on monophonic instruments such as recorder, pipe and tabor and shawm, but also on instruments capable of a second line of musical accompaniment, such as harps, gitterns, portative organs and so on, and many illustrations show musicians doing just this by, for example, showing a harpist playing with both hands. Neither monophonic nor polyphonic medieval vocal music indicates any method of instrumental accompaniment. The second article in this series of three explores the musical possibilities of accompaniment suggested by the evidence.
Above, left to right: vielle (CSM 100, Cantigas de Santa Maria E codex, Iberia, 1280-83), harp (Luttrell Psalter, BL Add. MS 42130, England, first half of the 14th century), and recorder (found in a latrine in 2005 in Tartu, Estonia, by Andres Tvauri, dated to the second half of the 14th century).
Ensemble size and instrument combinations
The iconographical and written evidence shows that secular musical performance was very often by one player. Where musicians did play in groups, they were small in number, usually 2, 3 or 4.
Instruments came broadly in two categories, loud for outside and soft for inside. Some modern commentators say that the two never mixed, and there would have been good practical reasons for this. The shawm (loud predecessor of the oboe), the long trumpet (valveless, with its decorative pommels or bosses) and nakers (small kettledrums usually hung around the waist and usually played in pairs) were designed for impressive volume outdoors, and collectively would, in theory, overpower a soft instrument such as a gittern or citole. The shawm, trumpet and nakers were new to Europe in the 11th-12th century, appropriated from the Arabian ceremonial loud band, which itself was adopted in Europe by the 13th century.
Above: A shawm (with man above covering his ears!), a trumpet and a pair of nakers, carved in the 14th century in Beverley Minster, East Riding of Yorkshire. Photographs by Ian Pittaway. (As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)
Below, left to right: flute (Codex Manesse or Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift, the most comprehensive source of Minnesang poetry, Germany, c. 1304–c. 1340), pipe and tabor (British Library Yates Thompson MS 8, France, 1302-03), gittern (Jacopo di Cione, The Coronation of the Virgin, part of the San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece, Florence, 1370-71), and rota (église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Surgères, France, 12th century).
Where we do see medieval depictions of ensembles which mix loud and soft instruments we are left with a puzzle: is this a realistic depiction, or is it meant to convey a message? For myself, I am not convinced that loud and soft instruments never mixed. The iconography shows that they did – for example, images from the Queen Mary Psalter further down the page show trumpets, loud instruments, playing with a citole, portative organ, vielle and harp, all soft instruments. The vexed question then is: do we believe the iconography? In this case, I see no reason not to. I remember seeing an early music group playing a bagpipe with 2 shawms, and the lutenist waiting to come in at the right musical point. I watched, thinking the lute would never be heard, but it was heard perfectly well, not because it can compete in terms of volume, but because of its timbre, occupying a different sonic space to the other instruments. My own performance experiences have included similar apparently unlikely combinations, with successful results, leading me to the conclusion that the musical ensembles in the Queen Mary Psalter are credible and based on life.
In modern ensemble playing we may see large numbers of diverse instruments playing together. Evidence for something similar in medieval sources is rare and inconclusive. One example is a poem by Guillaume de Machaut (1300–1377), Remède de Fortune, which lists 38 types of instruments played by a huge assembly of minstrels. (You can read the poem here. Go to lines 3963–3988 for the long list of instruments.) The poem does not make clear whether the players of harps, tabors, trumpets, nakers, portative organs, more than 10 pairs of horns, bagpipes, etc., etc., took it in turns, played consecutively in small groups, or played all together.
Two iconographical examples of larger ensembles are shown below. On the left, one of 76 illuminations in the Olomouc Bible, the earliest surviving Czech translation of the whole Bible, dated 1417 (Olomouc University Library MS III). The instruments in this scene, left to right, are nakers, vielle (medieval fiddle), oliphant (horn), triangle, koboz (fretless gittern) and bagpipes. Are we to understand this as showing an actual ensemble, or does this mean ‘here is the king surrounded by all his musicians’? Below right is folio 184v of The Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, made in Bruges, Netherlands, in c. 1497. This scene shows King David and his musicians on the 15 steps of the Temple, including pipe and tabor, triangle, shawms, trumpets, harp, lutes, bagpipe, psaltery, and portative organ. This does not appear to be a realistic combination or number of instruments and is probably not based on life, but certainty is impossible and one could use Guillaume de Machaut’s poem to argue the opposite. What is clear is that in written accounts and iconography the single player or group of 2, 3 or 4 is the norm, and large groups the exception.
The Iberian 13th century Cantigas de Santa Maria comprises 4 manuscripts. The E codex (códice de los músicos, Biblioteca de El Escorial MS B.I.2, also known as MS J.B.2) has the largest number of songs of the Cantigas manuscripts and the famous illustrations of musicians. As we see above and below, the typical depiction is a pair of the same type: 2 harps, 2 gitterns, 2 ouds, 2 transverse flutes, 2 psalteries, 2 bagpipes, 2 pipe and tabors, and so on.
Occasionally there are different types played in pairs, such as oud and rebab, or citole(?) and an unidentified plucked instrument with a skin resonating table, or soloists playing bells or portative organ, but such pairs of different instruments or solo players are in the minority in Cantigas iconography.
The problem with depictions in a manuscript such as the Cantigas is that it’s impossible to know how literally to take the images. Were the songs really meant to be played mostly by pairs of musicians with the same instrument type, or was this a stylistic representation? Should we rather believe the image for the Prologue (below), which shows a couple of paired instruments, 2 viellists playing opposite 2 citolers (and 4 people seated on the left, presumably singers)?
Or should we believe the illustration for Cantiga 1 (below), with 4 singers, 1 of them leading the others, accompanied by 2 viellists and 1 citoler? Are all alternatives true at different times for different songs, or are all depictions simply decorative? I’m more inclined to believe the illustration for Cantiga 1, as it has singers and the Cantigas are to be sung, but since all representations are highly stylised, certainty is impossible.
Oddly, though the Cantigas de Santa Maria is a book of songs, there are few depictions of singers. Besides the illustration for Cantiga 1, there are only two other Cantiga illustrations which unequivocally show a singer. In the illustration for CSM 330 (below left), a woman is accompanied by a man playing an instrument which appears to be related to the later Spanish chirimía branch of the shawm family. She plays percussion while having her mouth open, indicating singing. On the right, we see the only other Cantigas illustration which shows a vocalist: the illustration for CSM 120 depicts a Moor and a Christian playing an unidentified instrument with a skin resonating table, and the Christian is in the iconographic pose for singing.
The female singer’s percussion is tabulae, two rectangular pieces of wood in each hand, held in the hand or between the fingers in such a way that a rapid movement of the wrists and arms causes them to make contact rhythmically. Medieval iconography shows both women and men playing various types of percussion, but it appears to be particular to women that their own percussion accompanies their singing, often with no melody instrument. Two methods of playing are shown below. The Cantigas example on the left may look unlikely to a non-player, apparently preventing the tabulae from making contact by holding them together in the hand. That this is an iconographer’s inaccurate approximation would be the obvious conclusion – and wrong, as María Giménez Fernández kindly pointed out to me with this illustrative video. Dutch engraver and painter Cornelis Massijs depicted a different hand position in 1548, as we see in the middle below, accompanying a vielle à roue (hurdy gurdy) player. The tabulae shown here operate in the same way as percussive bones used, for example, in traditional Irish music, as we see in this video.
The evidence for the performance of any particular piece of music in a medieval manuscript is slight. We have both music and images of musicians in medieval manuscripts, but uniting the two, knowing what musicians may have been playing on their instruments, is impossibly elusive. So it is with the Cantigas. There are unanswerable questions about how the musical iconography relates to actual performance, and we know nothing of the performance context of the Cantigas: were they sung at court, at church, during religious festivals? The evidence is completely lacking.
There is, however, a tantalising teaser about Cantigas performance only just beyond the life of the king whose dedication and work produced it. Catalonian author Ramon Llull wrote his novel, Libre d’Evast e d’Aloma e de Blanquerna, circa 1283-85, just after the Cantigas were completed. In one of Llull’s scenes, a cleric enters a tavern and dances with the dancing, drinking, singing crowd, then he sings a song, A vós, dona verge santa Maria (To you, virgin woman holy Mary). The lyric says: “Everyone who wants to fall in love with you is given of you so strongly, I would not want anything else except your will … you are mother of love. Who does not want you cannot fall in love with anyone.” Such sentiments and expressions are typical of the troubadour-influenced religious love poetry that had become mainstream Catholicism, and which fundamentally influenced Alfonso’s Cantigas (as I explain in the first and second articles in the series about the Cantigas). The song is in the style of the Cantigas de loor, the songs of praise to the Virgin which punctuate the Cantigas every tenth song. In another scene in Llull’s book, “while a certain Cardinal was dining, there came into his court a minstrel … called ‘the Minstrel of Virtue’ … [he] sang songs which the emperor had composed in honour of Our Lady Saint Mary and of virtue, and he sounded his instruments, playing the bals [instrumental sung dances] and tunes which the emperor had made in honour of Our Lady.” Being from the time and region of Alfonso, and making reference to an emperor who composed “in honour of Our Lady”, the most obvious meaning is that the emperor is Alfonso and that “the bals and tunes” are the Cantigas de Santa Maria. There are three particularly interesting features here: this performance is not in Alfonso’s court, showing that his songs were known beyond the royal circle; the minstrel sings apparently solo and self-accompanies on unspecified instruments; and “playing the bals” suggests that some or all of the Cantigas were meant to be danced, as shown in the illustrations for CSM 119 and 120.
Ramon Llull’s account and the rarity of such stories raises an important general point about our evidence for the performance of medieval music: it is patchy and partial, and what has survived does not necessarily represent what was most numerous or culturally important, only what was written down by the literate elite. If the indication above from Libre d’Evast e d’Aloma e de Blanquerna and CSM 119 and 120 (both above) is correct, then the Cantigas may have been thought of as carols or caroles (Latin: coreae), songs that were danced, performed at public festivities and at court. For 12th and 13th century commentators, the carol was simply synonymous with northern French secular music, yet little carol music and no complete account of its dance choreography survives.
The evidence of the Queen Mary Psalter
A look at another single source will further illustrate the pleasures and problems of researching medieval instrument combinations and performance practice. The Queen Mary Psalter, c. 1310–1320, is so-called because it was in the possession of Mary I (1516–1558), Queen of England and Ireland. It may originally have been made for Queen Isabella of France (1295–1358), Queen of England, or for her husband, King Edward II (1284–1327). It has 464 remarkable bas-de-page scenes in folios 85v-318, including beautiful representations of instruments being played.
A few examples will suffice to gain the overall picture. The citole is shown paired with a vielle in 4 illustrations, and on other pages the citole is paired with a small trumpet, a psaltery, a bagpipe, or a harp. Twice the citole is shown played solo to accompany dancers, once in what appears to be a secular dance, and once the citoler plays for the Virgin Mary who leads 3 other saints in a dance. There appears to be no distinction between instruments used for religious and for secular music. The portative organ is twice shown being played alongside a double trumpet, one of those pictures showing the organist with his mouth open, the stylistic visual marker for singing, and in the iconographic pose for dancing. The largest number of musicians shown together is 4, playing trumpet, harp, vielle, and citole. Of these examples, the portative organ and trumpet pairing is perhaps surprising, but all these arrangements are musically credible, and may inform us about the mix of sounds medieval ears were used to.
General rules or laissez faire?
This short survey of representative examples shows minstrels (musical servants), angels and clergy playing the same instruments indiscriminately, and instrument types being mixed and played together at will, with no apparent schema.
One key question hangs over these and all such images. Parts of the Queen Mary Psalter are populated with mythical hybrid creatures: are the instrument combinations equally mythical and hybrid? Since the instruments are shown realistically, there is no reason to think so, but a definitive answer to the reality in principle of these musical ensembles is elusive.
Such practical questions would be answered if we knew that secular medieval musicians had general rules for instrument combinations other than the supposed separation of loud/soft indicated above, which the Queen Mary Psalter and practical experience indicates can be breached where musically plausible, or if we knew that medieval non-ecclesiastical musicians were completely laissez faire, experimenting freely. These illustrations suggest that the latter is the case. If so, then the scene is set for our own historically-informed experimentations with any instrument combinations.
There follows two further articles about performing medieval music. The second article gives practical methods for making arrangements of medieval monophonic music according to historical principles, with an example to illustrate each method; and the third article discusses questions of style, including the performance of the non-mensural (non-rhythmic) music of the troubadours, ornamentation, and the medieval voice.
Bibliography (for parts 1, 2 and 3)
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© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.