Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

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Archive for May 2013

Instrument Biography: The Shawm

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You might not have heard of this infamous Renaissance instrument, but the shawm is a relative to the oboe, the bassoon, and, in that it was an instrument meant for the great outdoors, to the bagpipe. It’s a member of the woodwind family and it looks like a recorder with an oboe reed.

The shawm was popular in Europe from the 12th century until the 17th century. It’s essentially a primitive oboe, with a conically bored wooden body, a double reed, and finger holes. Some have belled bottoms, some are curved. All are very loud.

The instrument and its music were considered symbolic of the pastoral mood for quite a while. In 1388, King John of Saragossa, when writing to his brother Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, said that he was fond of the shawm, along with the cornamusse, bombarde, harp, and portative organ. So there’s evidence of it being played in royal circles, not only out in the fields.

Shawms came to the rest of Europe through Italy, and the oldest known mention is from 12th century Saracen Sicily. The reed was nearly completely inside the player’s mouth (like the Egyptian aulos), which made it impossible to control the tone or color with the lips. There was no personal expression in the playing because of this limitation, and the instrument sounded with all the power and astringent vigor of the age. The shawm’s loud and clear tones made it suitable for playing with trumpets and percussion in consorts. In other words, it was loud, nasal, and not meant to be in the background.

Shawm History

The shawm is probably descended from the Asian zuma, and from similar instruments brought to Europe from the Near East during the time of the Crusades. It’s possible that the name comes from the Arabic salamiya, a traditional oboe from Egypt.

The shawm is represented in Norman drawings from about the 12th century. In England, it was used in connection with the night watches established by Henry III, and was called the waygte, or wayte pipe. Images of shawms from the 14th century look physically the same as the surviving instruments from the 16th and 17th century, so it’s not likely to have changed much for its whole period of popularity.

The shawm can still be heard in many countries, usually played by street musicians or military bands (and historically informed groups playing early music on period instruments). In the 12th century, the Crusaders would have found the military bands familiar, because they often faced huge bands of Saracen shawms and nakers (like a small kettle drum), used, like the bagpipe, as a psychological weapon.

The instrument was quickly adopted by Europeans for both dancing and military purposes. The standard outdoor dance band in the 15th century consisted of a slide trumpet playing popular melodies while two shawms improvised countermelodies over it.

By the 16th century, the shawm had evolved only slightly. The harsh tonality of the medieval shawm had modulated somewhat because of narrowing the bore and reducing the size of the finger holes. This extended the range, enabling a performer to play a second octave. Larger sizes were built, down to great bass, two octaves below the soprano. The larger sizes were unwieldy and impractical, making them rare. The great bass, in particular, could only be played with a performer standing on a small platform.

Smaller shawms, chiefly the soprano, alto, and sometimes the tenor, were often coupled with the Renaissance trombone or sackbut (biography to come), and the majestic sound of this ensemble was much in demand. The shawm became standard equipment in town bands, called a wait (or waygte or wayte), who heralded the beginning of municipal functions and signaled the time of day. Shawms became so closely associated with the town waits, (the Stadpfeifer in German, and piffari in Italian) that it was also known as the wait pipe.

The shawm was too loud for indoor use, and crumhorn and sordun were preferred in those roles for indoor bands. Those instruments were also double reeds, but they were fitted with a capsule that completely enclosed the reed, quieting the sound but continuing to limit the dynamic range.

The 16th century interest in building instruments led to a full-range of sizes, but the shawm consort proved to be a short-lived experiment. The extreme length of the pipe on the bass instruments meant that few were built and few played. Inventers found a way to bend the bore back upon itself, creating a more manageable instrument. The new instrument was often referred to as the dulcian, and was called a curtal in England, fagot or fagotto in Germany and Italy, the bajon in Spain. The dulcian became very popular as a general-purpose bass instrument where shawms were considered inappropriate (such as anyplace indoors). This attractively bent up instrument is the ancestor of the modern bassoon.

The charumera or charumeru is a double-reeded instrument in traditional Japanese music, thought to descend either from shawms brought there by Portuguese Christian missionaries, or by Iberian traders in the 16th century. They could also have come from a Chinese instrument, although that too, is thought to have come from Portuguese missionaries or traders. The shawm is sometimes used in kabuki theater performances.

Known by the Spanish as the chirimia, the shawm remains an important instrument among Mayan people in Highland Guatemala. Accompanied by a drum, the chirimia is used in processions and certain ritual dances, such as Baile de la Conquista (Dance of the Conquest) that is still played today.

The shawm inspired the 17th century hautbois, an invention of French musician Jacque-Martin Hotteterre (1674-1763). (There’s more about this fine fellow in my blog about the flute.) He is thought to have invented a new instrument that borrowed several features from the shawm, like its double reed and conical bore, but was otherwise unique. Around 1760, the hautbois began replacing the shawm in military bands, concert music, and opera. By 1800, the shawm was gone from concert life, although in 1830, shawms could still be heard in German town bands at municipal functions. The Germans and the Dutch continued to manufacture an ornate version, called the Deutsche Schalmey, long after the introduction of the hautbois.

A specimen of shawm was made by Johann Christoph Denner (1655-1707) of Nurenberg, who later invented the clarinet. His version didn’t catch on.

The shawm was the leading double-reed instrument until the 18th century when the Baroque taste for more expressive playing made it somewhat obsolete, as it offered no dynamics. And so it was that the powerful little shawm evolved into the more refined and delicate oboe (biography to come).

Shawm Structure

The original shawm was a double-reeded instrument (which means that two flat reeds are bound together like a tight duck’s bill) with seven finger holes, no keys, and a long, flared bell. Modern instruments have a conical bore. The body of the shawm is turned from a single piece of wood and ends in a flared bell.

Compared to the oboe, the shawm has a wide bore, which makes its tone loud and shrill. It has a cup-shaped connection between the mouthpiece and the instrument itself. Originally, shawms were keyless and the reed was set on a metal disk.

One curious feature is that the lowest finger hole is doubled, appearing both on the right and left side of the instrument, as some performers played with the right hand above the left and others with the left above the right (like the cornetto). The unused hole was stopped with wax. The bombard (the bass version) also has this feature, but its lowest hole, because of the difficulty reaching it with a finger, is occasionally covered by a key that is protected by a little perforated barrel called the fontanelle. The key was outfitted with a double touch piece, one for the right hand, and one for the left. Later shawms, except the smallest, had at least one key, allowing a larger range.

The double reed is made from the same cane, Arundo donar, used for modern oboes and bassoons. It was inserted directly into a socket at the top of the instrument, or in the larger types, at the end of a metal tube called the bocal. A small cylindrical piece of wood with a hole in the middle, called the pirouette, was placed over the reed and acted as support for the lips and embouchure. Only a portion of the reed protruded past the pirouette, allowing limited contact with the reed itself. The shawm had acquired a funnel-shaped pirouette mouthpiece by the 14th century, used mostly for military, ceremonial, and dance music.

The reed vibrates freely, completely inside the player’s mouth, unlike an oboe reed, which is held firmly between the lips. Because the reed is loose within the cavity of the mouth, there’s no way to play louder or softer, or offer much in the way of artistic expression.

The reed’s hidden nature, combined with the conical bore and flared bell, give the instrument a piercing sound, like the progeny of a trumpet and a goose. It’s ill-suited to indoor playing because it was very loud, and in a consort, is definitely outside-in-the-yard material.

There were only two sizes of shawm by the end of the Middle Ages, but by the beginning of the 17th century, there were seven sizes. The largest ones were so long that fingers couldn’t reach the lower finger holes and as many as five long-levered keys were added. Their mechanisms were protected by a perforated wooden barrel (the fontanelle). The keys had two wings, so the player could access them with either hand.

The alto shawm was tuned to F, with a range of nine notes. It was called the basselt nicolo. This instrument was described by Michael Praetorius as having one key, but was depicted by him as a four-keyed instrument. That was a reed-cap shawm, related to the hautbois de Poitou and the Rauschpfeife.

The bombarde, the bass instrument from the time of Konrad of Megenberg (1309-1374), is pitched a fifth lower than a shawm and has that special key for the pinky finger hidden under a wooden barrel. This instrument was also described by Michael Praetorius.

The shawm, unlike many other Medieval instruments that are otherwise lost to us, has continued to evolve. Where once it was a clumsy and heavy instrument, now it’s made in two sizes: a small, slender soprano instrument with a belled end and seven finger-holes; and an alto instrument (the pommer or bombard) pitched a fifth lower.

In Asian countries, shawm technique includes circular breathing, allowing continuous playing without pausing for air. You can find this technique among didgeridoo players, oboists, and occasionally clarinets, too.

The Name

In Latin, the name is calamus, meaning “reed” or “stalk.” It’s possible that the name comes from the Arabic salamiya, a traditional oboe from Egypt. The Romance languages all have similar names for the shawm. In Italian, it’s the ciaramella, in Old French it’s chalemie, in Spanish, it’s the chirimia. The French went on to make a hautbois , and the Italians made a piffari. Shalmei is essentially the same as the Old French name, chalemie, and both are thought to have come from the Hirtenschalmei, or shepherd’s shawm in German.

The larger members of the family were the bombard, and in English in the 14th century, which was later corrupted to Bombhardt and finally in the 17th century to Pommer in German.

In German, it’s called the Schalmer or Schalmei, and the Stadpfeifer. The Germans and the Dutch continued to manufacture an ornate version, called Deutsche Schalmey.

The name shawm appears in English in the 14th century. There were three original forms: shallemele (or shamulle or shamble), schalmys (or shalemeyes or chalemyes, which are plural forms), and schalmuse (or schalmesse), all from the Old French chalemei, chalemie, and chalemeaux (plural for chaleme). Another instrument, called the chalumeau shares this same etymology

Many folk shawms have  different names, like the Castilian, Aragonese, and Leonese dulzaina (or chirimia), and Catalan xirimia, docaina, or gralla, and the Navareese gaita in Spain. In Portugal, there’s a charamela, and in Italian, there’s a ciaramella (or cialamello or cennamella).

The taepyeongso is a Korean version and the gyaling is a Tibetan  version.

More modern instruments are often referred to as the dulcian, which was called a curtal in England, fagot or fagotto in Germany and Italy, and bajon in Spain. It became very popular as a general-purpose bass instrument where shawms were considered inappropriate (like in church). The dulcian is the ancestor of the modern bassoon.

Early plural forms were made from singular in most languages. The later reduction in the 15th and 16th centuries to a single syllable in forms such as shalme, shaume, shawme, and finally, in the 16th century, shawm, were probably due to the confusion about plurals.

Shawm Composers

Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377) wrote “Hoquetus David,” which had two upper parts that would have been played by shawm and schalmuse, and the trumpet would have been played for the third and lowest part.

Other composers include Englishmen Thomas Weelkes (c1575-1623), William Byrd (c1540-1623) and English composer born in Italy Augustin Bassano (fl. c 1603).

Shawm Players

I didn’t find any historical references for people who played the shawm, but there are plenty of good recordings available today. These feature creative folks like David Munrow and The Early Music Consort of London, Piffaro, a renaissance band, and my local favorites, The Whole Noyse.


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

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

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

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

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

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

Instrument Biography: The Cornetto

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The cornetto is a wooden wind instrument widely used throughout Europe from the 15th through the 17th centuries. It’s also called the cornett, which is not to be confused with the trumpet-like instrument called the cornet. A hybrid between a woodwind (like the recorder) and a brass instrument (like the trumpet), it was a long and slender tube, curved to one side, and had open finger holes. Sound was produced by blowing into a cup-shaped mouthpiece, like that of the trumpet.

The combination of the mouthpiece and finger holes results in difficulties of intonation (pitch) and embouchure (mouth positions). Once mastered, it’s extremely agile and has a range of dynamics and expressions that span between brassy trumpet sounds to incredibly sweet flute-like tones.

After 1500, there are records of cornetti (that’s the plural of cornetto) and trombones performing together with human voices at secular feasts, in the theater, and during Mass. Just a few decades earlier, loud and soft instruments would never have been combined. (See Instrument Biography: The Harp for more about this concept.) Wind bands weren’t excluded from the Catholic church until after 1500. They were welcomed back by the Lutherans, but that’s another story for another day.

Cornetto History

In Medieval times, the cornetto was not part of social life the way the harp and lute were. Its use was limited to shepherds calling flocks and the tower watchman announcing the arrival of strangers. Larger horns were used to signal foot soldiers in war. But then it got fancier.

Its popularity increased during the Middle Ages. By then, trumpeters had formed a highly privileged guild that only reluctantly played with other instruments. The various sizes of trumpets and trombones made a pretty sound, but because the treble trombone (yup, treble) had a tiny voice, trumpet and trombone choirs let cornetti play with them.

The Church of St. Mark in Venice was the center of musical culture for most of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, starting in the 11th century. Innovations abounded there, and it’s probably due to the gathering of great minds there that much of the music from those times is preserved.

The cornetto is mentioned in “Aucassin et Nicolette,” which was an anonymous 12th or 13th century musical play from France. In England, the cornetto was one of the principal types of wind instrument in the 13th century, along with recorder, shawms, double whistle-flutes, tabor-pipe, the horn, bugle, trumpet, organ, and bagpipe.

Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377) mentions the grant cornet d’Allemaigne (the grand cornetto of the Germans, also known as the Zink) in several of his poems, most notably his “Prise d’Alexandrie” and “Remede de Fortune.” (I think it was a recording of “Remede de Fortune” that got me hooked on Machaut in the first place.)

Giovanni Gabrieli (c1555-1612) published a collection of motets, Mass movements, and madrigals as “Concerti” (a very early use of the term). He wanted them performed by voices, two organs, cornetti, and trombones, plus one or two violins.

It’s not known from what date the cornetto began to provide support for choral music, but this became its main function by the end of the Renaissance, notably in the Venetian polychoral music of Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli in the 16th century.

Two cornetti were frequently used in consorts with three sackbuts (a form of trombone), and often doubled a church choir’s voices. By 1568, a first-rate permanent ensemble of instrumentalists was assembled at the Church of St. Mark in Venice, centering on cornetti and sackbuts and also including violin (which was a new instrument) and bassoon. Additional players were hired on major feast days, when as many as two dozen instrumentalists performed, alone or together with the choir of twenty to thirty voices.

Michael Praetorius didn’t care for the sound of the cornetto, describing it as “most unlovely and bullocky.” He knew lots of stuff about music, but I have to disagree with him about the sound.

The cornetto remained physically unaltered between the 17th century and the first half of the 18th, and it was a favorite in the Baroque period. The squiggly version called the serpent was particularly popular in France, providing the contrabass in wind ensembles. At the end of the 18th century, the serpent played an increasingly larger part in military bands.

Many examples of this instrument are in the Brussels Conservatory museum, mostly from late 16th century Venice, where Vincenzo Galilei (Galileo Galilei’s father) said that the best cornettos of his day were made.

The invention of the trumpet during the Classical period (1730-1820) provided the fanfare for the end of the cornetto’s popularity. The cornetto was harder to play than the trumpet because of its small mouthpiece, it was quieter and less limber, and composers simply stopped composing for it.

Cornetto Structure

Records of early cornettos say that they were made of natural horn, which is where we get the term “horn” for later brass instruments with a similar mouthpiece. Later cornetti were made of wood. The instrument is a hybrid between a woodwind and a brass instruments in that the shape, fingering, and material was like that of a woodwind, but the mouthpiece was like that of a brass instrument.

When the large German herhorn was pierced with finger holes in the 10th or 11th century, it became known as a cornetto or Zink. Cornetti were either straight and turned from a single piece of fruit wood, or curved. Curved cornetti were made of two hollowed pieces of wood glued together, and then a leather or parchment sheath was drawn over it to make it air-tight.

Straight cornetti that end in a carved dog’s or wolf’s head appear in some 11th-13th century paintings There are some surviving examples like this in Italy. Other iconography from other countries in the Middle Ages shows both straight and curved instruments being used.

Folk cornetti are still used in Baltic countries and parts of Russia. They are bound in birch bark, have four or more finger holes, and are variants on the Swedish cow horn.

Unlike other types of horns, the cornetto has finger holes bored into the length of the tube, like a flute. (Other horns have valves or slides.) The number of holes varied, but six was most common. With over-blowing, harmonics allowed a full octave or more in range, even with only six holes.

Typically there were six finger holes and a thumbhole, gathered comfortably at the end nearest to the mouthpiece. The instrument often curved to the right, with the player’s right hand placed lowermost, although many specimens are left-handed, curving the opposite way and with the hands reversed. The majority of finger holes are on the top side, with a thumb hole on the bottom nearest to the mouthpiece. When there were six holes, it was well suited for playing melodies.

Fingering is similar to other woodwinds of the period, although it is different in the upper octave. Only a few fingering charts survive.

There were a variety of sizes and shapes, especially during the Renaissance, when families of instruments were popular.

  • Cornettino: The highest pitched and smallest in size, was a fourth or fifth higher than the treble cornetto.
  • Cornetto: The soprano voice. It was about 24 inches long and was also called the treble cornetto.
  • Cornetto muto: Both straight and rounded forms had a built-in mouthpiece, a wider throat, and narrower bore than the traditional cornetto but also played the treble part. It was a quiet instrument, suitable for consort playing but not outdoor work.
  • Cornetto torto: A curved, octagonal instrument. It was often tuned to F, a fifth lower than the treble cornetto.
  • Tenor cornetto (the lizard): A double-curved instrument, tuned a fifth lower than the soprano. Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) disliked its sounds and mentioned it specifically. Its wide bore makes it similar to a serpent, and therefore better for blending with voices or in a consort (a group of like instruments in various voice ranges. This list of cornetti, if there were at least one from each—or most—type of cornetto, could form a consort, for instance) rather than on its own. I don’t know why It’s also called the lizard, other than that it’s smaller than a serpent but looked similar.
  • Bass cornetto: A larger-cornetto, pitched a fourth or fifth below the tenor. The bass cornetto was popular in France but was also played in Germany at the end of the 16th century.
  • Serpent: In Italy and France, the serpent was the great contrabass cornetto, shaped like a double-S in order to bring the finger holes within the player’s reach. The serpent supplanted the bass cornetto in the 17th century.

There are three basic shapes: curved, straight, and double curved (S-shaped).

The simple curved shape was most common and was used for the cornettino, the cornetto, the cornetto torto, and the bass cornetto. The soprano (or treble) instrument was about 24 inches long and made of a single block of wood, usually plum, pear, or maple. The block of wood was cut into a curved shape and then split lengthwise. A conical bore was carved out of each half and the pieces were glued back together. The exterior was planed to an octagonal profile and the longitudinal joins secured by a series of bindings and a covering of black leather or parchment. Most virtuosos played the curved treble version, and in their hands, it competed with the violin or the voice in complexity.

The straight treble cornetto is made of wood, usually yellow boxwood, with a conical bore, like the curved cornetto, but turned on the outside to a circular shape, usually without ornamentation. The finger holes and mouthpiece are just like the curved version. This was likely to be the least common type, although it was widely used before 1550, especially in Germany.

The cornetto muto is made like the straight cornetto, but its mouthpiece was not detachable. The mouthpiece was turned out of the same wood as the body at the top end of the instrument. The conical cup of the mouthpiece merges into the bore, usually without a sharp break between the two sections, causing a softening and veiling of the tone quality.

The tenor cornetto was pitched a fifth lower than the treble and had an extra finger hole that was covered by a key, which was used by the little finger of the lower hand. The tenor was 30-50 inches long, generally made with a double curve (an S-shape) with the finger holes on the inside facet of the lower bend. The bell pointed downward and to the front, not outward and to the side, like the treble. It was mainly used from 1550 to 1650, although it was popular in England only after the beginning of the 17th century.

The bass instrument, called the serpent, had a range that could be extended by over-blowing, of about two and a half octaves. French philosopher and theologian Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) estimated that a single serpent could equal 20 of the loudest singers but could also be played with the quietest chamber music. To overcome unreliable pitch and poor tone quality, each instrument only played in one key (specific sharps and flats), so to make it useful in consorts with more flexible instruments, the player had to have several versions. The serpent militaire and the serpent Fovielle were used in military music until they were displaced by the ophiclieide (like an elongated keyed bugle). The serpent disappeared from general use by the middle of the 19th century.

Parts written in alto and tenor clefs are only playable by the serpent. There are straight versions of this deep bass cornetto, but they’re rare.

The player blew into a cup-shaped mouthpiece, similar to that of a trumpet or a trombone. The mouthpiece is usually horn or ivory, regardless of the material for the rest of the instrument. The cup was placed against the corner of the mouth, with the central position only occasionally employed. The pitch can be affected by softening the lips against the mouthpiece. This special embouchure is tiring to play for any length of time, so cornetto parts are often substituted by violins.

A late 16th-century surviving instrument’s mouthpiece is horn and is half an inch wide. It’s similar to a small trumpet mouthpiece in the deep curvature of the cup, but the rim is very sharp. It resembles an acorn cup. Many paintings show this sort of cupped mouthpiece.

The socket for the mouthpiece, which is slightly tapered, was sometimes strengthened by an external brass ferule, and both the upper and lower ends of the instrument were occasionally adorned with silver mounts.

Mouthpieces were made of ebony, ivory, or horn, but it’s hard to know which are original because many of the surviving examples are replacements.

Tonguing reached a high degree of complexity with this instrument. There were instructions from Italians Silvestro Ganassi dal Fontego (published in 1536) and Bartolomeo Bismantova (published in 1677) that discussed force and speed of tonguing, in an Italian school of articulation.

Unlike other instruments where it wasn’t necessary to articulate each note by tonguing (like the bagpipe), the cornetto required every note to be tongued, except for trills and some cadential ornaments (wiggly bits that mark the end of a phrase). Other wind instruments with a reed or a pipe embouchure have tonguing sounds that include te, ke and pe, but the cornetto uses le, re, and de, with te and re for faster passages. The transverse flute’s te-ke “double-tonguing” technique for fast passages was considered crude on the cornetto.

The tone quality is considered close to the human voice, especially the boy soprano, although I think modern reproductions sound more like a quiet trumpet crossed with a recorder. They could be played loudly or softly in every key—most other instruments of the period were not so versatile.

The kind of sound produced makes it hard to classify the instrument as a woodwind or a brass instrument. It’s hard to play because of the combination of woodwind shape and limited fingering with the brass instrument’s mouthpiece, which is probably why it lost popularity, as more agile instruments were invented. Modern brass instruments are longer than the cornetto and allow the use of harmonics, with slides or valves to control the pitch.

Cornettos were suitable for indoors and outdoors music, both sacred and secular, and could easily be substituted for the violin and vice versa. It was treated as a true virtuoso instrument, like for Monteverdi’s “Vespers.”

The Name

The name means “little horn” in Italian, suggesting an animal-horn ancestry for the instrument. There are cow-horned shaped instruments in Medieval pictures that might be cornetti. Some resemble horns that are still used by Scandinavian herdsmen. In Sweden., these instruments go back to the 10th century. In England, images of these horn instruments go back to the 11th century. The octagonal carved wooden form appears in the later 13th century.

Cornetto is the diminutive of the Italian “corno,” which is one of the smaller animal horns.

Germany, it was called the Zink, a Zinke being the smallest branch of a stag’s antlers. The cornetto muto was the stiller Zink or gerade Zink. The cornetto torto was the krummer Zink.

The curved instrument was called the krummer Zink or the schwarzer Zink in German, and cornetto curvo, cornetto alto, or cornetto nero in Italian. The straight instrument was the gerade Zink in German and cornetto dritto in Italian. The cornetto muto was the stiller Zink in German and cornetto muto in Italian.

The tenor was the taille des cornets in French, the grosser Zink in German, and the corno torto or cornone in Italian. The bass cornetto is the basse des cornets in French and Basszink in German.

In England, it was called the cornett (with no O on the end). It was also called the cornet, but that’s an entirely different instrument in modern terms, made entirely of brass.

The rozhok (little horn) of the Vladimir and Tever districts in Russia are straight cornetti, with separate mouthpieces occasionally played off to the side, and come in two or more sizes. There may only be two centuries of the cornetto tradition in Russia.

Cornetto Composers

From the 16th century:

  • Andrea Gabrieli (c1515-1586)
  • Giovanni Gabrieli (c1535-1612), who was Andrea’s nephew. I mentioned him in my piece on Thomas Tallis.
  • Claudio Monteverdi (c1567-1643) wrote an amazing “Vespers” that features cornetti.

From the 17th century:

  • Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)
  • Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643)
  • Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630)
  • Heinrich Schūtz (1586-1672)
  • John Adson (c1587-1640) in “Courtly Masquing Ayres” in 1621
  • Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654)
  • Antonio Bertali (c1605-1669)
  • Heinrich Schmeizer (c1620-1680)
  • Matthew Lock (c1621-1677) in “Music for His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts” in 1661
  • Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (c1644-1704)
  • George Muffat (1653-1704)
  • Johann Andreas Pachelbel (c1653-1706), although most famous for his “Canon in D,” he wrote loads of other things.
  • Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725)

From the 18th century:

  • Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741) used a pair of muto cornets in a requiem.
  • Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)
  • Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote “O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht,” BMV 118, starring cornetti, but there are lots more pieces, too.
  • Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759) used a serpent in his “Water Music” of 1717 and “Firework Music” of 1749. He also wrote “Tamerlano” to include cornetti in 1724.
  • Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (1714- 1787) used the cornetto in “Orfeo et Euridice.”

From the 19th century

  • Giocchino Antonio Rossini (1792-1868) used a serpent in “The Siege of Corinth.”
  • Felix Mendelsohn (1809-1847) used a serpent in both “Meerestille” and “St. Paul.”
  • Richard Wagner (1813-1883) used a serpent in “Rienzi.”

Cornetto Players

Augustin Schubinger of the court of Emperor Maximilian was a member of the famous Augsberg family of wind players in the 15th and early 16th century.

Girolamo Dalla Casa (d. 1601) was an Italian composer and member of the Venetian School at St. Mark’s in Venice.

Giovanni Bassano (c1558-1617) was virtuoso who played for Giovanni Gabrieli.

You can find recordings by living musicians Bruce Dickey, Doron Sherwin, Michael Colliver, Alan Dean, and more.


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

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

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

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

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

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.


Instrument Biography: The Vielle

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If you’ve ever melted to the tones of a violin, tapped your feet to a fiddle, or floated happily away to the sound of a viola da gamba or cello, you have the vielle to thank. The history you’re about to read makes a musical link between the ancient world and the modern one. And although no one composes for the instrument anymore, the vielle was so popular during its heyday that there’s no shortage of performance opportunities in today’s early music communities.

The original vielle probably evolved from the lyre. The lyre soundbox was stretched and thinned, the open space became a neck with a fingerboard, and a bow was employed to sound the strings (although it could also be plucked). It probably came to Europe through the Balkan Peninsula and first appeared in Europe in the 9th century. Its appearance crowded the more traditional lyre out of the public eye.

The spade-shaped vielle of the 9th century became ellipse-shaped (like two cones attached at their wide ends) in the 10th, and pear-shaped by the 11th. The strings were no longer crudely tacked into the bottom, but now crossed a special piece of wood that would later evolve (in the 16th century) into the tailpiece of the violin. There was a circular soundhole divided by a bar, that would later lead to shapes like the violin’s f-holes.

This 11th century instrument is still found in the Near East and on the Balkan Peninsula in folk music. It’s sometimes called the lyra (a commonly applied name to many instruments, including the lyre, harp, and lute). Since the Middle Ages, the vielle has undergone massive transformations to define the difference between the neck and the body and to narrow the soundholes to C-shapes.

During the 12th century, the older style was played on the knee rather than on the shoulder. It developed a narrower waist, making it easier to move the bow freely and play each individual string, rather than all of them at once. This development led the way to the violin in northern Italy in the 16th century. But I digress.

The vielle was well-known and popular in both knee-held and shoulder-held forms by the middle of the 13th century and was documented by Jerome of Moravia (died after 1271). Jerome wrote about the five-stringed vielle that was most popular at the time, and explained about tuning in fifths or fourths, which later became the only way to tune stringed instruments.

Another version of a plucked vielle is called a citole, and appeared around the 9th century, flourishing in the 13th through 15th centuries. It had an egg-shaped body with the strings traversing the length, off the end of the soundbox table, and over a bridge. Strings were arranged in a pairs (called courses) like the lute, and tuned in unison or octaves, which helped make the instrument louder. It was played with bare fingers for more control rather than using a quill or plectrum.

During the Middle Ages, the bagpipe and the recorder were associated with lechery, and the vielle and rebec were associated with worldly significance. I don’t know what to do with that bit of information, but it goes along with these next two thoughts that don’t fit into a nice organizational plan: The later waisted vielle is the ancestor of the guitar and the violin.

When rendered by artists, they’re shown accompanying solo and social dancing, played for banquets and processions, and they’re often shown in consorts with lutes and psalteries, portative organ (biography coming soon), harp, and transverse flute. Other images show vielle players as angels, mythical and allegorical characters, noble amateurs, minstrels, and the occasional saint.

Vielle History

It’s thought that bowing a stringed instrument originated in Central Asia, spread through the Arab countries and then on to Byzantium. We don’t really know what the original instrument looked like because painters and sculptors may have made artistic alterations, and probably didn’t know the instrument well enough to depict it accurately.

For instance, a Psalter (a collection of psalms from the Bible) from the court of Charlemagne in the 9th century (at the University Library at Utrecht) shows a blind musician with a harp on his shoulder and  a spade-shaped instrument with a ridiculously huge bow (if it’s to scale, it would be about 10 feet long). This image is thought to be the oldest illustration containing a bowed instrument. There’s no way to know if this was a widely known instrument or a local phenomenon, but it’s definitely a vielle. This vielle is of the type still used in Turkestan today for folk music.

Soon, the spade-shaped body of the vielle was replaced by an ellipsis with a sharply defined neck. A peg-box, parallel to and on the same plane as the fingerboard, had its pegs at a right angle to the soundbox table. Both this instrument and the spade-shaped one were held in front of the player’s body, upright on a thigh or knee.

A 9th century Psalter from Lothar, Germany shows an image of a plucked vielles that could be played with the fingertips or with a plectrum. This instrument looked much the same as the knee-held vielle, and appears with and without a waist. The citole (also called the sister or cister) evolved from this instrument, and could also be either plucked or bowed.

In the 10th century, another vielle appeared in Southern Italy. It was pear-shaped, carved from a single piece of wood, and played by holding it on the shoulder under the chin. The strings were fastened to a special piece of wood at the base of the instrument (that would later evolve into the tailpiece of the violin in the 16th century) and were stretched over a bridge. Tuning pegs were like those on the earlier vielle, with the box parallel to the soundbox and the pegs at a right angle to it. There was a circular soundhole in the middle of the soundbox’s table, bridged by a small bar that ran parallel to the strings so that two semi-circular soundholes formed. This instrument is still found in the Near East and the Balkan Peninsula, playing folk music. It’s sometimes called the lyra (a commonly applied name to many instruments, from the lyre to the harp to the lute).

By the middle of the 11th century, the vielle was all over Northern Europe. Because the terms vidula, fidula, and fydyl were used generically to describe any bowed instrument, it’s hard to know when exactly the medieval fiddle or vielle came into use. Sources show it in Southern Europe and Byzantium in the 11th century, for sure, and there are texts showing 12th century troubadours using them.

No instruments survive from the Middle Ages. The earliest is in the Corpus Domini monastery at Bologna, Italy, from the 15th century. Its body and neck are carved out of one piece of wood, part of the soundboard is supported by a bar, and it has no soundpost. All reconstructions are educated guesses.

In illustrations, the vielle often appears as an oval shape (as opposed to the pear-shape of a rebec or rubeba), sometimes with indented sides (a waist), and with a neck made from a separate piece of wood. It had four or five strings and is played on the shoulder or neck like a violin, or between or on the knees like a viol. In the knee position, it’s played with an underhand bow-grip. Some instruments could be played in either position—the size or shape didn’t determine whether it was played on the shoulder or the knee.

In the 12th century, slightly larger instruments played between the knees were preferred, and in the 13th century, smaller, shoulder-played instruments were more common. Some German manuscripts show the fiddle played across the chest, held by a strap. It’s possible that this was invented by a painter, though, and imitated by other painters, rather than that Germans really played this way.

Issues like the social and financial status of the player influenced the size, quality, shape, and technical possibilities of the instrument. Some are ornate, with painted sides and inlaid wood and jewels, or even woodcarvings. Noblemen—or women—would have had posh instruments, clerics and lowly jongleurs would have had the simplest.

Vernacular songs are likely to have been accompanied by a vielle during the early Middle Ages, when music was monody. They would have doubled the melody or provided a drone, or filled in a verse or chorus.

From the nature of music composed for the vielle, its apparent that during the Middle Ages, the motet was a strong influence, and it’s possible that a vielle was used to substitute for a singing voice. Some theorize that motets (which were all about the words, after all) were occasionally played by harps, vielles, and portative organs.

14th century theorist Johannes de Grocheio says that a good vielle player should play the introduction to all manner of music. He also thought a little vielle postlude should be played after antiphons (a type of song within the church service). And he associated the vielle with trouvère songs. Troubadours might have had a harp, fiddle/vielle, small lute, pipe or bagpipe to be played alone or as accompaniment to singing or reciting poetry.

Vielles would have been used in sacred music such as hymns, Mass movements (Kyrie, Sanctus, etc.), sequences, conducti, and possibly polyphony. Magister Lambertus (fl. 1270) complained of vielles creeping into church use. Anonymous IV (probably an English student working at Notre Dame in the 1270s and 1280s) mentions the vielle doubling singers during organum (plainchant with a second voice). They played during non-liturgical parts of the ceremony, including Kyries. One story tells of the Virgin Mary attaching a candle to the fiddler’s instrument because he played so beautifully before an altar but the chronology doesn’t work out too well there. Still, it’s a nice story.

English royal household records show the presence of vielle players at court from 1272-1423. Merlin the viellist was a minstrel of the queen in 1307 (Edward I’s second wife Margaret was from Francem, where the vielle was huge). Peter and Nicholas of Prague appeared at court in 1327, as does Hanekin (also called Henequen) . A fiddler with the fabulous name of Counce Snayth shows up in court around 1399, and stayed until 1423. For the most part, after that, fiddlers aren’t mentioned by name until Henry VIII (1491-1547), and by then, the instrument was a violin.

Johannes de Grocheio (c1255-c1320, a Parisian musical theorist) says that vielles played all secular forms of music, especially vocal music, and specifically lists chanson de geste, epic songs, trouvère, troubadour, and Minnesänger songs, Latin songs, and political and satirical conducti. This included lai (musical stories with formulaic melodies) and literary texts, rondeau, rodellus, and rotunda with returning refrains, including stantipes, estampie, or ductia. Of these secular forms, only estampie examples survive.

There are stories of 12 fiddlers being present when Edward I of England knighted his son in 1306 at the Feast of Swans. One of those fiddlers was called Tomasin and he was the prince’s personal fiddler.

Vielles were popular in France, especially around 1300. There, the vielle had long been associated with chanson de geste, and the ancient tradition persisted through the 14th century. In 1377, at Beauvais, chansons de geste were performed at Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The presenters were expected to appear with a book of the text and a vielle.

German construction was considered to be the best quality and German players were the best by the end of the 1300s. German fiddlers were ubiquitous throughout the continent during the later Middle Ages.

In Flanders, like in Italy, there was a long-standing tradition of devotional minstrelry. Vielles performed at the Procession of the Holy Blood in Bruges in 1391. In Bruges and Ghent, wealthy merchants and tradesmen formed confraternities that commissioned polyphony for religious festivals and made use of minstrels to play the vielle for ceremonial occasions. Italians working in Bruges took commissioned works of polyphony back to Italy with them, so the music and the instrument’s popularity spread.

Brussels, Bruges, and Ghent became centers for minstrel education in the 14th century, hosting schools that attracted students from all over Europe. During the Lenten season, minstrels converged from all over Europe and when they went home, they transmitted what they’d learned at such schools to the musicians who’d stayed at home.

In the 14th century, there were guilds of vielle supporters called confraternities, who amassed considerable wealth and became the patrons of religious art, drama, and music. Many paintings were commissioned by them, documenting the use of vielles, and adorning chapels and serving as objects of devotion. Singing laude was central to confraternity worship, processions, and religious dramas, starting around 1340 and the organs, lutes, harps, vielles, and rebecs that accompanied them appear most commonly in the archives. Instrumentalists were hired in pairs, frequently partners of long standing or family members.

Civic instrumental ensembles became popular during the second half of the 14th century, and by 1380, nearly every town in Southern Germany had its own small liveried wind band, usually consisting of two shawms and a slide trumpet (biographies coming soon). During the 14th century, string players also found employment in private courts. There seems to be a continuous string ensemble tradition in Europe—especially Germany—through the 15th century, and fiddles were as popular as any other instrument at this time, although the “vedel” as a solo instrument was gone by 1420 or so.

Ensemble groupings expanded from two to four parts, although the vielle wasn’t necessarily part of this expansion. Two, three, or four fiddles played together until about 1400; after that, a lute with a fiddle of two was more common.

Vielles excelled at the monophonic and polyphonic laude (non-liturgical devotional songs) of the 14th and 15th centuries as well as processional hymns and motets, the repertoire associated with confraternal use. (Confraternities were lay brotherhoods devoted to a religious or charitable service.) In fact, the vielle was played throughout the 15th century as an expression of lay piety. In 1487, Johannes Tinctoris declared that its sweet sounds inspired religious contemplation. Instrumentalists stop appearing in the Florentine archives around 1450. In Venice, they continued as part of confraternal rites throughout the 15th century.

In 1438, a Russian monk attending the Council of Florence described a solemn Mass that was attended by the Pope. Winds were played during the ceremony, and vielles and other instruments played as the pope ascended his throne. A Christmas Eve vespers service that’s documented by a poem in Simone Prudenzani’s sonnet Il Saporeto (Sonnet 28) also includes a description of vielles as part of the service.

Noble amateurs of both sexes played the vielle in consorts with other soft instruments, such as the lute or psaltery. Minstrels of all kinds would play them in processions, weddings and banquets, and at dances. Courtly musicians would play them in their master’s chambers to promote sleep and emotional or physical fitness.

Boccaccio tells the story of a vielle player in his “Decameron,” on the Tenth Day, in the Sixth Story. Simon Prudenzani talks about fiddling in Il Saporetto, Sonnet 35 in the 14th century.

The vielle’s popularity waned in the 15th century in courtly Italy and elsewhere in Europe, but it stayed the accompaniment instrument of choice for epic stories. In Italy, the chantari specialized in outdoor performances of the Arthurian legends during the 15th century, accompanied by the vielle. After 1430, though, it’s barely seen in pictures or mentioned anywhere. Books of Hours were the most likely places to find pictures, and even then, they were only moderately popular.

But the vielle paved the way for the violin and the viola da gamba (biography to come), and its marvelous sound is preserved by musicians who make music from these periods even today.

Vielle Structure

The top of the soundbox may originally have been flat. A 12th century relief in the Walraff-Richartz Museum in Köln Germany shows an instrument that has a bent or rounded top, but that might have been artistic license. Instruments with a flat top tend to cave in after a while, because of the pressure of the strings, even the relatively low pressure of gut strings, unless the top has heavy cross bracing or a soundpost. (Balkan stringed instruments often have a bridge with an elongated foot that reaches through the soundhole to the back of the instrument, and acts like a soundpost, for instance.) The 16th century lira da bracchio, probably a direct descendant of the vielle, has a soundpost, which helps to hold up the argument for its strengthening qualities.

In about 1300, the smaller, shoulder-held version got a trimmer soundbox with a flat or slightly curved back, straight sides (called ribs), and a flat or nearly flat table on the soundbox. The soundholes were replaced by a single, slender C shape, or by two Cs, one superimposed on the other. This instrument was much lighter and considerably more resonant than the older style. Most vielles then and now have C or half-moon shaped soundholes, although F-like holes are also seen, as well as clusters of small holes arranged in patterns.

Close cultural ties existed between France and England throughout the 14th century despite the Hundred Years War. In both places, vielle bodies were carved from a single piece of wood. By the beginning of the next century, there were overlapping edges—a much more modern construction method.

After 1300, there were a variety of shapes and sizes, from a waistless oval to a curvaceous guitar shape. Oval instruments have long tailpieces, sometimes with bridges. Those with separate bridges have from three to five strings, and the fifth string is usually a bourden string (the drone), off the side of the fingerboard. Oval instruments tend to be large, although string lengths can vary, depending on bridge placement. Most vielles are elongated ovals, with a slight waist, and rarely have fretted necks.

Waisted vielles have an  even greater variety of string and bridge arrangements, from a curved bridge and tailpiece, to a flat and fixed bridge. The bowed guitar-style can have as many as six strings on the fingerboard.

The smaller, shoulder-held instrument developed a waist around 1300, like those the larger styles already had, making it possible to reach all of the strings individually with the bow, including the continually sounding lowest string (the drone). By the 15th century, the waist and droning low notes were a fixture.

Square, boxy shapes were more common than ovals during the Middle Ages, and the reverse is true now.

In about the 12th century, the difference between the neck and body became more clearly defined. Frets didn’t appear until after 1300.

There is a theory that frets were rare, but also that their presence is evidence of shifting hand positions. Some vielle necks are quite long, and the presence of frets down their length argue in favor of shifting. Frets establish a fixed intonation, something more crucial to ensemble rather than solo playing, and they limit the player to one tuning system (or mode) at a time. Frets also facilitate chord playing.

Not all instruments have a fingerboard, but again, this could be inaccuracy on the part of the artists. It’s possible to play fiddles without fingerboards if one or two strings are for melodies and the others are used for drones (like a mountain dulcimer).

On some instruments, the strings are stopped by pushing the fingernails against them from the side rather than pressing them down. It’s a technique that works on fingerboardless instruments.

Most vielles have a bridge of some sort. The bridge lifts the strings up off of the table surface of the soundbox, making it possible for the strings to vibrate freely. Bridges were sometimes quite tall, and not necessarily glued to the table. They made the strings more bowable. The instrument evolved to offer a rounded bridge and alternative tunings that made accessibility to individual strings easier and improved the vielle’s ability to play polyphony.

There are questions about whether, despite Guillaume Machaut’s reference to using them, the vielle might not have been used in performance of his famous “Remede de Fortune” because of the flat bridge that would have forced a drone to sound constantly.

A flat-bridged instrument allows all of the strings to be played at once, producing a four-or five-note chord, depending on the number of strings. The top or bottom string can be stopped and played separately, if the indentation on the sides of the instrument (the waist) or the height of the bridge allows it. The middle strings can’t be stopped without stopping other, outer strings, because finger pressure along the neck puts them below where the bow can reach. A slight curve to the bridge lets the player play strings separately or two or three at a time.

In the oldest instruments with a flat soundbox, it’s possible that the bridge was also flat, but the indentations in which the strings sat were at different depths. This would allow playing individual strings in the same way as an arched bridge.

In Flanders, Hans Memling (c1430-1494) painted vielles with crenellated bridges. These high and low spots allowed certain strings to be temporarily disengaged so the rest could be simultaneously stroked with the bow, and the lowered strings would be silent.

Vielles often have leaf-shaped pegboxes with tuning pegs protruding out of the front (perpendicular to the neck and soundbox table). The tuning pegs are inserted into holes in a pegdisc, either from above or below. The pegbox itself can be carved into a scroll or sickle-shape, especially if the pegs protrude from behind instead.

One innovation was to turn the tuning pegs sideways, so that they stuck out of the side of the pegboard, parallel to the soundbox (like a modern guitar). The pegbox itself was slightly curved. This arrangement increased the resistance to the pull of the strings, but it wasn’t until the 16th century and the rebec that the value of this arrangement was presented in its true glory.

The vielle adopted the head of the rebec in the late Middle Ages. In the 16th century, along with the development of the viola da gamba, the vielle now had three distinct parts—the upper, center, and lower portions. It also got the bent-back rebec peg box, crowned with a scroll and inherited the four strings of the rebec, tuned in fifths.

The number of strings varies from two to six, but a five-stringed vielle was considered best. It was tuned in intervals of fourths and fifths, and occasionally thirds. Sometimes strings were paired, like on a lute. Strings were usually of gut—mostly sheep gut—or silk.

Separate tailpieces and fingerboards are found on some instruments. Occasionally, the tailpiece has “feet,” which make it act as a combination of string-holder and a bridge. Sometimes the drone strings run alongside the instrument, over the bridge and right off the end of the fingerboard. This string could be played with a bow or it could plucked with the left hand’s thumb. The drone aspect of the vielle would have been quite useful in music before 1300 for solo playing as well as accompaniment.

The sound is a lot like a hurdy-gurdy—a continuous drone with one or two strings for melodies of fairly limited range. The pitch of the drone strings determines the mode the vielle is played in. A curved bridge means NOT limiting the mode because all the strings are accessible individually by the bow, and the neck was likely long enough to accommodate playing more than one or two notes on each string by pressing the string to the neck with a fingertip.

Jerome of Moravia wrote “Tractatus de Musica” in 1300 or so, to help his fellow monks learn to play the vielle and the rubeba. His book served as a guide for well-educated people interested in learning about the vielle, which was gaining popularity among clerics and students. He lists three tunings, all with one melody string and two sets of drones on five strings. Pitches weren’t specific, as in today’s instruments, but were relative (meaning that the interval was the same, even if the specified notes were varied). He makes reference to running scales on on Guido’s hand. He also mentions songs that don’t comply with the rules of the modes, and says they are for rustic players or laymen—probably meaning secular performances. One of his tunings would not have allowed a full modal scale to be played without shifting hand positions, something that wasn’t documented until the 16th century and so, presumably, didn’t happen much earlier. Other sources confirm Jerome’s tunings, although there are other ideas put forward by other experts of the time.

With a flat-bridged instrument, all the notes would have sounded at once, limiting repertoire, although the whole instrument could have been adjusted to play in a different mode, like a harp without tuning levers. It would also have been possible to adjust to the needs of a specific singer, as long as no fixed-tuning instruments, like winds or keyboards, were used.

The five-stringed knee-held instrument wasn’t equal to the music of the 14th and 15th centuries, and it needed a massive overhaul in order to compete with other bowed and stringed instruments. In about 1300, the smaller, shoulder-held version got a trimmer soundbox with a flat or slightly curved back, straight sides (called ribs), and a flat or nearly flat table on the soundbox. This instrument was much lighter and considerably more resonant than the older style.

Playing the vielle between the knees frees up the left hand from supporting the instrument, but forces the player into a chair. There are some paintings where the vielle seems to be hanging from a strap around the neck so that the player could be mobile. Playing with the instrument on the shoulder or chest (like Renaissance violins) allowed the player to stand and move around.

Most 1300 vielles are played on the shoulder, with the chin on the instrument, rather than down on the arm or strapped across the body in the German manner.

The bow (or fydylstyck) was originally just like a bow used to shoot an arrow; it was a stick with horsehair attached to it so tightly that the stick bent. The hair might have been attached by a knot and then poked through a hole in the stick. No frogs (a mechanical device for tightening the strings) were necessary to raise the hair from the bow itself because of the extreme curve of the stick. Pressure on the horsehair could be adjusted by holding the thumb on the hair, which was made easier by an underhand grip on the bow.

The medieval bow is held further from the frog than on a modern bow because of a difference in balance and weight. There aren’t rules, though, and each player can determine what works best for them.

The Name

The names fiedel, fidula, and lira probably came to Europe from the Balkan Peninsula. Fiedel, viella, vidula, viuola, fidula, and fedylle are all terms for a bowed stringed instrument in the Middle Ages. In Flemish, the word was vedeles.

In German, the word Geigen meant any bowed stringed instrument, including the rebec, for which there was no properly German name. A Grosse Geigen refers to a large, fretted, bowed instrument played vielle-style.

A citole, is a plucked vielle. It’s also called the sister or the cister.

By the middle of the 15th century, the word “vielle” tended to refer to a hurdy-gurdy, and the bowed instrument was called a fiddle.

Famous Vielle Composers

Guillaume Machaut was probably the most influential composer to come out of the medieval era. He lived from c1300-1377, which is pretty much the heyday of the vielle. He is nearly as famous for his epic poetry as he was for his musical compositions.

John Dowland (1563-1626) (biography to come) was certainly the most prolific of the British lutenists, and it’s his songs that you think of when you imagine yourself in Queen Elizabeth I’s court. In truth, it was more likely to have been Tallis or Byrd at court, because Dowland’s bid for court lutenist was unsuccessful until James I’s reign. Dowland’s music was—and still is—very accessible to non-stuffy music lovers.

Famous Vielle Players

Tomasin was King Edward I’s son’s personal fiddler in the 13th and early 14th centuries.

Herman Hans di Henequin went to minstrel school in 1381 with famous musicologist Jacomi.

Merlin, who was the viellist for the English royal court in the 14th century with Counce Snayth.

Sir Henry Umpton (bass viol) lived from c1557-1596, and was an Elizabethan English diplomat.

Solomon Rossi (c1570-c1630) was said to have been a virtuoso on the viol/vielle.

Pavlo Beznosiuk is an Irish/Ukrainian violinist who dabbles with early instruments. His recordings get a lot of five-star ratings.

Mary Springfels is co-founder of the Newberry Consort, one of America’s best Renaissance musical groups, and has recorded with some of the biggest names in the early-music industry. Her main expertise is on the viola da gamba, but as they’re related, she does a pretty good job of playing the vielle (and writing about it) too.

Margreit Tindemans is a Seattle-based study in fabulousness. In addition to rock-star status on the vielle and viola da gamba, she leads a Hildegard group, teaches all over the world, and is a totally awe-inspiring yet down-to-earth person.

Shira Kammen is a San Francisco Bay Area-based super-goddess. When she plays the vielle (or the harp, rebec, violin, or viola) you find yourself simultaneously transfixed and transported. She’s got a gazillion recordings out there, and you need to have them all. Immediately.

Michelle Levy studied classical viola and banjo and then honed her vielle perfection with Shira Kammen and with some other very important names in the early music industry. She’s often found at English country dance and contra dance events, and you’ll find your toes tapping if she’s got a vielle in her hands.


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

“A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music,” edited by Ross W. Duffin. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2000.

“Medieval Music,” by Richard H. Hoppin. W.W. Norton && Company, New York, 1978.

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

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.

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

“Music in the Medieval World,” by Albert Seay,. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1965.

“The Music of The Jews in the Diaspora (Up to 1800)” by Alfred Sendrey. Thomas Yoseloff, New York, 1970.