Medieval Instruments VI: Winds


By all accounts the most popular wind instrument in both Muslim and Christian courts on the peninsula was the axabeba. While it is not uncommon for names to migrate to different instruments and, conversely, for the same name to be applied to dissimilar instruments, in the absence of evidence to the contrary the axabeba should be assumed to be the instrument known by this name in North Africa today. This is the smaller-sized version of the long end-blown cane flute, nay, of the Middle East and the qasaba of the Maghrib. The word axabeba, or ajabeba, comes directly from the Arabic, al-shabbaba (pronounced ash-shabbaba), meaning “the young (or small) one.” Unfortunately for medieval music, the instrument is not very pictogenic: it is a foot-long piece of cane, undecorated. It looks like a stick; it IS a (hollow) stick. We should not really be surprised that there are no illustrations of it. Even after the nay became a prestigeous and much-used instrument, there are not as many pictures of it as other, more dramatic instruments: and it’s at least twice as long as the axabeba

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On the other hand, the transverse flute, which seems to have been introduced into Europe from Byzantium, bypassing the Islamic world, enjoys a beautiful illumination of its own. Even though it, too, is a stick, it has a more dramatic playing position and is shown as a long, tenor or bass range, instrument. It is featured toward the beginning of the aerophone half of the pictures. It is not otherwise known on the peninsula at this early date and may be an exotic, probably French, import. One instrument is portrayed as gold and the other silver, which has oxidized to black. The colors were perhaps chosen for prestige or symbolic purposes.

Notice also that the musicians, like almost all the wind players, have long, curly, blond hair. The string players, in the first half, who are predominantly nobles, wear their hair short of shoulder length. Alfonso himself is the epitome of this hair style. It seems possible, then, that the “long-haired musicians” are professionals and not noble amateurs. Is this an indication of the relative status of the two families of instruments? Or just that the winds are harder to play (well)? One also thinks of the disfiguring of the cheeks associated with the aulos in antiquity and shawms today.

Double Reeds

The most important double reed instrument in the Islamic world was the flaring-belled shawm with its loud, outdoor, apotropaic associations. It was enthusiastically adopted by Europe where it flourished in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Afterwards, it fell on hard times, was castrated, and became the achingly sweet, but unthreatening oboe of the symphony orchestra. Concurrently with the masculine shawm there was another type of instrument about which we know very little. Though a double reed, it was considered very quiet. The Cantigas show no classic outdoor shawms, but at least three other (seemingly double reed) instruments with bulbous bells, implying a quieter sound. Perhaps the (French) illuminators were more curious about the unusual indoor reed instruments than their familiar raucous cousin. I will make no further attempt to explain the instrument, merely presenting the illustrations.

Strangely, the more characteristic outdoor shawm is shown elsewhere in Europe, including this famous Minnesinger portrait, ca. 1300.

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Comments on the musicians, however, are relevant. Notice that the players in Cantiga 310 are wearing richly bordered, full-sleeved outer cloaks, and they have fashionably short hair. More enigmatic is the fact that the player on the right is sitting with his knee drawn up underneath him–and the sole of his bare foot is facing the viewer! In Mediterranean culture (and far beyond) this is considered a great insult. I have many thoughts, but no explanation, of this seeming breech of etiquette. It is worth noting that the only other barefooted musician is Muslim.
Cantiga 330 holds its own mysteries. The noble affecting the fringe beard of a knight, wears the noble capa with its fur lining and matching cap, but his hair is long and wavy. His shawm is accompanied by a simply-dressed woman playing percussion plaques (bones) and singing. Around the Mediterranean, from ancient times, women who performed in public were considered professionals, with all its implications. Thus, the woman is probably not a Christian, which makes the scene all the more enigmatic.
The two musicians in Cantiga 390 have long, marcelled hair, and hold shawms with a bulb at both ends (the mysterious douçaine?). They also appear to hold their instruments in a “left-handed” position.
All the instruments have a pirouette, the flat disk pierced by the stem carrying the double reeds, which is diagnostic of the shawm type

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What these instruments are is anyone’s guess. They resemble a kind of trumpet with the characteristic round bosses at the joints of the sections, but they appear to go into the mouth with no mouthpiece. Are they some kind of shawm without a pirouette since they Do seem to be fingered? To me they look more like the symbolic figures of the winds in the corners of medieval paintings of the world or the heavens than actual musical instruments. Besides, playing two instruments (as opposed to a designed double instrument) is uncommon and, usually, not very effective musically. I consider this illumination visual filler until proven otherwise, but striking nonetheless.

Other Reeds

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The bladderpipe is a perennial favorite of early music groups. A cross between a crumhorn and a whoopee cushion, it always draws a crowd–if not a musical one. The modern interest in it definitely outweighs its historical or musical importance. But as marginal an instrument as it is, the Alfonsine artists thought highly enough of it to include two different kinds in the Cantigas. The version above resembles the later examples, but with a much larger curved bell. The following instrument has two straight tubes, one shorter than the other. One, probably the longer, is likely a drone. Both examples are played by simply-dressed long-haired musicians, apparently the same men: bladderpipe specialists.

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Though some might contend that this instrument is no less marginal than the bladderpipe they’d get a fight from me. This is the national instrument of Sardinia, the launeddas, a multiple clarinet of which sculptures exist from prehistoric times. Related to the ancient aulos and the Middle Eastern argul, this illumination testifies that it had a wider distribution in the Middle Ages. Today’s launeddas has a wonderful repertory of solo pieces as well as being a powerful accompaniment for the voice and I’m waiting for an early music group to utilize it with the Cantigas. In its triple pipe form, the longest tube is a drone, the shortest plays the melody, and the intermediate size tube plays ostinati or moving countermelodic pitches.

Go no further until you call up a video of launeddas players for your enjoyment and amazement; it is played for dancing too. It is a sound that never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

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Another single-reed instrument found around the Mediterranean is the zummara. In this case both tubes are the same length and are tuned (roughly) in unison. The resultant beating (or bleating) effect is highly valued and helps cut through other noises making this otherwise fairly quiet instrument suitable for outdoor events, including dances.

The Cantigas version seems to have a wooden harness similar to that found on the hornpipe, alboka, with a hole for the thumb to grasp through. Notice also, the well-dressed musician on the right with his gold embroidery-trimmed pellote and, in particular, the beauty spot (or strategically-placed mole?) on his left cheek. [Cf the bagpiper in No. 260.]


Above is the most unusual illumination in the entire manuscript. It is the only one which explicitly takes place outdoors. The two rural figures are probably supposed to be Basques, playing their indigenous instruments. The scene is not just pastoral, it is intended to be mountainous. The figure on the left wears a short sword, a hood around his neck, and plays what is clearly an alboka, the characteristically Basque double hornpipe. (Is there a tool used by alboka players that could be dangling from his belt?) The other figure has his hood raised over his head and plays an instrument which, in any other circumstance, would be indecipherable. But, in the context, it is likely supposed to be a single hornpipe like the present-day gaita serrana, which is related to the alboka both in structure and repertory. The halftone below shows historical examples (coincidentally in the same position they are in the illumination) and, then, its construction and beautiful modern versions.


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To complete our study of reed instruments, we consider the three very different types of bagpipes represented in the Cantigas.

The simplest form, here consisting of an elaborate chanter with a horn bell, was a type widespread both in Europe and around the Mediterranean. Consequently, the players seem to be noble amateurs, seated, performing indoors. The main piper (on the left) wears a noble capa, richly embroidered, sports the knight’s fringe beard, and has long hair. The other player is plainly dressed and seems not to have the blowpipe in his mouth. He could be singing, asking a question, or tuning. He also has the beauty spot on his left cheek mentioned above. Notice also the beautiful knotted covering and fringe for the bag.

The two musicians in the center, on the other hand, are standing–one in a jaunty, cross-legged pose–wearing outdoor cloaks, looking more professional. Once again, however, the subordinate figure on the right is not blowing and may be tuning. Their pipes may also have merely a chanter, but more likely have a second pipe built into the double stock, playing either a second melody or, more likely, a high drone. Both of these pipers have shorter hair under their coifs.

The last figure is truly emblematic: it is no wonder this illustration is so popular. He is the personification of everything we love about the pipes; he stands proudly with his great bag, covered with a reticulated net, all pipes bristling, even doubled. Whether this was a true delineation or symbolic affirmation is unknowable, though the second of each drone seems to disappear Behind the player, as if alluding to a companion. The doubled drones could be believed but one wonders whether the doubled chanter is meant to be literal. In any case I chose to think of the artist as a fan who was thinking, “Behold, the piper!”

Trumpets and Horns

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Tabl-khana from the Cantigas
Tabl-khana from Arabic MS, the Maqamat of al-Hariri, ca. 1300

The words trumpet and horn are often used interchangeably and, in modern casual parlance, horn is even used to apply to any instrument one plays. But the classical distinction between them is important and relates to their origins and structure. Horns, originally made from animal horns, commonly have a conical shape and internal bore, while trumpets, originally made in sections from various materials, generally have a cylindrical shape and bore.

In the Middle Ages the trumpet par excellence was the long straight martial instrument introduced from the Middle East. Called añafil (from the Arabic al-nafir), it is shown in the Cantigas with pennons displaying the lion and castle arms of Leon and Castile, leaving no doubt as to its role as an instrument of power and prestige. It was traditionally played with shawms and drums, especially kettledrums, in an ensemble called nauba. The ensemble was the personal band of a caliph and accompanied military operations as a signals troop. 

Notice particularly the round bosses which reinforce the joints of the several sections. Also observe the clear flat mouthpiece and, at the other end, the bands of engraving around the flared bell. The inscriptions are the common Alfonsine stylized version of Arabic Kufic script. Similar decorations can be seen on the trumpets in the Maqamat and, if you’ve ever seen a modern brass instrument, the tradition continues.

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Another unusual instrument depicted in the Cantigas is the albogón. This was derived from the Arabic al-buq, originally a generic word for horns and trumpets, but latterly restricted to horns. Supposedly, in the 10th century, during the reign of the Spanish Umayyad caliph, al-Hakam II, a horn was fitted with a double reed and fingerholes. This unlikely instrument seems to have survived, or have been revived, into the 13th century and Cantiga 300 shows a huge one being played, accompanied by an hourglass-shaped drum.
Unlike the female singer and bones player previously mentioned, this illustration seems the picture of domestic propriety. Both players are Muslim. The alboka player wears the noble box cap, birrete, and a richly embroidered full-sleeved oversaya with sleeve patches indicating his religion. The woman, with a hat and modest veil, likewise wears the identifying patches on her embroidered saya. She plays a drum with a narrow waist, rather unusual for the Islamic area but perhaps the tabl al-mukhannath mentioned by Farmer. If the instruments were of a quieter nature one could imagine a husband and wife having a musical soiree at home. Whatever the actual occasion, the picture reminds us that the religious and ethnic makeup of the peninsula was not as simple as our modern preconceptions would lead us to believe. [Don’t forget, Caliph Abd al-Rahman III, whose mother was Basque or Frankish and whose paternal grandmother was a Basque princess–that makes him at least 3/4 European–had fair hair and blue eyes. He used hair dye to darken his appearance.] With his fair skin and fashionable length blond hair, this Muslim grandee could have passed for Christian–and has to most modern observers. [Such blurring of ethnic boundaries is another reason for clothing requirements.]

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These horns bear a resemblance to the albogón but there are differences which seem important. Firstly, there are no apparent fingerholes. Second, the mouthpiece, which on the albogón has a pirouette and reed going into the mouth, seems only to be a disk–thus, perhaps, a trumpet type mouthpiece. Thirdly, the albogón is constructed in three sections which meet at obvious angles while this instrument curves smoothly and appears to be in one piece, albeit with lateral decorative grooves. Lastly, this horn is portrayed as ivory-colored: could it be an oliphant? Not exactly a musical instrument, but a prestigious sound generator, nonetheless. The information arguing against this interpretation is the appearance of the players. One is wearing the separate detachable hood, caperón, while the other is still wearing an outdoor cloak. Neither looks particularly noble. Perhaps these are merely signalling horns of some sort: poor cousins of the knightly oliphant.