Medieval Instruments VI b : Winds

Other Reeds

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 on the left resembles the later examples, but with a much larger curved bell. The instrument on the right 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.


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.


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.]


This 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. 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 above shows historical examples (coincidently in the same position they are in the illumination) and, below, are beautiful modern versions.