8th November 2011

Blast from the past

This was our second visit from Jonathan Weeks, who had previously joined us in 2010 for our Christmas celebrations.

He continued his account of early musical instruments by describing and playing a further collection of medieval horns, trumpets, and strings.

Once again he treated us to a dazzling mixture of music, erudition and wit. Indeed, his first quip was to remind us of how, by Saxon times, musical instruments had become debased and no longer displayed the sophistication of their classical predecessors. Thus "anything calling itself a harp was a lyre" disposed of the Saxons understanding of stringed instruments. Similarly pipe and reed instruments of that period were seen as inferior versions of their earlier forebears.

Jonathan held that it was the Crusades that brought contact with the Arab world, re-introducing more sophisticated instruments along with such other benefits as more advanced architecture, medicine, mathematics and the like.

Taking first the wind instruments he explained the difference between horns and trumpets, which lies in the section of the bore. In the case of the horn it is conical, whereas in a trumpet it is parallel. He demonstrated several applications of the horn principle, including a conch whose end had been removed to make a mouthpiece, a cowhorn (cowhorns sound like cows!) and a copy of a fifteenth century horn excavated in Germany recently. The sounds of the instruments were loud and direct and had probably originated as a means of communication over long distances, both on land and at sea. Samples of trumpet-type instruments were also produced including a copy of a fourteenth century trumpet found in a recent dig in Billingsgate. This includes a pair of mysterious roundels spaced about 18 inches apart which were eventually explained as a means of allowing a banner to be hung from the instrument.

Even by the eleventh century there were examples of innovatory horns that had been pierced with fingerholes on which it proved possible to play a scale (just!). On another fourteenth century replica he played "the most miserable tune ever": a piece known as "Fortune My Foe", a favourite at public hangings. Jonathan then proceeded to play the "Trumpet Voluntary" on a late medieval cornett (not the same as the modern cornet!), an instrument made by halving a horn or pipe lengthwise, hollowing the two halves out so as to create a conical bore and then binding them together again. The Renaissance artist and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini found that the sound of this instrument "put him in mind of a good eunuch". This family of wind instruments evolved into the lizard and then the serpent, with their characteristically sinuous form. With the introduction of keys the serpent was capable of producing two and a half octaves, and continued in use in gallery orchestras in churches until the nineteenth century.

Jonathan then turned his attention to the strings and began with an account of the lyre. He described the two versions of the instrument inherited from the ancient Greeks and distinguished by the form of their backs. That based on the shape of the turtle (and examples are known of versions built around a real turtle shell), whose modern-day version is the lute, and the flat-backed cithara which is perhaps the instrument that most readily comes to mind when we think of a Classical stringed instrument. We have archaeological evidence of a Saxon version of the latter instrument found in the Prittlewell burial excavated in 2003. The famous Sutton Hoo burial also contained brackets that were interpreted as coming from a lyre. Jonathan used his replica of a Saxon lyre to play us the famous troubadour melody "En Hiver".

Another development of the stringed instrument was the introduction of frets on the fingerboard (probably from India). An early example of this is known from a thirteenth century carving in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which shows a citterne or sitole. The lute belongs to this family of instruments and achieved great popularity during the Elizabethan period in England, though it had existed for at least 300 years by then. The lute is comparable to the Arabic oud and the names derive from a common root, suggesting once again an oriental origin for the instrument. Indeed, Jonathan used an instrument made in Damascus to demonstrate its particular qualities. For this he accompanied himself in another Troubadour song from around 1240-1250. The words to this, sung by a minstrel in praise of his host's wife, were, so we were informed, of a highly suggestive nature which would certainly not be acceptable today. But such was the respect in which the human singing voice was held that it would then have been perceived as a compliment.

We were then introduced to the bowed string instruments in the shape of a "useless instrument" the tromba marina or nonnengeige, a curious single-stringed instrument which, when bowed, produced a strange monotonous buzzing tone. Presumably its purpose was to provide a kind of dronal accompaniment.

The hurdy gurdy and its predecessor the organistrum are amongst the earliest of bowed instruments. The sound is produced by turning a wheel which, rather like a rotary bow, causes a string to vibrate, and then a range of notes is produced by stopping the string by the use of hand-operated pegs. We heard a thirteenth century melody called "The Seven Joys of Mary". The hurdy gurdy is still much played today. Rebec, fiddle, and psaltery, all members of the bowed instrument family followed in quick succession. Often they are associated with the music of dance and Jonathan cited a reference in Chaucer's Miller's Tale to the character Absalom dancing round, playing the rebec and singing in a high falsetto voice. Jonathan also referred to a fiddle found in the Mary Rose which he pictured accompanying the sailors doing their daily hornpipe workout.

For this non-musician there was much to marvel at: the speaker's skill at producing music from such a varied range of historic instruments, the extent of his collection, much of it home-made, and the stories they had to tell of the people who had played and listened to them throughout human history.

For anyone interested in seeing further examples of these wonderful instruments in action I would recommend a visit to YouTube. Just key in the name of the instrument you are interested in (perhaps include the words "musical instrument" to avoid ambiguity!) and you will quickly find yourself in the company of virtuosos and enthusiasts producing wonderful music from all manner of instruments; original, replica, home-made and sometimes exquisitely decorated.

Peter Johnson