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Archive for February 2013

Composer Biography: Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)

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It can be said about Michael Praetorius that had he not been a musician, there would have been no Johann Sebastian Bach. Does that sound a bit extreme? Read on, and you’ll see what I mean.

Michael was the youngest son of a Lutheran pastor who’d been a student of Martin Luther, in Kreutzburg Germany. It’s not clear what the family name was, but it could have been Schultze, Schultheiss, Schultz, or Schulteis. In case you were thinking it wasn’t obvious, Praetorius is the traditional Latinized form of that family of names. Latinizing names was common in the 16th and 17th century.

Praetorius became the organist at the Marienkirche in Frankfurt an der Oder in 1585. He would have been 14 years old, so his gift was evident early. He stayed there for ten years, and then went on to serve the Bishop of Halberstadt as organist. Next, he gained the patronage of Duke of Braunschweig-Lüneburg, and went with him to Wolfenbüttel, where he became choir master in 1603. He got himself a job as the royal organist at Dresden, and there, he worked with another famous organist, Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672). From there, he travelled a lot and earned quite a reputation as conductor, as an organist, and as an expert on instruments and musical practices.

He published his first compositions in 1602 and 1603, when he would have been in his early thirties. These works established him as a composer of some great skill and his reputation grew from there. He probably wrote the very familiar Christmas carol, Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming, in 1609. (The composer is presumed, but not known, to be Praetorius.)

He soon became a prolific composer for the Lutheran church. The majority of his output is contained in a huge book called Musae Sioniae. It contains 1244 chorale settings, but he published even more than that, from large-scale polyphonic variations with instrumental support, to itty bitty simple melodies. He also wrote oodles of other liturgical music and a set of 312 dances (Terpsichore).

His three-volume treatise Syntagma Musicum (1619) is a compendium of information on German music, musical instruments, and performance. He collected musical information on his travels, much like the Brothers Grimm collected fairy tales in the 19th century.

The astonishing books of Syntagma Musicum contain information on instruments, instrumentation, rhythms, tempos, voicings, treatises on organists playing from a score rather than from parts, and transpositions. He declared which instruments were suitable for forming a kind of foundation (called continuo, like organs and harpsichords), ornamentation (melodic instruments, like viols, violins, cornetti, flutes, recorders, shawms, trombones, cornamusas, crumhorns, and curtails), or to be instruments played as accompaniment (like spinets, lute, theorbo, double cittern, harp, lyra de braccio, and chittarone).

Sadly, Praetorius called the hurdy-gurdy bad names, saying that it was the lyre of peasants and itinerant wenches. Harumph. He may have known lots of stuff, but the hurdy-gurdy is still one of my favorite instruments, so I think he didn’t know good hurdy-gurdy playing, or maybe he was anti-drone. He did like another even more obscure instrument, called the viola organista, a sort of bowed keyboard instrument invented by Leonardo da Vinci, and wrote a whole chapter in Syntagma Musicum on it and its descendants. They sounded, according to Praetorius, like an orchestra of viols.

He and his colleague Jan Sweelinck (1562-1621) laid the foundations for 17th and 18th century German organ music, which is considered the pinnacle era for organ music. This is what I meant when I said that without Praetorius, there would have been no J.S. Bach (1685-1750). If Praetorius and Sweelinck hadn’t written prescriptions for how accompaniment, ornamentation, solos, and parallel performances should be done, what Bach produced would have been rather different, or possibly nonexistent.

Praetorius developed a new form of music, called the “chorale concerto,” based on the works of Giovanni Gabrieli. He was one of the first German composers to make use of Italian performance practices.

Musae Sioniae (1605-1610) is one of his more famous collections. It’s in nine parts: Parts I through IV contain double choir pieces for 8 or 12 voices; Part V is celebratory songs set into motets (Festlieder); Parts VI, VII, and VIII are four-part settings for congregational use, consisting of 746 pieces and using 458 different texts; and in Part IX, he resets the hymns from parts I-IV, only in two or three voices this time.

Polyhymnia Caduceatrix et Panegyrica, a collection dating from 1619, includes works styled after those of his colleagues, such as Monteverdi’s Vespers, Giovanni Gabrieli’s Sacrae Symphoniae Book II, and the works of Ludovico Grossi da Viadana and Agostino Agazzari.

His most famous book, Syntagma Musicum, is in three volumes: Part I is the history of music (published in 1615); Part II discusses instrumentation (published in 1618) with a supplementary volume of illustrations called Theatrum Instrumentorum (published in 1620); and Part III is a detailed description of Italian-styled but distinctly German performance practice, with or without continuo, including instrumentation, voicings, and so forth. A fourth volume on composition was left unfinished at his death.

Some of these books were written in Latin, as was traditional for all learned works at the time, but his book on organ playing (Die Organographia, published in 1618), was written in German, as was the third book of Syntagma Musicum, and a volume on musical terms (Termini Musicali, published in 1618).

Terpsichore (1612), a collection of more than 300 instrumental dances, is probably his most widely known work and his only secular work to survive.

The number and quality of his works surpassed his contemporaries’ in bulk and variety, and most were based on Lutheran hymns both simple and elaborate. It was common practice to “borrow” from folk music, hymn books, and other composers, and it still is. Praetorius was no different from the rest, although he was probably better than most.

Stories go that Praetorius occasionally regretted not becoming a minister, and his deep religiousness and his family history is evident in his choice of texts.

He died on his 50th birthday (some people just can’t deal with getting older) in Wolfenbüttel in 1621, and is entombed beneath the organ of the Marienkirche there.

My first choral experience was singing works by Praetorius. The group performed in four parts (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and in four choirs, each in a different corner of the performance hall. Each group of four parts was elegant and complete in its own right, and I imagine that sitting in the middle of the four groups, all singing complementary works, was like experiencing a sort of aural butterfly migration.

This blog entry is dedicated to the memory of David Babbitt (1947–2006), director of the San Francisco Bach Choir from 1981-2006, a brilliant conductor and composer who seemed to “channel” Praetorius in his own works, and because of whom, I am a singer today (rather than the instrumentalist I had been since childhood). The power of a genius gives and gives, far beyond its obvious reach.


“The Interpretation of Early Music,” by Robert Donington, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1989

“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche, Oxford University Press, New York, 1981

“Temperament, The Idea that Solved Music’s Greatest Riddle,” by Stuart Isacoff, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2001


For more blogs like this, see my website at and look in both the Completely Off Topic page and the Blogs listings.

Instrument Biography: The Lute

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The lute is the earliest form of long-necked, fretted, round bellied stringed instrument known to man. It’s a member of the chordophone family, along with lyres, harps, and zithers. Although this plucked string instrument with frets and gut strings, a round back, and a pear-shaped body is one of the most ancient instruments, it’s enjoying another resurgence in popularity. You’ll see what I mean by “another” in a minute.
The lute came to Europe from the Far East in the early Middle Ages. It had four or five strings and was used for solo lines in ensembles and was played with a plectrum. By the later 15th century, the lute had six doubled strings (called courses) and a distinctive way of playing with the fingers on the strings, by plucking instead of using a plectrum, had developed.

By the Renaissance, the plectrum had been completely given up and the lute was played only with the fingers, capable of great delicacy of expression, like a modern guitar. The lute was the most highly regarded of all the instruments. In 1487, music historian Tinctoris mentions earlier lutenists, such as Pietrobono.

Lutenists abounded in the 16th century, and the instrument developed a huge repertoire for solos, both designed for the lute and transcribed from vocal pieces.

A Little Lute History

The earliest evidence of lutes is in Mesopotamia, around 2000 BCE. The instrument had only two strings, but if you considered that music was monophonic (melody only, with no harmonies or accompaniment) against the occasional drone, nothing more was needed.

The lute first appeared in Egypt in the 15th century BCE, where it really came into its own. It’s thought to have come to Egypt through Asia. When the subjugated kings of southwestern Asia sent tributes to Egyptian rulers, they included singing and dancing girls and their accompanying instruments. Egypt’s music underwent a significant change and nearly all of their own ancient native instruments were discarded or adapted in favor of these new ones. The standing harp became larger and gained strings; shrill oboes replaced the softer flutes; and lyres gave way to lutes. Even the delicious drums that seem so indigenous to Egypt’s music came from Asia at around this time. Egypt’s music became noisier and more stimulating as a result.

There’s a mural from the 15th century BCE showing a lute with nine frets. The tomb of Tutankhamen (who ruled c1332-c1323 BCE) contains images of instruments, including the lute, being played by slave girls.

The lute soon began to appear all over. The Egyptians borrowed music and lute technology from Mesopotamia and Syria; the Jews borrowed from the Phoenicians; the Greeks from Crete, Asia Minor, and Phoenicia. The harp, lyre, double oboe, and the hand-beaten drum were all played in Egypt, Palestine, Phoenicia, Syria, Babylonia, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy, along with the lute.

In India, a group of girls sent to entertain men in the 1st century CE would have been accompanied by harps and drums, as well as lutes, lyres, and double oboes. Lyres and oboes didn’t catch on, as their tuning would have been foreign (Greek modes never made it to India), but the lute was accepted. (You can read more about the Greek modes in my blog Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes.)

An Iranian Christian leader called Mani (c215-276 CE) demanded that his adherents make music as part of their worship. The teachings of Manichaeism are found in a collection of liturgical hymns, and for a long time, he was considered the inventor of the modern lute, meaning that after Mani, the number of strings and frets didn’t change (much).

Because music has no place in secular Islamic culture, in the 6th century CE, the prophet Mohammed banned instrumental music as a forbidden pleasure. He specifically mentioned the lute, the harp, and the flute, and also banned the drums as frivolous and morally loose. Surprisingly, he thought drums were okay for social festivities.

Neo-Platonist Ya’qüb ibn Ishäq al-Kindï  (called Alkindus) (c790-c874 CE) mentions the fretted lute and describes sounding intervals of fourths, fifths, octaves, and other intervals simultaneously with the melody (the beginnings of harmony? Or perhaps faux bourdon?). He also described eight rhythmic modes (see my blog Musical Modes, Part 2: Rhythmic Modes for more on this kind of thing).

It’s believed that the lute was introduced to Europe by the Saracens, and there’s an ivory carving dating from 968 CE that provides the oldest piece of evidence of the lute being in Europe.

In the 11th century, jongleurs (a kind of wandering minstrel) in France were expected to play an instrument. These could be a bowed instrument, like the vièle, or a harp, guitar, lute, psaltery, or a small organ. Guiraut de Calanson wrote, in “Conseils aux Jongler” in 1210, that an accomplished jongleur had to play the lute.

In Europe, the lute’s use seems limited to Spain and France until the 13th century. In the 14th century, Juan Ruiz, a Spanish poet known as the archpriest Hita, made a list of all the instruments in Spain, including the lute. By then, the lute was also known in Italy and Germany, and was mentioned by both Dante and Boccaccio, and by Heinrich von Neuenstadt. Even so, it was used sparingly because the mandola (a relative) was preferred. The mandola was also easier to construct and to play.

By the 15th century, the lute pushed the mandola into the background and became one of the most important instruments of the period (resurgence number one). More strings were introduced to the instrument, increasing from five to eleven, with the highest strings reserved for the melody, and the others, arranged in pairs, for the accompaniment.

The lute’s popularity in the 15th and 16th century is probably due to its ability to play chords, which were a new invention. The lute could play a melody and accompany itself at the same time, which meant that a single musician could entertain the crowd.

By the 16th century, the lute was far and away the most influential plucked instrument, much like the piano would be in the 19th and 20th centuries. The lute was an essential part of chamber music, but it was also present in larger ensembles, and was much favored as a solo instrument. It was super popular in the 16th and 17th centuries in France, becoming the central instrument for roving vagabonds, who lived and played outside the law, as had their forebears the Troubadours and Trouvères in the 11th through the 13th century.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, the lute had lost much of its high esteem because music was becoming so complex. In order to adapt, the number of strings increased in the bass, but it still couldn’t compete with the deeper archlute or theorbo (relatives of the lute). By 1727, when E.G. Baron wrote his “Treatise on the Lute,” the instrument was nearly completely out of favor. Lute music stylings were taken over by keyboards, like harpsichordists, organists, and pianists.

Nowadays, no one seems to be composing for the lute. When you hear it played, it’s usually a performance of Renaissance music. But thanks to the uptick of interest in historically informed performance since 1979, lutes are not uncommon at early music concerts (resurgence number two).

Lute Structure

The lute was originally similar to the vièle, which has a pear-shaped body, a shallow bowl, and a neck that comes out of the body without demarcation. The main difference is that the vielle’s strings come from a tailpiece and over a bridge (a 90-degree angle), and the lute has a string-holder that is glued directly to the table (the front face) of the lute (a straight line). The lute’s tuning pegs are at right angles to the neck because the peg box is bent toward the player at a 90-degree angle, making the pegs parallel to the table; the vielle’s tuning pegs are perpendicular to the table (like a guitar). The lute is distinctive in its vaulted back and bent-back peg box that holds the tuning pegs.

Early forms of the lute had a soundbox made from a tortoiseshell with a stretched leather table. Strings were gut on a wooden ridge, and placed in a spreading fan pattern. (It must have been pretty!)

In the 13th century, luthiers began to separate the construction of the body and the neck. They also made the back out of staves rather than a single piece of wood, which made the instrument more resonant. It was at this point that the number of strings increased from six to ten and were tuned in pairs, either identically or in octaves.

To improve the grip of the left hand on the stringboard, gut nooses, now known as frets, were tied around the neck, increasing from four to eight frets in due time. The body became larger as the need for louder music grew. Multiple sound holes on the table merged into one single and fairly large hole, usually carved into a decorative rose.

By the Renaissance, lutes were often made of precious materials such as ivory, ebony, or Brazil-wood.

In the 16th century, lutes were lightly constructed, often with six or seven doubled strings (called courses).

The oldest lutes had three to five strings, usually plucked with a little rod or plectrum, or, rarely, with the fingers. As time progressed, strings were added and finger plucking grew more popular than strumming or plucking. Modern (post-Renaissance) lutes have between 15 and 24 strings, some doubled into courses, and some single strings.

By the 10th century, it was common for the strings to be tuned in fourths like a modern guitar.

Origins of the Name:

In Persian, the name of the instrument is al’ūd, which means “the wood.” This evolved into the “oud,” and then became a lute in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, etc. The instrument is still commonly used in Arabic music.

The Greeks used the same Sumerian noun for the long-necked lute as the word for “bow.” Sadly, the source that gave me this tidbit didn’t say what that word was. (Does anyone speak Sumerian?)

Giraldus Cambrensis (c1146-c1223) reported that the English were playing the lute. The guitar reached England in the 13th century, before the introduction of the lute, which is kind of backward to the rest of Europe. It doesn’t appear in English carvings or illustrations until the 15th century, but it’s mentioned in the list of instruments at the Feast of Westminster in 1306.

Obviously, the lute made its way to France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. Michael Praetorius, in the 16th and 17th centuries (see Composer Biography: Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) for more on this great musicologist ) describes Recht Chorist or the Alt-Laute as the parent to the contemporary lute. Perhaps in Germany, these were names of earlier instruments, but clearly, it wasn’t invented there.

Descendants of the Lute

The following list is alphabetical rather than chronological.

The angelica was a kind of theorbo with 17 diatonically tuned (do-re-me) strings. It’s also called the Angelique.

The archlute, as the name implies, is a much larger form of lute. It was made as early as the 16th century but only came to importance in the 17th. It had diapason strings, meant to stay open, that ran beside the finger board, and allowed sympathetic-string ringing, like a harp’s unplucked strings. It had 16 or 17 single strings on two peg boxes.

The chitarrone reduced the size of the body but increased the length of the bridge piece that connected the two peg-boxes. The instrument was a monster, being from five to six-feet long.

The colascione was a European long-necked lute with 24 movable frets and three courses of metal strings. Its body was occasionally made partially of parchment. (You may recall that parchment was very thinly tanned animal hides, not a form of paper.)

The long-necked lute was a medieval instrument with strong Moorish associations and might be the same instrument that’s called guiterre moresche. Both are described with a long neck and a small body with a movable bridge, and only three strings.

The mandore and mandola were small lutes with short necks and four doubled strings. These instruments were also called the pandurina, mandurina, Mandüchen, and mandolin. It has the characteristically backward-bending head and five or six pairs of strings, which later became single strings (like in the mandolin).

The pandurina was a small-sized mandora with four or five strings and was played with the fingers or a plectrum. Despite its Italian-sounding name, its use was limited to France.

The theorbo’s had two tuning heads. The main head was only slightly bent and the second peg-box was joined to the first by a short connecting piece.

The theorbo-lute kept the traditional bent-back head of the lute and had an additional peg box beside the main head for additional strings.

Famous Lute Players

You may have heard of the famous English lutenist and composer John Dowland, but there will be others in this list that are more obscure. There’s Francesco de Milano, Michelangelo Galilei (uncle of Galileo), Henry VIII of England, James IV of Scotland, and Pietrobono, mentioned by Tinctoris in his medieval treatise on music.

Current big names in as lutenists are Munir Nurettin Beken, August Denhard, Lutz Kirchhof, Jakob Lindberg, Paul O’Dette, and Marco Pesci.

Famous Composers

There are too many composers for the lute to name even a very small percentage, so I’ll just include the biggest hitters. Guillaume Machaut (see Composer Biography: Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377)), Franscesco Landini (biography to come), and John Dowland are probably the most famous, with Jacques Champion de Chambonnieres (after 1601-c1671), Francesco di Milano, Albert de Rippe, and Vincenzo Galilei (Galileo’s father) making the list.

One of the greatest innovators was a fellow called Denis Gaultier (c1597-1672), who ranked as the highest official in a French province after the governor himself. Gaultier invented his own nomenclature for modes, where Dorian appeared as D major and Sousdorien as A major. (see Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes for more on that sort of thing). Although dance rhythms appear in his works, he named none of them after dances, which was the usual practice of the day.

Happily, people are still making music on lutes, and I hope this little article makes you want to go out and hear a concert or twelve.

You can check out more of my blogs on


“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1940.

“Musical Instruments; Their history in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Mill. George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1949 (reprint)

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A History of Western Music, Eighth Edition” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010

“The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West,” Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 1943

“A Dictionary of Early Music: From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabether Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981

“Music Education in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance,” edited by Russell E. Murray, Jr., Susan Forscher Weiss, and Cynthia J,. Cyrus. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2010

Composer Biography: Josquin des Prez (also Desprez and Des Pres) (c1440-1521)

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You might well have heard of the Franco-Flemish composer called Josquin. He’s one of my favorite composers, partially because his music tries to convey the meaning of the words via the melodies in a way that we now call word painting, but mostly because of the polyphony (multiple parallel melodies that each work when sung independently but are even better when sung simultaneously—not harmony or chords, but simultaneous melodies). There’s some evidence that polyphony caught on in Cambrai, a huge center for musicians and musical innovation from about the 13th century, earlier than in most other places, and Josquin was its greatest advocate and master.

Josquin’s style reflects formal balance and symmetry by using imitation and sequence. He carefully conceals elements like canon and ostinato (where a melody is performed against a repeating phrase), occasionally passing it among the voices, which is why it’s so much fun to sing his music—it’s like playing a musical form of button-button-who’s-got-the-button. He was a master of imitating the rhythms of speech in the music, making it natural to sing and understand. Josquin wrote the music and the words at the same time, which was a big leap from the older style of writing the melodies and then forcing the words into that structure.

It’s possible that Josquin’s family name was Lebliotte based on the discovery of a will that left him a house and land in Conde-sur-l’Escaut, which is now in Belgium. By the 15th century, quite a few people were starting to have family names and he could easily be one of them. Regardless, he’s known by the next big town (Prez) to the little town where he was born (Hainaut) for posterity. (Note that Prez is rather near Dendermonde, a place Hildegard fans will be fond of for preserving her music.)

He held a series of prestigious positions at courts and churches in France and Italy, and in 1538, Martin Luther proclaimed him “the master of the notes. They must do as he wills…other composers must do as the notes will.”

Records show that Josquin encouraged his singers to ornament freely, although it’s doubtful that he would have the whole choir ornamenting or it would have sounded like chaos. Somewhere in the next hundred years, especially in Germany and Italy, soloists were particularly encouraged to ornament in what would become the distinctive Baroque style, and that’s likely what Josquin had in mind, too.

Josquin probably trained in or near Saint Quentin in northern France, halfway between Paris and Brussels. During the course of his life, he traveled extensively around Europe, a common practice for composers or musicians of such great reputation.

He was a singer at the Milan Cathedral from 1459-1474, and sang at the private chapel of the Sforza family in 1474. There, he felt undervalued and underpaid; Sforza was notoriously tight-fisted with his household staff. From 1476-1479, Josquin worked for Cardinal Ascanio Sforza and later went to Rome with him, singing in the papal chapel choir from 1486-99.

He also served in the chapel of Rene, Duke of Anjou, in the late 1470s. When the Duke of Anjou died, he took a job with King Louis XI at Sante Chapelle in Paris in 1480. Then he went back and served the Sforzas from c1484-89. He found himself working in the Sistine Chapel in Rome from 1489-95 or thereabout and he seems to have been in France at the court of Louis XII from 1501-1503.

In 1503, he was appointed maestro di capella to Duke Ercole I d’Este in Ferrara in 1503 at the highest salary in the history of that chapel. He beat out the already famous Heinrich Isaac (still famous for his “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen”) for the position. A recruiter had preferred Isaac because Josquin cost more and was undisciplined. In the end, Josquin only stayed a year, apparently leaving to escape the plague. From 1504 until his death in 1521, he lived at Conde-sur l’Escaut, where he was the provost at the church of Notre Dame. He seems to be connected with the court of French Louis XII before 1515, but I’m not sure how.

In the 15th century, music was changing and Josquin was pushing it. By 1498, modal music was starting to disappear–not all the modes went <poof!> at once; there were more popular modes, such as Dorian and Phrygian, and less popular modes like the plagal ones, and they lingered (or didn’t). (For more on modes, see Musical Modes, Part 1: Church modes.) By 1600, the Lydian and Mixolydian modes had virtually become the major scale that we know today, and Dorian and Phrygian got absorbed into the minor scales. (In 1547, Glareanus advocated a system of twelve modes, with the authentic and plagal forms of the major Ionian and minor Aeolian modes added to the previously acknowledged eight church modes. The reason you haven’t heard about this is because history is written by the victors.)

At any rate, Josquin’s music was more than a little popular. For instance, Martin Luther, the religious reformer, liked Josquin’s music and proclaimed that he believed strongly in the educational and ethical power of such music.

Josquin spent 60 years writing music, which seems like a very long time by any standards. He wrote 20 Masses, 100 motets, and 75 secular pieces. His work was considered central to the High Renaissance and a gateway to the Baroque.

Part of his fame during his lifetime came from printing his own music and distributing it—Gutenberg had invented the printing press around the time of Josquin’s birth. A Venetian called Petrucci was the first to publish and disseminate Josquin’s work.

Josquin’s masses and motets are still considered technically ingenious. He often borrowed secular tunes as a cantus firmus (a sort of foundation melody that was sung underneath the fancier other parts and kept them moving along), and changed the words.

His most famous Mass was Missa Pange lingua, which was based on the plainchant by the same name. This was common practice, and modern composers (such as Eric Whitacre and Maurice Lauridsen) are still basing some of their work on plainchants in the same way.

Josquin’s compositions show a logical economy and a sort of mathematical precision. He particularly loved the form where each singing voice was a fourth or a fifth below the one above, and which led to the categories of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, the system we’re still using five centuries later.

Josquin died in Condé-sur Escaut in 1521 or thereabout. His tombstone was destroyed in 1793 during a siege by Austrians that pushed the French out, so there’s a question about the actual date. His birth date is also in question, mostly because these things were poorly documented.


  • “A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche, Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.
  • “The Pelican History of Music, Volume 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens, Penguin Books, London, 1973.
  • “The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham, Oxford University Press, New York 1979.
  • “A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010.
  • “The New Grove High Renaissance Masters,” by Jeremy Noble, Gustave Reese, Lewis Lockwood, Jessie Ann Owens, James Haar, Joseph Kerman, Robert Stevenson, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1984.

Written by Melanie Spiller

February 12, 2013 at 10:00 am

Instrument Biography: The Psaltery

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The psaltery is a plucked stringed instrument with open (unfretted) metal strings stretched over a flat soundboard and plucked with  a quill or the fingers. It’s frequently mentioned in the Bible (Old and New Testaments), and seems to have spread north to Europe from the Middle East. Like the harp and the lute, it’s a chordophone.

There are some nice images of psalteries on David Owens’ site. (The bowed psalteries in the steep isosceles triangle shape that you see there are a 20th century invention, and although the sound is somewhat similar, the scales and method of playing have nothing in common with the more ancient, and now rare, psaltery.)

The shape varies, but a hog-nosed-shaped trapezoid with incurved sides is most common. You can see an example of this in my blog The History of Music Notation.  There’s also a triangular-shaped psaltery, sometimes called the rote or rotta, that is essentially the same instrument. I didn’t find any information on reasons for this difference, but it was probably something like national or ethnic preferences.

As far as we can tell, the psaltery’s tuning was diatonic (do-re-me) once those scales were invented, but before that, it must have reflected Jewish modes (see my blog Musical Modes, Part 3A (Non-European: Israel))and the later Greek and Church modes (see my blog Musical Modes, Part 1 (Church Modes)). Imported to Europe during the Crusades, the psaltery was very popular during the Middle Ages as a solo instrument, as part of an ensemble, and as accompaniment to singing—pretty much anytime there was music. By the 15th century, though, the harpsichord and virginals gradually pushed it aside.

In the 16th century, plucked instruments like the psaltery and the lute (see Instrument Biography: The Lute for more on this instrument) were integral to the musical scene, whether at court or domestically in Spain and Italy. They were used for recreation or entertainment, or as a pedagogical or compositional tool. This was a departure from traditional musical activity, as instrumentalists became transcribers for vocal polyphony. Playing a stringed instrument soon became a symbol for cultural and social accomplishment.

The psaltery appears to have been invented in Southwest Asia in the 9th century BCE. Early biblical images show King David (c1040–970 BCE) holding one (also a harp or a lyre—see biographies for these instruments here  and coming soon) so we know that it made its way to the Middle East. It’s entirely possible that the psaltery came west with other instruments, like the lute (see Instrument Biography: The Lute).

The psaltery is often mentioned by Catholic church founders, and it appears in psalms and songs. It first appeared and was called a psaltery in Europe in the 12th century CE. (See more on the name, below.)

Clement of Alexandria (c150-c220 CE) limited instruments for worship to the harp and lyre because he worried about pagan influences. He forbade psalteries, along with trumpets, timbrels (an ancient tambourine), and aulos (a flute, sometimes with two tubes for playing), as they were used by those “expert in war” and he worried that the sound might over-excite the dejected minds of pagans.

Eusebios (c260-c340 CE), who was bishop of Caesarea in Palestine and author of “Ecclesiastical History” (the most important church history of ancient times), disapproved of the use of instruments of any kind, including the harp. He said that the body of living souls singing God’s praises made up a living psaltery, implying that any other form of instrument was unnecessary. Basil (c330-379) defended the psaltery as symbol of the body of Christ and claimed that the 10 strings represented the ten commandments.

St. Augustine (354-430 CE) saw the instruments of the psaltery and the timbrel as symbolic. The skin or leather is stretched on one and the gut strings are stretched on the other, both symbolic of crucification, according to him.

We don’t hear much about the psaltery for quite a few years, so presumably, it was maintained by secular musicians, who were often illiterate and left little or no documentation of such things. Odo (see Composer Biography: Odo of Cluny (c878-942)) mentioned that he was fond of the instrument in the 10th century, and documents about jongleurs in France in the 11th century say that they were expected to play an instrument—a bowed instrument, like the vièle, or perhaps a harp, guitar, lute, psaltery, or a small organ.

The 10 strings probably caused the misunderstanding by the Cistercian reform in the early 12th century that the modes should only have 10 notes in them. Psalm 150 says, “Praise him with the sound of the trumpet; praise him with the psaltery and harp,” after all (King James Version, Psalm 150:3). The Cistercians were a more severe order of Benedictines founded and spread by Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153, France. For a little about him in context of Hildegard von Bingen, see Composer Biography: Hildegard (1098-1179)).

Giraldus Cambrensis (c1146-c1223) reported that the Irish played the harp and psaltery, and also mentions the rote. It was also common in England.

Guiraut de Calanson mentions a rotta with 17 strings in his 13th century book on French jongleurs. He tells us that the lyre-shaped psaltery was preferred in Germany and England, and the triangular type in Spain. His contemporary, the trouvère Henri d’Andeli, describes the music in his retinue as including bells, rebecs (sort of like a violin, but played on the forearm instead of under the chin), and viols, psalteries, and small flutes, along with singing.

Geoffrey Chaucer (c1343-1400) mentions the psaltery in “Canterbury Tales.”

In the 14th-16th centuries, instruments were classified for their ability to be loud, called haut (French for “high”) and bas (French for “low”) for their volume, not their pitches. The most common low instruments were harps, vièles, lutes, psalteries, portative organs, transverse flutes, and recorders. Among the high instruments were shawms, cornets, and trumpets. Percussion instruments, including kettle drums, small bells, and cymbals, were common in ensembles of all kinds.

Because of its quiet bas nature, the psaltery didn’t really survive the late middle ages because it didn’t develop tuning engineering and so couldn’t adapt to more complex scales in addition to not being loud enough to contribute to concert-hall music. It was pretty much gone from the music scene by the 16th century.


Usually trapezoidal, psalteries were occasionally triangular or rectangular, like a zither.

The Moors refined it and called it a qanun. Their version was trapezoidal, or hog- nosed (like mine that you saw in The History of Music Notation).

Early psalteries were plucked with a quill or a plectrum, and later versions were plucked or strummed with the fingers.

Strings were gut until the Middle Ages, when steel strings came into vogue in some countries.

The psaltery is played by silencing strings through touching them with the non-plucking hand in order to strum the remaining notes in a chord. Most of the time, the strings are left open.

Origins of the Name:

The English name probably comes from the Ancient Greek psaltērion, which meant to touch sharply, to pluck, pull, or twitch. As I mentioned before, it’s sometimes referred to as a rotta or a rote, and I didn’t find any information on that name.

The Arabic name is qânûn, from which we get the word “canon” in French, “canale” in Latin, “kanon” in German, “caño” in Spanish.

A smaller type was known as a micanon, medium canale (which became medicinale), metzkanon, or medio caño.

The dulcimer is a descendant, if you think of it as combined with the monochord (a single-string instrument used to find a drone and against which other note’s distance could be measured Odo of Cluny, who named the intervals A-B-C was fond of this instrument). The most obvious difference is that the monochord and the dulcimer can change notes along the length of the strings by pressing them, and the psaltery’s strings are played as they’re tuned. There is no way to change keys or sharpen or flatten a note while playing.

Famous Composers

The only mention of anyone composing specifically for the psaltery that I encountered was Guillaume Machaut (see Composer Biography: Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377). It’s probable that the convention of not taking credit for writing music prior to the high Middle Ages prevented people from declaring ownership of their works.

For more blogs like this one, see under blogs or look at the Completely Off Topic page.


“Musical Instruments; Their history in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Mill. George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1949 (reprint)

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A History of Western Music, Eighth Edition” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010

“The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West,” Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 1943

“A Dictionary of Early Music: From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabether Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981

Written by Melanie Spiller

February 6, 2013 at 8:26 pm