The 16th century song, Westron wynde, is an expression of longing to be with one’s love. It is just one verse and melody in a manuscript from the court of King Henry VIII. Much ink has been fancifully spilled over the meaning of its four lines. This article traces the history of its treatment through renaissance masses, folk music and 20th century pop music; attempts to elucidate its meaning without fancy; and presents an arrangement to renaissance musical principles on bray harp.
Calen o Custure me was a popular 16th century love song, published in a printed anthology two years after it was registered as a broadside, arranged multiple times for a range of instruments, and referenced by William Shakespeare in his play, Henry V. The song is something of a mystery: what does its repeated refrain mean, and what language is it? This article examines the claim that the mystery title originates in Irish Gaelic, then traces the use of the melody from the 16th to the 19th century; with a performance of the song by Alfred Deller and Desmond Dupré, and three other illustrative videos.
L’homme armé – The 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.
This may seem like surprising material. Indeed, this article started out as a bit of silliness based on a few farty fragments, but soon became a serious study when I uncovered the surprising historical meanings behind flatulence in the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods. A 17th century music society sang gleefully about it (for which there is a music video in this article); Thomas D’Urfey published several songs about it; and a buck does it (possibly) in the earliest surviving piece of English secular polyphony. Plus there’s Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Edward de Vere’s bottom burp in front of Queen Elizabeth, and farting musical marginalia. So rest your cheeks, wind down, and let rip with a brief history of farting.
Surrounded by music, William Shakespeare used it to create moments of comedy and light relief; tension and menace; tragedy and tenderness. He incorporated songs about fortune and fairies, love and loss, going mad and growing up; together with jigs, masques and Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite dance. Yet in today’s productions, the songs he included, clearly indicated by “sing” in the script, are often said as if they were spoken verse, or set to a new tune when the historical melody is there to be sung. This short article gives a little background to a select few of Shakespeare’s songs and tunes to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death in 1616, including videos of It was a lover and his lass; Holde thy peace / Three merry men; and When that I was and a little tiny boy.
The Lyke-Wake Dirge, with its dark, mysterious imagery and its brooding melody, is known to singers of traditional songs through its resurrection in the repertoire of folk trio The Young Tradition in the 1960s, and its subsequent recording by The Pentangle and others. What many of its performers may not realise is that its history can be reliably traced to Elizabethan Yorkshire, with a hint from Geoffrey Chaucer that its origins may be earlier. This article uses direct testimony from the 16th and 17th century to explore its meaning, its perilous and punishing “Whinny-moor”, “Brig o’ Dread”, and “Purgatory fire”; and discovers the surprising origin of its doleful dorian melody.
The 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.
The rebec is a medieval gut-strung bowed instrument with 3 strings, its body carved from a solid piece of wood. Its sound has a nasal quality, unlike the more full-sounding modern violin, which shares some of the rebec’s characteristics: strings played with a bow, a fretless neck, a curved bridge to allow strings to be bowed singly, and a soundboard carved to have a gentle upward curve. Like so many medieval musical instruments, the origins of the rebec are in Arabia and north Africa, the region of so much cultural exchange, trade and crusading in the middle ages. Perhaps surprisingly, it was still being played beyond the renaissance and to the end of the baroque period in western Europe, by now having fallen from grace from a regal courtly instrument to one of lowly street entertainment. In south-east Europe, the rebec continues to be played to this day, playing vigorous and exciting traditional music.
It 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.
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.
The bray harp is not a sound modern ears are used to, and even most early music groups with harps don’t use the period instrument – yet it was the standard European harp of the late medieval, renaissance and early baroque periods, from the 15th century to the 1630s, and still used until the late 18th century in some places. The bray harp gets its name from the L shaped wooden pins at the base of the strings, positioned so the strings buzz against them as they vibrate: the effect was said to sound like a donkey’s bray. It’s an older idea than the bray harp, one shared by the oldest surviving stringed instruments, made four and a half thousand years ago.
This article traces the idea behind the bray harp, its origins and popular rise. We ask why there is so little surviving early harp music and try to come to a feasible historical answer; and along the way take in Pictish stones, illuminated Psalters, Geoffrey Chaucer, harp-playing angels, and an ape playing a rota, with a video of the harp being brayed.
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. They 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.
The 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.
The haunting sound of the gemshorn has played a small part in the early music revival. Evidence for its historical use is sparse, scattered thinly from the late middle ages or early renaissance to the first days of the baroque period, and only within Germany. This ocarina made of goat horn was included in the completist musical lexicographies of Sebastian Virdung, 1511, and Michael Praetorius, 1618, and was deemed recognisable enough to be played by the figure of death in a series of woodcuts in 1488. This article traces what we know about the gemshorn, comparing the evidence with its use in the early music revival.
The 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.
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 to the modern day, based only on what can be claimed with certainty. Illustrated with pictures, sound recordings and beginning with a short video of guitar history.
The remarkable longevity of a 16th century song and tune
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.
The remarkable longevity of a 16th century song and tune
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.
The remarkable longevity of a 16th century song and tune
Greensleeves, 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.
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.