Cristina Alís Raurich is a historical musician and researcher who specialises in keyboards of the middle ages and early renaissance: portative organ, positive organ, clavicimbalum, and clavicytherium. Not only is Cristina a musician of consummate skill, her love for her instruments and specialism is obvious and infectious: rarely have I seen anyone play and talk about music with such transparent joy. This I discovered when we met at the second Medieval Music in the Dales, held at Bolton Castle, Wensleydale, England, in 2017, where she gave a presentation on the history of the portative organ; performed in the duo, Sonus Hyspaniae, on portative organ and percussion, with Raúl Lacilla on musa (medieval bagpipe) and frestel (medieval Pan pipe); and kindly agreed to the following interview for Early Music Muse.
Cristina performs internationally solo and with medieval music groups Magister Petrus, La Douce Semblance, Le Souvenir, Carmina Harmonica, Sonus Hyspaniae and Hamelin Consort; and gives courses and master classes on medieval music and medieval keyboards around Europe. She is assistant director and faculty member of Medieval Music Besalú, the international course on medieval music performance in Besalú, Catalonia, a teacher at the Centre International de Musiques Médiévales de Montpellier, France, and currently a doctoral student at the University of Würzburg, Germany.
In this interview, Cristina discusses how she discovered medieval keyboards; her research into the portative organ and her commissioning of the only 13th century reconstruction; its playing techniques within the framework of medieval musical styles; its performance context in the middle ages; and performance presentation to a modern audience.
This article includes three videos of Cristina playing: table organ, clavicytherium, and portative organ.
When you talk about medieval music or the portative organ, and when you play, the passion for it is so obvious. It’s wonderful to see. So why the portative organ, and why medieval music?
Everything came very naturally. Since I was a child I was fascinated by medieval history, the medieval world. In Catalonia, where I lived as a child, we have many buildings and much history available, so a wish of my brother and me as a child on our birthdays was to visit a castle or a museum, and it was mostly about medieval or ancient civilisations. This fascination was not only the music but also for the culture, everything related to this period. We absorbed it as a sponge. But I was not aware that one could study this music, so I made my whole career as a pianist. I finished my Masters, I had the typical orthodox learning on piano with the Russian piano school, going to competitions, playing with orchestras. And suddenly, while I was in The Netherlands, I met a teacher of medieval music, Corina Marti, and that’s when I went to Basel [Schola Cantorum Basiliensis] to study with her. But at that point, when I started in Basel, I realised the period I was most interested in was the hard core of medieval music. Most people think about late medieval music or renaissance, 14th, 15th and 16th century, and I always wondered about the earlier music of the middle ages. This interest brought me to different people again, this time to Dr. Mauricio Molina in Barcelona. I was introduced to him by my own brother, who had taken some courses on medieval music with him. Thanks to him, I started entering this world more. I had so many questions, I really wanted to learn about it, and the more I knew about this period, 12th-13th century, the more I wanted to play this music. That’s how I came to play this repertory.
So why the portative organ? I passed from piano to renaissance keyboards like clavisimbalum [see picture above], clavicytherium [see video below], and renaissance portative organs, and when you go backwards in time you realise the clavisimbalum and clavicytherium are late medieval instruments. If you want to go backwards then you need another instrument, maybe symphonia [or simfonie or other spellings], or other types of instrument. So then I stayed with the portative organ and then I realised I needed an instrument that was not yet built by any maker. And then came my very special instrument in 2014.
Reconstructing the medieval portative organ
Had a 13th century portative organ not been built because no one had done the research?
It hadn’t been built for several reasons. One is that the interest of most people is the late medieval ages and makers know this interest. Of course they will make what is in demand. So we start with low demand on earlier instruments. It’s not only portative organs. For instance, in the medieval music Besalú summer course, each of the teachers has done work like me with their own instrument: vielle [medieval fiddle], citole, percussion, musa [medieval bagpipe], everything. Each of the instruments needed this research, which has been recently done thanks to this course, with a lot of musicological basis, not just hypothesis, but researched as much as possible. It’s not mandatory for makers to be scholars or researchers. They will not build the instrument if they lack the information how to do it, to know the materials or the design. That means they need help, then with the knowledge they have of making, and scholars and musicians with the knowledge of sources, together it’s possible, and that’s what I did with Walter Chinaglia.
You’ve looked at a great deal of iconography, looked at the evidence from the development of the larger and static positive organ with slides to the smaller and portable portative organ with buttons. Is there contemporaneous writing about the portative organ?
We do have a lot of sources about the making of the organs. The earliest are 10th-11th-12th century. Among them we have Theophilus, De diversis artibus [On diverse arts, c. 1122], and Cuprum Purissimum [The Berne Codex] which is anonymous [11th century]. In my research I have not found the word portative in such an early period, 11th or 12th century. Probably, when they write about the organ in this period it’s any organ, it doesn’t matter if it’s small, big or medium. The earliest sources I have found until now for the portative are in the 13th century, when we find iconography for very small organs that are hung by a strap on a person who is standing, sometimes dancing, which means it has to be really portative – that’s why the name, so you can carry it.
We can just quote Theophilus. Theophilus is a cleric of the beginning of the 12th century, and he explains what the positive organ is made of: pipes; a box; slides; the conflatorium, which brings the air of the bellows to the box; and bellows.
Is a portative and a positive organ essentially the same, except in size, and with buttons on the portative and slides on the positive?
In principle the basic elements are the same, except for the keyboard that in a portative organ are buttons and in a positive, depending on the period, it will be slides or buttons. In the late medieval period and the renaissance, both may have keys instead of buttons. Probably the most outstanding difference is the possibility of moving the instrument and the way they are performed: a portative can be played by one person, one hand on the bellow and another on the keyboard, and especially it can be carried while playing, while a positive needs at least two people, one for the bellows and another for the keyboard, and can’t be carried while playing it.
For music of this period there is evidence that some harps and psalteries had a B and a Bb. What about the portative organ? I think you mentioned F# and Bb.
My instrument has Bb – Bb is obvious because you need it from very early on, and it was part of the musical scale that was used, from the Greek calculation of the musical scale by tetrachords, so Bb is there, in any case. Music has and needs this Bb in some pieces. In my case, I have chosen also to have F# because in the 13th century you find it in many sources.
The Notre Dame School used F#, yes. [The Notre Dame School of polyphony were composers at or around the Parisian cathedral of that name from 1160 to c. 1250.]
And that is very natural and consequent: if you want to play repertory, you need to have the notes of that repertory. If I would need an instrument for the 14th century, maybe I would check for the notes, in order to meet other kinds of aesthetic needs.
Are the Bb and F# part of the run of buttons or are they offset?
Exactly – they are offset, and you can see that in the iconography.
Once your instrument was made, did you make any discoveries that you didn’t expect?
I was surprised by the diversification of possibilities, and I had to make choices because several possibilities were plausible according to the sources, like the option of making conical or cylindrical pipes; the option of making pure copper pipes or with just a tiny amount of another metal with it; options about the range, etc. So there are many doors, and probably I could have had a different instrument made. Maybe the biggest surprise is to realise, once you have the instrument and you play the repertory of the 13th century, is how well it fits with the sound aesthetic of the period and with other reconstructions of instruments of the same period. That for me is the best surprise and reward because then it makes sense, you see that your instrument has a life and it makes sense that the reconstruction of this instrument exactly matches what you need it for. At least, apparently, even if we’ll never know, we have to be honest with that, nobody has the panacea of everything, but at least seems to correspond with the sources and all the evidence.
We have no surviving examples of most medieval instruments. Are there any surviving portative organs, medieval or renaissance?
I don’t think there are any. The only thing we have are some positive organ pipes which are in Jerusalem, in the Convent of the Flagellation. There are a series of pipes, alleged to be dated to the 12th century, displayed in the order as if they were on an organ for the visitors of the museum. It needs some research, but if that were to be proven to be right, that would be the oldest pipes, as Jeremy Montagu says in the title of his article, The oldest organ in Christendom [available here]. I have been in contact with him, in case I’d like to go and study the pipes. I wish someday I can do that.
The qualities of organ playing
When you play I am so struck by how much like a human voice the portative organ is. You move the bellows once for every phrase, like breath through lungs. The quality of the notes is also very human: the high notes are purest, the middle notes are more full and mellow, and the bottom notes have a throaty growl, just like the human voice. Did medieval writers mention this?
Several medieval sources say that the ambitus of the voice has three distinct colours and I recall, after this instrument was made, actually it fits this idea perfectly, because the different diameters of pipes used mean that the instrument is not homogeneous with one sound-colour. Usually, in the renaissance, you look for each note of an instrument to sound with the same quality as each other but, as in medieval sources, the human voice doesn’t have this quality because it changes through the ambitus. So we find this parallel between the organ and the voice.
And, I guess, when you’d done all the research and had the organ made, you didn’t expect to find that.
Exactly. One of the ideas that for me was very important in principle is to avoid any prejudice about how the organ should sound. Because we live in the 21st century, we have a lot of ideas in our head, a lot of sounds, we listen to a lot of music, but we have so many of these prejudices in our head, and it’s fundamental for studying a period that we don’t know about, that we haven’t lived, to try to get ideas like a baby learning how the world is. That’s why I found it was very important that I didn’t want to impose on the maker, ‘I want an organ that sounds like this’. Let’s see what the sources say, and what the result is. In this way, it’s so experimental: who knows what the result is. In this case it really matches the sources, and it also matches other instruments of the period which have exactly the same aspect, like medieval fiddles. This is an aesthetic difference compared to later instruments in consorts in the renaissance, a whole family of instruments that, from the smallest to the largest, all have a similar quality of sound.
Thinking of the voice-like quality of the organ, something else you did when playing was the rise and fall of a note by changing the air pressure on the bellows, not to change the note, but the same note rising and falling. Just as a vocalist can do by using their breath pressure, you were using the breath pressure on the organ. It’s a lovely effect, and I was wondering, was this something you discovered was possible in the playing, or is there evidence that this was used?
In order to play ornaments, we researched the sources to learn about vocal ornamentation. I believe we can imitate the vocal ornamentations that are described in the 12th–13th century by, for example, Jerome of Moravia [Dominican friar and music theorist who wrote Tractatus de Musica, Paris, c. 1280]. It’s not exactly ornamentation with breath pressure, it’s part of the neumes. Liturgical melodies have special neumes that mean not only a note or, better, not a note, but one movement, or one quality of sound, and that’s what I was looking for, for quality of sound, because these neumes represent the quality rather than the note. These neumes do not represent notes because they do not have lines, just movements, directions, speech articulation, and quality of sound, so I was inspired by this to imitate the same effects of the voice, and then I took other sources from theoreticians who explain ornamentation and voice use.
Yes. Before the advent of square notation, there are neumes that we can guess what the shape means, but we don’t know.
Exactly. Some neumes are described by theoreticians like Guido, for example [Italian music theorist, Guido d’Arezzo, who wrote Micrologus, c. 1025], but there are some neumes that we don’t know exactly what they are. This is the case with the oriscus, but others like the liquesence [singing a single consonant sound or diphthong over more than one note] we know. The liquesence is a fantastic example that we can apply to the organ. Of course, what I learn by using the instrument is phrasing, because I try to take everything from the sources, even about rhetoric or the use of text and pronunciation, the use of consonants and vowels – I apply everything to the instrument. But there is a part that one as a musician, as an artist, as a performer, has to create. So one part is very strongly based on this study of text, and study of the neumes, and rhetoric, etc., and then there is this artistic part where you decide how to use the air, as you said, how to create the phrase, the movement, and to make the line alive.
Medieval instruments often had drones – portative organ, organistrum, simfony, double pipe, and so on. Is there any evidence that the portative organ drone, or any other drone, comes from a vocal model, that church or secular singers were singing the drone on which another person sang the melody?
Yes and no. We do have treatises, like the Summa Musice [c. 1200] and from other sources of Europe which explain improvised polyphony with voices. This improvised polyphony is in parallel fourths, fifths and octaves, but this tradition develops into what we understand as organum [polyphonic accompaniment], and one of the options in organum is to keep the basic note all the time while the tune is sung. This is called diaphona basilica, which is not really improvising but creating these drones, and the theory of using drones in medieval music you can find in the sources – this is only one example.
The drone in a mode should be on the tonic or the reciting note [i.e. the returning note in modes around which the melody is based], so when you change mode can you change the note of the drone on the organ, or is it fixed on one note?
Good question. This question has different answers. If you make a statistic of melodies you would play, you will recall that there are at least two modes that are the most used and, knowing that, you know which drones you need. With two drones you can play 60-70% of music. On the other hand, we see in iconography that very often the portative organ has more than one drone, so that you could have two, three or four drones with no problem, which means you could choose among different drones.
You can visually see two or three large pipes which have to be drones?
Yes, because you cannot use the single larger pipes melodically.
I think most people would know that one context for playing the portative organ was sacred music. From the evidence you’ve found, were there other contexts in which the portative organ was played?
Yes, the organ is especially related to liturgical music, as you say, since it was considered the voice of the doctors of the church – the whole instrument was to praise God. We see the instrument also in dance: there are iconographies of portative players who are dancing at the same time. So dance music and court music. The only situation where I could not find evidence is with the troubadours – at the moment. I’m looking forward to finding some evidence because there is one iconography of one trouvère [the troubadours of northern France] who is holding a portative organ, but it’s not clear whether it’s because of the meaning of the text on this page representing a story about him or a symbolic relationship. I would need more information before saying it was a troubadour instrument.
I wonder about dance, because you showed two images yesterday [in Cristina’s presentation] where a musician was clearly dancing playing the organ, but that was all we saw. I wonder, if we saw the rest of the page, if there is any evidence for what sort of dance? Who was dancing? Who was it being played for? Do we know?
I like this question, because when we analyse an image we tend to cut and take only the fragment, and we forget the context. So you’re absolutely right, we need to see the whole context. One of these stories is the legend of Merlin and on the side we have this image. Most of the iconography is found in religious texts, like Bibles, Psalters, etc. In this case, it’s other types of narrative, like jongleurs [medieval entertainers who were singers, instrumentalists, jugglers and acrobats], which means it’s an instrument of entertainment to the court. To me, it makes sense like that, it’s an instrument which is related to these stories, or the life of the places where these stories take place, which can be inside the court, where the story is read aloud.
For some, the organ would also be a pedagogical instrument. In some treatises on music theory they discuss proportions. Proportions are very important in the middle ages. They believed that God, as creator, was a mathematician, and he used proportions to create everything, so numbers are everywhere and these proportions are divine because they come from God. These medieval proportions are preserved in art, in making, in poems, in music, and in music it includes not only the intervals but the making of the instruments.
I wonder if the organ in particular is used because some in the church believed that only the organ should accompany the voice in the liturgy.
The position was that the organ is a whole instrument and it is divine – it’s the best to deliver the voice of the doctors of the church. You have this view by Gregory the Great [pope from 590 to 604], the Venerable Bede [English saint, 672/3–735], and all through the middle ages. On the other hand, you also have literary texts that describe, for example, how one church has an organ and another doesn’t have it, and one church is criticising the other for having it, or the other way, they should have it. You can find many different positions on this topic.
An example just to get out of the framework we sometimes have. In Pluteo 29.1 [or Pluteus 29.1, or the Florence Manuscript, c. 1245–1255, the largest surviving music manuscript in the style of the Notre Dame School], at the end there are some folios with dances. At the beginning, clerics are dancing, and dances are typical pieces where instruments play. [See comparative image below.]
Unfortunately, most manuscripts we have from the middle ages are related to communities of people that had the money to write it down, mostly clerics. This applies not only to liturgical and para-liturgical music, but Latin poetry, erotic music, song and dance, so all these different registers were connected to clerics because they were the educated people, people who could write and read, create, study, make philosophy and talk about aesthetics and theology etc. – everything. They were the scholars of the time. Unfortunately, the other section of society didn’t have the wealth to create sources that live nowadays. What I mean is that any information we might have about dances of the 12th and 13th century is thanks to this part of the society, so probably there were dances that were transmitted orally but the traces of these dances are very hard to reconstruct.
Some of the earliest information about dances is in the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat [Red Book of Montserrat, Catalonia, 1399]. We don’t have the choreographies, we know they danced outside the church. It was typical, because pilgrims went to the church, they arrived, they stayed there in the evening, and at night they had to leave the church and they passed all night in front of the church in special places. Of course, people together, they party and talk and sing and dance, and in Montserrat the church wanted to control what they sang and danced, they could not accept certain topics, and that’s why these dances were made, which were also probably created by the clerics, or maybe influenced by popular dances. But this is a very difficult topic because we don’t have enough information for the popular songs and dances.
Presentation and perception
Your love of what you do is so obvious …
… it radiates from you. The love and the enthusiasm – I find it infectious. I see some performers of early music who are very serious and keep straight faces.
Some musicians prefer not to speak on the stage. There is a standardisation that has been so broadly accepted. In classical music it’s hard to change nowadays. But I think in early music, since a big part of it is unknown to the public, sometimes the public comes with predetermined expectations, how it has to sound, and which instruments, and what repertory, which means we have to guide them, because the repertory is huge, and there are different styles. The public cannot even imagine sometimes, maybe they have never seen your instrument, and I think this is a part of our presentation. In the case of this kind of music, some of it is a thousand years old, so some help to bring it closer to the public is very welcome. Sharing this information is beautiful, I enjoy it so much, I would love to help people by doing that, sharing the research and knowledge, to reflect and create awareness. It’s essential to better understand the middle ages.
Cristina Alís Raurich’s website, including her biography, upcoming events, ensembles, instruments, teaching and research, is here.
The website of Medieval Music Besalú, the international course on medieval music performance in Besalú, Catalonia, of which Cristina is assistant director and faculty member, is here.