The instruments of the Elizabethan stage

Sep 18, 2018 | Renaissance, Will Kemp | 0 comments

In “Will Kemp Returns! A Jigs Revival,” we’re taking you to Elizabethan England, playing music that you might’ve heard in a play by Shakespeare or on the streets of Renaissance London.

To help us travel back in time, we’ve invited Renaissance music expert Dan Meyers to join our merry band of musicians. Meyers is a founding member of the Boston-based early music group Seven Times Salt, and is the director of early wind studies for the Five Colleges Early Music Program in Massachusetts.

We caught up with Meyers to ask him about the Renaissance instruments he’ll play in the concert and why he’s looking forward to this project!

You’ll be playing the pipe and tabor in the upcoming concert. Can you describe the instrument a bit?

Meyers: It’s actually two different instruments that are played together. The tabor is a two-headed drum that can range in size anywhere from about 8 inches across and 3 inches deep to 16 inches across and 3 feet deep. The heads are usually made of animal skin (calf or goat) and the shell is made of wood, and the tension/pitch of the heads can be adjusted by a series of ropes or cords strung along the outside of the drum.

Often a tabor will also have one or more “snares” — pieces of gut cord that are strung across the head and create a buzzing sound when you strike the drum, much like the metal snares on a modern snare drum.

The pipe is usually called a three-hole pipe or a tabor pipe, and in its basic form it’s a lot like a recorder, only with just three holes — two on the top for your index and middle fingers, and one on the bottom for your thumb. This allows you to play it with just one hand, leaving the other hand free for the drum!

It has a limited range — usually only about an octave and a fourth — and it tends to play just one scale, either major or minor, depending on how it’s constructed. Other notes outside the scale can be produced, but it’s tricky, especially if you’re playing fast.

The other big difference from the recorder, in addition to the number of holes, is that the tabor pipe is much more sensitive to breath pressure. If you blow harder or softer, you get a different note, so you have to be very careful about how hard you’re blowing in order to produce the correct pitch.

Most tabor pipes are made out of the same woods as recorders. Mine are made of boxwood, and I have some well-made plastic ones as well which I use if the boxwood ones are having problems (plastic doesn’t sound as good as wood, but it’s much more consistent).

How was a pipe and tabor traditionally used?

Meyers: The pipe and tabor are traditionally used for dance music, and they’re a great choice for this, since one musician can produce both rhythm and melody by themselves. We have drawings/paintings of the pipe and tabor going back to the Middle Ages, and most of them include people dancing.

In the 21st century, it’s still used in many European countries in various forms. It’s an important cultural fixture in the Basque country of northern Spain and southern France, where they play a special four-hole pipe called a txistu, and have entire bands of pipe-and-tabor players that all play together.

In England the pipe and tabor are often used as an accompaniment for Morris dancing, and in southern Italy the three-hole pipe is often played with an instrument called a buttafuoco (or “string drum” in English), which looks a little bit like an American mountain dulcimer and has anywhere from three to 18 strings that are stretched across a movable bridge. When the strings are hit with a light stick, they produce ringing, dulcimer-like chords that accompany the pipe melody.

It seems like it would be very difficult to play a pipe, bang a drum and dance all at the same time. How coordinated do you have to be to play it?

Meyers: I usually try to avoid dancing while playing the pipe and tabor, but I’ve had to do it on occasion, and of course Will Kemp was famous for it! The coordination definitely takes practice, but it’s similar to what modern rock or jazz drummers do when they’re playing a drum set — if anything, it’s less complicated than what set drummers deal with every time they play. Most people are capable of doing two things at once with a little practice (think of the classic patting-your-head-while-rubbing-your-stomach example). I’m a terrible athlete, so it certainly isn’t due to any natural coordination!

You’ll also be playing Renaissance bagpipes in the concert. Can you explain what they’re like?

Meyers: The two sets of pipes I’ll be playing in the Newberry program are copies of Renaissance instruments from England and the Netherlands. Both of them share similarities with the Scottish bagpipes most people are familiar with, including a fairly limited range of just nine notes, but both are quieter than the Scottish pipes and have only a single drone (modern Scottish pipes have three drones). Like the pipe and tabor, the bagpipes were often used for dance music in Renaissance Europe, and many Elizabethan-era towns employed one or more town pipers who were paid to play at weddings, festivals, or other events where a lot of people might be dancing.

What other Renaissance instruments will you be playing in the concert?

Meyers: I’ll be playing recorders of various sizes, the Renaissance flute (a wooden, six-hole flute of the type that would have been familiar to Elizabethan audiences), and a few other percussion instruments including frame drums and tambourines. Most professional instrumentalists in the Renaissance, especially woodwind players, were expected to be able to play multiple instruments. Very few professional musicians only played one instrument in the 16th century, although it’s become the norm in the 21st.

In 2013, you played Renaissance instruments on Broadway as part of the band for Shakespeare’s Globe Theater’s production of Twelfth Night and Richard III. What do you enjoy about playing music from Shakespeare’s plays?

I love working with actors and dancers, and I’ve done a lot of theater work over the past several years. At the moment I’m actually in Washington, D.C. at the Folger Theatre, playing music for the first American production of William Davenant’s Restoration-era adaptation of “Macbeth.” This version of Macbeth premiered in 1664, after English theaters had been closed for almost two decades during the English Civil War and Interregnum, and it includes quite a bit of music, reconstructed by American and British scholars and the Folger Consort. The English theater of the 16th and 17th centuries was a very musical medium, and I love being able to share that experience with modern audiences. I also do a lot of work with a Boston-based commedia dell’arte group called Pazzi Lazzi, and of course commedia and its tradition of stock characters and scenarios featuring improvised dialogue was an important influence on the Elizabethan jig repertoire. Music by itself is wonderful; music with acting and dancing is even better!

What are you looking forward to about performing with us in “Will Kemp Returns! A Jigs Revival”?

Meyers: I really enjoy doing multi-disciplinary performances, and I’m very much looking forward to working with Steve Player, whom I’ve heard a lot about but never met. I always enjoy getting the chance to perform with David Douglass and Ellen Hargis. David was very supportive of my English Consort ensemble, Seven Times Salt, when my colleagues and I were getting it off the ground in Boston back in 2003, and he taught us a lot about that repertoire. I’m also happy that Ellen is now teaching at the Longy School of Music, where I went to grad school. I wish she’d been there when I was a student! And all musical considerations aside, I love Chicago and I’m always happy for an excuse to visit.

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