Alfonso X: Instruments, Then & Now ( I )
[This site has grown so that I have had to divide it into two parts following the arrangement of the Cantigas illustrations: Strings and Winds.]
Las Cantigas de Santa Maria: The Illustrations & the Instruments
The situation facing scholars wishing to study medieval musical instruments is that of a student asked to match two columns of information: one containing pictures of instruments, the other having names. The student has little pre-existing knowledge, and much of that of doubtful accuracy, there are different quantities of pictures and names, and there is no answer sheet. But the test will be graded…by the other students.
In addition, the names are in several dozen different languages, scattered in obscure sources, many of them contradictory, and the terms change their meanings over several centuries. The illustrations are distributed among different sources entirely, with widely varying aptitudes for representation, seldom drawn by musicians, and only occasionally for musical purposes.
It is not surprising we still have questions about medieval instruments. It is only a wonder we know as much as we do.
Though the word doesn’t appear in many dictionaries, organology is the scientific study of musical instruments, for practical reasons mostly historical. One of my main interests for almost half a century has been musical instruments, their construction and use. Fortunately for those concerned with medieval music, most of Europe’s instrumentarium came from the Middle East, where versions of many of them are still being constructed and played today, albeit in modified form. However much critical information can be obtained by judicious use of present-day information.
The medieval music group Alfonso X, founded around 1970, has incorporated a host of unusual instruments into its performances, many not seen in seven centuries. But I have never been a fan of the common early music approach of using varied instruments to “spice up” an otherwise pedestrian program: “Ooh, a gemshorn. Wow, a rackett!” Orchestration is no substitute for musicianship.
Each instrument must be approached as if it inhabited a unique world, which it does. A 14th century Arabic manuscript declares “instruments were invented to provide an advantage.” That is, like all tools, to do something which could not have been done without it. It is our responsibility to discover that unique quality. The sound, the technical abilities, the idiomatic musical figures, all must be exploited to make that instrument express its “advantage.”
Traditionally the music did not exist separately from its performance, including the context in which it was performed, and the instrument upon which it was played. The occasion was the preeminent factor. All else followed from that. If music was to be played outdoors (in Renaissance terminology “haut”) the instruments must be loud. If indoors (“bas”), they could be softer. Some instruments were considered more appropriate for accompanying the voice, others for the dance. Some had martial overtones, others pastoral. But they were not specified until late even in Western classical music, and they were not used in a systematic way in anything approaching the modern sense of “orchestration,” until the 18th century. Usually, the mood was set by the choice of instruments at the beginning of the piece and did not vary.
The other difference from modern practice is that, in the Middle Ages, there was no standard pitch. Each region, each tradition, each guild, each type of instrument, each maker would have used a different pitch criterion. Among fixed-pitch instruments, only those that had been made together could have played together. For that reason flutes, shawms, and horns tended to play in groups of like instruments and were the last instruments to be “tamed” and incorporated into the orchestra, as late as the mid-19th century.
The strings (fiddles, psalteries, dulcimers, harps), which could be tuned, made up the largest group of ensemble instruments. They could not only be played with each other, they could also accommodate themselves to the winds. (It is no accident that, even today, it is a wind instrument that gives the pitch to the orchestral strings, not vice versa.)
In addition to the lack of a standard pitch, there is the whole matter of Temperaments. This is not the time or place to go into that wonderful world but suffice it to say that there were probably almost as many different temperaments as there were different pitch standards. And for much of the same reasons. Read Curt Sachs to find out about the geometrical bases of traditional flute scales. Horns, with their overtone scales were a world unto themselves for centuries. The varied musical traditions in Europe: Roman, Germanic, Celtic, regional isolates, monastic-scholarly, and the trendy Byzantine and Middle Eastern, all must have contributed to the heady fermentation.
In the context of the Middle Ages, as in much of the rest of the traditional world, the lack of standardization would not have affected musicians in general since they tended to play alone. There were not that many of them to begin with and, until they began to gather at centers of economic power and wealth, they were probably only part-time, semi-professionals. They may have played several different instruments just as they probably had many different skills: barber, juggler, acrobat, story teller, singer, all of them low-class and itinerant. Even when more than one musician would gather together in a court setting, our ideas of consonance might not have been recognized. It is not only in Africa that several different musicians may play at the same occasion, at the same time, different though perhaps related melodies, at different and unrelated pitch centers. The effect is considered to be a festive elaboration and not a conflict. If natural horns were playing “out-of-tune” notes in Mozart and Beethoven’s time who knows what may have been heard during the time of Alfonso or Landini?
It is tempting to use the modern, orchestral versions as our aural pattern for what medieval instruments sounded like. Nothing could be more misleading. Medieval shawms sounded nothing like the oboe other than sharing a double reed. And the other winds, strings, horns, and percussion likewise would be unrecognizable. As mentioned, many of the instruments have current Eurasian cousins which share medieval styles and methods of performance. But some techniques have disappeared. The most obvious example is the harp which, nowadays, whether playing in the orchestra or even in its folk milieu in Latin America, is slave to the system of chords and keys of post-Renaissance Europe. While it is obvious that the instrument playing Tchaikovsky or Debussy cannot be used for medieval music, it is also clear that a Vera Cruz or Paraguayan harp does not play in the style of the Middle Ages. I believe that the playing techniques of New World harps can be used in recreating earlier styles but the instruments themselves and especially their musical material must have been quite different. Anyone who has heard the distinctively virile, even distorted, “ping” of a Vera Cruz harper must have felt themself in the presence of a different way of making music and I feel that this energetic, powerful style agrees much more with the attitude expressed by listeners of the medieval harp. It had nothing in common with parasols, lace, and finger sandwiches. The question remains, however, aside from the melody (which is never the whole story in traditional music), what else did the harp play, since they had no chords? There are some suggestions even in New World traditions. While most of the arpeggios played by the left hand are indeed chords, there seem to be some remnants of semi-drone notes and other non-chordal figures played as accompaniment. These are, in many cases, similar to figures used by Middle Eastern qanun players, showing their non-harmonic origins and demonstrating their appropriateness for medieval style.
In addition, there are harps still being played in East Africa and, especially, in Burma, where it is a classical instrument, though increasingly rare. And even though the kinds of music played in those areas are quite different from medieval music, the principles of accompanying figures may yield inspiration. In addition, the West African kora, from a different harp family, has a host of intriguing techniques which should be mined for relevance. There is also the family of psalteries (the qanun, alluded to above) which probably retains techniques common to all the open-stringed instruments of the Islamic World. Finally, there was a harp in the Middle East, the jank, of the upper sound chested variety, which existed from ancient times in Mesopotamia and Egypt, through the Middle Ages, up until the 18th century, when it seems to have disappeared. There is much iconographic evidence but, as far as I know, no written material about technique or style. And I have long wondered if, somewhere in the depths of the Topkapi, or another Middle Eastern archive, there is a jank, lying in a corner, forlorn and waiting for someone to rediscover this wonderful remnant of a bygone age. One of my long-term projects is to recreate a medieval Spanish jank for Alfonso X. [see next page]