Getting to Know Medieval Instruments

Jan 11, 2017 | blog, medieval | 0 comments

One of the most interesting things about the Newberry Consort is the fact that we get to play so many different kinds of instruments depending on the time period that we’re focusing on in each concert.

Some of the early instruments we play are recognizable and have similar, modern day counterparts, while others look totally foreign and were unique to their specific time period.

In our next concert, featuring the music of medieval composer Oswald von Wolkenstein, we’ll be playing several instruments that were common during the middle ages. We asked Debra Nagy, one of the leading early music wind players in the country who will be a guest artist at our January concert, to give us a rundown on some of the most prominent medieval instruments.

1. Recorder
The recorder — really an end-blown flute or whistle — is one of the oldest instruments in existence. In general, it hasn’t changed terribly much over the course of time, but the instruments I will be using for the Newberry Consort’s January concert are special: They have a cylindrical bore (as opposed to a tapered bore, which became common from the Renaissance onwards) and a sweet, smoky sound.

2. Shawm
ShawmThe shawm is officially the predecessor to the oboe. There can even be confusion about the name since the shawm was also known as “hautbois,” which means loud/high-pitched wood (it’s also the word for oboe in French). So the shawm is a loud, high-pitched double-reed instrument with a large, flared bell. Or, as a shawm-playing friend of mine once described it, “the shawm is the electric guitar of the Renaissance.”

3. Doucaine
doucaineThe English had another name for the douçaine: a “styll shawm,” that is, a very quiet shawm. In fact, the shawm and douçaine (which literally means soft or sweet-sounding instrument) are not closely related. Part of what makes the douçaine so soft is the fact that it has a tiny, cylindrical bore (compared with the shawm’s larger, flared/conical bore). The douçaine has a large double reed and its range only spans a tenth (that is, an octave plus two more notes). Despite these limitations, it’s a very useful instrument that works beautifully in late-medieval music.The douçaine also has a fascinating history. It’s described in medieval literature and Renaissance treatises, but for years we had no surviving instruments. In this way, the douçaine was a bit of a “mystery” instrument. However, our first (and only) douçaine was found in 1982 when Henry VIII’s warship the Mary Rose was exhumed. There was a chest of instruments that survived on the Mary Rose and inside was our first look at a douçaine! My instruments (alto and tenor) are scaled down versions inspired by the sole original (which happens to be a bass).

4. Harp
harpThe harp I use is relatively small, and is held between my legs (not so dissimilar from viola da gamba). It has 26 strings made from gut, but what’s special about it are the brays. These little wedge-shaped pieces of wood stand close to the strings so that when a string is plucked it vibrates against the wood and produces a distinctive, buzzy sound. The brays help to make the instrument sound louder and they also add a bit of sustain to the sound.

Other medieval instruments we’ll be playing:

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