Musical Archeology and Historical Musicology: Getting it right.

The further back in history we go the more difficult it is to be certain we are ‘getting it right.’ This is even truer for music since it is by nature ephemeral and reliant upon a wealth of supporting knowledge for its production. It is instructive to listen to the history of recorded vocal music to hear the drastic changes just over the past century. And this just among our parents and grandparents: people that we recognize as being ‘like us.’ Imagine the differences we would find going back ten centuries.

In reality, I believe the thirteenth century is just about the furthest limit of our quest if we intend to actually perform the music. The meager information of the past reaches a point that gives us some justification to believe we could approximate the sound of the time. For one thing, we begin to have manuscripts to provide enough melodic material to make generalizations about. Before this we have only scraps and suggestions. Additionally, we have collateral information from other historical sources in greater numbers.

I deliberately chose to concentrate on the ‘Cantigas de Santa Maria’ of Alfonso ‘el sabio’ because the manuscript is the largest body of melodies we have from this early period and, in the late 1960’s, few were performing this repertory. But even more importantly, Iberia was at the crossroads between the European and Mediterranean worlds, thus opening up two different founts of materials. If I had concentrated on England, or France, or Germany, for example, I would have been limited to those regional sources. The possibilities seemed to me to be at their maximum with the Alfonsine repertory.

I had already developed what I referred to as a triangulation method of approaching medieval music. The three points of view were (1) the European historical, musicological information, (2) the European folk knowledge, and (3) the ‘non-Western’ or ethnomusicological analogies. I believed that by converging these three (or more if they turned up) approaches, they would create, as usual in physical triangulation, not an exact point but a region of agreement, of likelihood, within which we could expect our musical solution to lie. This seemed to square (more geometry) with my intuitive observations of traditional folk singers probably sounding more like early music singers than the classical musicians who were performing both.

I had long been interested in Arabic music, particularly vocal styles, and had noticed the similarities with singing all around the Mediterranean. Around 1961 I heard a program that A.L. Lloyd produced for the BBC entitled, ‘Primitive Survivals in European Folk Music,’ which really focussed my listening to European traditional singers. I heard many similarities between Mediterranea and elsewhere in Europe, and even in the older singers in the United States. The obvious question to me was, why do modern performers of medieval European music sound completely unlike any other European singers? It was almost as if the music were being performed by someone from another country or culture. And, of course, that seemed the most likely answer: modern performers are from another culture. And what were the chances they were ‘getting it right?’ I felt they were slim because they were using their eyes and not their ears. They were looking at the writings of musicologists and not listening to traditional singers all over Europe.

But some singers were listening. I had an old recording of Machaut made at the University of Illinois with a young lutenist, Thomas Binkley, and female singer, Jantina Noorman, which is a lovely, conventional-sounding album of my favorite composer. I could not believe my ears or contain my joy, a few years later, when I heard Jantina singing with Musica Resrvata. She had developed several different, very traditional-sounding voices which she utilized in some of my favorite recordings to this day. They were not all perfect but they showed the difference a traditional singing style could make in early music. Opinions were polarized about her voice. Unfortunately, most of the people writing had no background in traditional vocal styles and reacted the way classical musicians had for centuries. Their criticisms echoed the remarks of clerical writers from the medieval and Renaissance periods, which seemed to me to validate even further her attempts. More recently a number of singers, who shall remain nameless, have affected a ‘gypsy’ or other folk quality but do not have the artistic facility or the traditional sensibility to carry it off. But, as the old legal principle goes, the misuse of something is no argument against its use. Eventually, someone will ‘get it right.’

Fortunately, there have been more efforts in the instrumental field. A number of players of traditional instruments have lent their skills to medieval music but the trend has not been universally successful. There is still not a dedication to professionalism in medieval performance which would approximate the level of guild players or even folk professionals in the middle east today. But the public embraces instrumental performers more naturally than vocalists and the day may come when the novelty of early instruments wears off and idiomatic style will be expected. I remember a recording from the 1960s of a bagpiper using classic piobrach in performing some medieval dances. The effect, though slightly stilted, was revolutionary.

One would think that Spanish early music groups would be leading the way in exploring performances of the Cantigas. Though there have been many attempts, and some flashes of insight, on the whole they have followed as much as led. Even though many of the traditions were dying out when Alan Lomax collected in the 1950s, surely there must still be Spanish players who could energize a new generation of performers. Most of the problem is attitude. Until classical musicians set aside their education to reach out to folk musicians with humility and humanity they will not be able to learn. Until we understand the rationale of oral, traditional societies we will not approach the reality of the Middle Ages.

[An old Musical Heritage Society recording of Cantigas illustrates the walls that divide us from medieval style. A Spanish instrumental ensemble, playing in typical Collegium Musicum note-for-note technique, and a thin, colorless, Classical, Early Music tenor, were accompanied by a boys choir from the Chapel of the Valley of the Fallen. They did their best to emulate the sweet insipidity of the Vienna Boys but occasionally the veneer cracked. You could hear the real boys’ voices, starting to sing like they would have outside, on the streets, strong and vital, singing children’s rhymes and scandalous coplas. Then, because the padre was frowning, they remembered themselves and returned to the chapel setting. Every time I heard the possibility of what they could have sounded like, I wept.]

The largest hurdle that modern musicians have to overcome in approaching medieval music is that we are members of a literate society. And even though writing had existed in Europe for many centuries and there was an elite literate class in Christian Spain (as in Muslim Andaluz) the majority of the population, including most musicians, still lived in an almost exclusively oral world. Much recent scholarship has shed light on the differences between attitudes and worldviews of traditional oral cultures and modern literate societies. So that we need not use the prejudicial or condescending terms ‘illiterate,’ ‘pre-literate,’ ‘non-literate,’ there is even a positive term ‘orality,’ to describe human cultures in the 10,000 years before the internalization of reading and writing. Such integration was not accomplished in Western Europe and America until the Industrial Revolution. And it is important to understand that orality was not just literacy without the graphics, it was a way of looking at the world which differed in almost every respect from the way we see it. The subject is explored in greater detail in my dissertation, ‘Literacy, Orality, and the Cantigas: Toward an Ethnomusicology of Medieval Europe.’ I am also planning on writing a more general account of my ideas on medieval music.


As important as understanding the intellectual, cultural background may be, it is just as vital to get the details right. And this is an area which has been much more exhaustively studied, though it hasn’t seemed to make the transition to practical use. As an example, let’s look at percussion. Most early music groups still put a drum in the hands of whoever isn’t doing anything else, and it shows. Drummers were one of the most exclusive guilds during the Renaissance and it is likely that derived from medieval practice. Percussion techniques in the Middle East today are extremely sophisticated and those are presaged in medieval manuscripts. It is true, as Curt Sachs pointed out long ago, that European drumming traditions are much simpler than their Middle Eastern, Mediterranean counterparts. But early music percussionists need to take their job as seriously as any other member of the group. And fidelity begins with the instruments.

Most European drums were of the tabor type, rather like a modern side drum, with simple wooden shell, skin head, and rope tensioners. So far, so good. But there is one feature which is shown in almost every single illumination but which is missing from nearly every modern reproduction (or, at least, is hardly ever used). And that is a snare! Every medieval and Renaissance group seems enamored of the rotund, hollow, booming sound of the drum which is completely unlike anything that would have been produced by an authentic instrument. Even kettledrums and nakers are frequently shown with snares. The simple rhythms of early dances sound much richer with the sizzling sustain of the snare.

In the Mediterranean world, including Spain, such drums were less important than their slimmer cousins, the frame drums. Once again, most groups that use tambourines or other frame drums have not done their homework. Frame drums are invariably depicted in medieval manuscripts played in the identical position they still are today. That is, balanced on the left hand and played with the left fingers and the right hand. That is completely different from the modern orchestral, 19th century Gypsy, tarantella, rock and roll position. And it plays different music as well.

All our tabors have snares, some on both heads.
Timbrels, round & square, some with jingles.

How to read an illumination

Medieval representations of musical instruments are so rare as to be treated as any precious resource and never squandered. The loss of any one illustration is irreplaceable, as a species of plant or animal. Even the crudest graffito is valuable but that does not mean that they are of equal value. We must learn everything we can about each picture while taking into account the intent of the maker as well as the competence of his information.

To our knowledge, we have no pictures of musical instruments actually made by musicians. That does not mean that those who illustrated the manuscripts could not have been musical. But we must use other cues to evaluate their perception and accuracy, and remember that professional musicians and professional scribes and illuminators occupied different worlds. For the most part they, literally, would not even have spoken the same language. Outside of the Spanish peninsula monks spoke Latin, an acquired skill which symbolically as well as physically separated them from the outside world which spoke the increasingly disparate secular languages derived from Latin. Walter Ong writes of Latin as a puberty rite, preparing young (almost always) men for life as adults in a specialized fraternity, wrenched away from their mothers and Mother Tongues. In the court of Alfonso, with its babble of Castillian, Galician, Asturian, Basque, French, and Arabic, the clerics responsible for the Cantigas, judging by the calligraphy and pictorial style, were French monks whose professional language was Latin.

When we look at the illuminations in the Cantigas we must keep all this artistic, cultural, linguistic, perceptual information in mind as we evaluate the physical musical instrument. If we do not know about medieval costume we must learn. If we do not know about the physical and social context of Alfonso’s court (which travelled constantly around his kingdom and was never in one location for long), we must learn. If we do not know about the relationships among the various religious and ethnic groups in the Christian north, we must learn. If we do not know about the military equipment and exchange of personnel and tactics between Muslim and Christian forces, we must learn. If we do not know the range of construction and performance possibilities among contemporary, and historical, shawms, lutes, psalteries, fiddles, and a host of other instruments, we must learn or resign ourselves to merely observing, ”look, an old fiddle.”

When we look at a particular illumination our first reaction is likely to be esthetic and, ironically, that is one of the primary original purposes for the picture. But their esthetics are not ours. The original meaning of the word “ornament,” as Coomaraswamy makes clear, is to perfect or complete, as in, “a sword ornaments a knight.” It doesn’t make him prettier, it makes him more effective. And though the illustrations in the Cantigas are beautiful, they were intended to make the manuscript more complete as an offering to the Virgin Mary. Of course, it would have been just as effective if angels, rather than musicians were shown. But not as perfect for us.

It is hard for us to understand that medieval illuminated manuscripts in general, and the Cantigas as a classic example, were not made for practical purposes but for display, prestige, as items of conspicuous consumption. Works intended for use were used up, worn out, and recycled. But even more importantly, most information was oral, learned in a controlled teacher-student environment, and more likely than not, secret. Thus, the small details which occur in the pictures may be carefully observed minutiae, unknowingly revealed by the copyist, or imaginative filler, dreamed up by a bored scribe. And only our concerted collating of all available information can tip the scales to one side or the other. One is reminded of the Russian proverb popular in the news some years ago: Trust but Verify.

My original idea in approaching medieval music was influenced by the fact that my favorite composer at the time (in the late 1950s) was Guillaume de Machaut. I had transcribed all his polyphonic music I could find from Deutsche Gramophone LPs. (That was a challenge, back in the days before tape recorders were common, but it served to hone my ear and familiarize myself with the structure of the music in a way I could never have done if I had known someone had already done the work!)

I realized, as I struggled with the strange, archaic mentality involved with the rhythms and intervals, that they were strange to me only because I was living in a musical world six hundred years later. In wondering how one could approach the music in a way which would approximate the original, it occurred to me that it would have to be from the other side – earlier. I decided to set up an experiment: gather a group of musicians who would familiarize themselves with the earliest forms of music we had (from, roughly the 10th century) by playing it and, in an evolutionary way, gradually add ‘new’ ideas and techniques as we journeyed forward in time until we got to the 14th century, at which time we would hear Machaut as a logical step in musical development. Of course, as I later discovered, this is the program behind most Music History classes, but my idea was for the musicians not just to hear it, or read it but to play it, to immerse themselves in it, so that it became a true musical, creative, and perhaps even, re-creative, experience.

As in the best laid plans of mice and men, they changed. When I arrived in the 13th century, I found myself immediately at home and hopelessly in love. A combination of bountiful resources in the manuscripts of the Cantigas and almost limitless possibilities at the nexus between the European and Islamic worlds made it immediately clear I would never reach Machaut. I am still enraptured by his mass and secular works but I have never regretted my choice. My study group became, officially, The Alfonso X Memorial Medieval String Band, Santiago de California.

Suggestions for reading

Humans are complex and contradictory. We tend to operate on at least two, radically different, levels: the emotional and intellectual. The emotional encompasses intuition, love, belief, religion, and philosophy; the intellectual the realms of science, knowledge, craft, technique. One often expects that history can be objective, putting aside prejudice and preconception, but we inhabit our bodies and our worlds. We live in habit, tradition, our past experiences and comfortable expectations. The most we can hope for is to arm ourselves with knowledge and information which, combined with the desire to overcome our limitations, may enable us to see the unexpected.
I would like to suggest readings for anyone interested in going beyond the usual understanding of the world of medieval Spain. There are many histories of the Middle Ages and specialized studies of medieval philosophy, art, and music. I assume you have read some or all of these. But I have found unexpected insights, flashes of light, in books my professors did not tell me about. I want to pass on some of this en-light-enment so you may move from knowledge to understanding​

All learning involves change and, frankly, change can be unsettling, confusing, disorienting, even painful. To understand others we must step outside ourselves. Until you read and understand the works of Ananda Coomaraswamy you cannot see the world in any way other than the way you see it presently. For thousands of years, the Traditional world operated in ways which were essentially opposed to our modern ways. And much of the world still does. Coomaraswamy endeavors to teach us about those ways, which were the shared inheritance of both East and West, of the Indian Vedas as well as medieval European Christian philosophy. It is not an easy journey but absolutely necessary. I recommend the tiny Dover paperback of his essays, “The Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art.” It’s only 130 pages and many of the essays cover the same ground but the repetition is helpful: you may not get it the first time. I have read the book dozens of times and I get something new out of it each time. If you don’t “get” Coomaraswamy you won’t “get” the Middle Ages.

If you don’t already know Walter J Ong’s work you cannot go further without reading “Orality and Literacy.” If Coomaraswamy tells us about the thought of Eurasia, and the non-Western world in general, Ong explains How the traditional, oral world thinks. And, more importantly, how that way of thinking differs from ours. The reason for the difference is Literacy, which now pervades every aspect of our modern world and separates us from an understanding of those who came before. Ong’s work provided much of the structure for the research I had done for my dissertation. [It is possible to read it online.]

The most important, as well as the most controversial, Spanish historian is Américo Castro. This is another writer, I believe, who is critical to understanding the dynamics of the convoluted, painful, and ultimately self-destructive, evolution of medieval Spain. You will find the surprising answers to the questions of Arabic influence in the music of Spain and the Cantigas. (And you will learn why “Spain” didn’t even exist in the time of Alfonso X.) Castro’s masterwork is called, simply, “The Spaniards.” Ironically, Spaniards are among the least likely to read him, but “Know Thyself” would not be a challenge if it were easy.

Even if my name were not already Curt, I would probably have adopted Curt Sachs as my patron saint. I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with all his standard works, “World History of the Dance,” “History of Musical Instruments,” “Rhythm and Tempo,” and the underrated classic “The Rise of Music in the Ancient World.” But the last chapter, “Progress?” from his posthumous work “The Wellsprings of Music,” should be read and reread by all of us to restore humility and balance.

Of all the works about Islamic Culture I cannot praise too highly Marshall G S Hodgson’s “The Venture of Islam,” if for no other reason than stressing an understanding of the concept of the Oikoumene, the ancient Civilized World. This world, which stretched from Spain and Morocco to India and Southeast Asia, was centered on the Middle East. Those of us who derive our worldview from the European tradition need to be reminded of the peripheral and provincial nature of our relationship to this ancient, and medieval, center.

Read in the context of the books above, “The Arab Mind” and “The Jewish Mind” by Raphael Patai will provide important psychological insights into ancient as well as modern attitudes which may otherwise seem impenetrable. The basic beliefs are relevant to the much wider Mediterranean world and help elucidate the political, religious, and artistic worlds of medieval Iberia. Patai’s other works, likewise, repay reading manyfold.

I never intended for my doctoral dissertation to be a textbook, which would require more time and energy to revise than I have left in this incarnation, but many have asked about it and so I  suppose I should make a few comments. My conceptual framework is set forth in my introduction, which is available here. For those who are tempted, it is possible to read the entire work through academic channels.

I attempted to approximate a more oral, conversational approach than most dissertaions. I would have loved to present it with musical, visual, aural context, even scents, as environmental backgrounds. Anyone who has ever lived in another culture understands how disorienting it can be trying to concentrate on one discrete aspect for intellectual study when children, dogs, food, ceremonies, conversations, and nowadays cell phones, motorcycles, loudspeakers, all vie for attention. It has always been thus. Ethnomusicology is the study of music IN culture – and culture is multivalent, interconnected, messy.