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Composer Biography: Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729)

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Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre was a French composer and harpsichordist, considered the first female composer of instrumental music. She certainly had a very long name!

Jacquet de la Guerre’s precocious talent as a musician was first mentioned in 1677 in the Paris newspaper Mercure Gallant, where she was described as a “wonder.” She sight-read difficult music, accompanied herself and other singers on the harpsichord, composed pieces and transposed at the whim of onlookers, and, according to the newspaper, she had already been doing this for four years when she was 10 years old. (My math has her at age 12 in 1677, but it’s still quite an accomplishment.) The next year, the same newspaper declared her “the marvel of the century.” (Mozart wouldn’t appear on the scene to be called such things until the 1750s.)

Her accomplishment is representative of the rise of amateur musicians among the French aristocracy. Previously, noblemen and noblewomen played only for each other’s pleasure, and hired professionals for more formal entertainments. The few women who succeeded as professionals were usually the daughters of prominent musicians, as was Jacquet de la Guerre.

She was the daughter of organ builder Claude Jacquet (dates unknown) and his wife Anne de la Touche (b.1632), also a musician from a musical family. She grew up in the Saint-Louis-en-I’lle, in Paris with three siblings, all of whom received an excellent musical education. It was unusual, at the time, to give daughters the same high-quality musical education as boys, so we are fortunate that her parents had foresight and the intellect to recognize that girls could accomplish as much as boys if given the chance.

Because of her evident talent, Jacquet de la Guerre was singled out for special favor by King Louis XIV (1638-1715), who placed her in the care of his mistress, Francoise Athenais de Rochechouart de Montemart (1640-1707), the marquise de Montespan. She was possibly tutored by Madame de Maintenon (1635-1719), the governess of Madame de Montespan’s children and later the king’s secret wife. She moved into the castle in 1673 and stayed there until she married. Louis XIV encouraged her career, providing audiences and allowing her to dedicate publications to him.

When she married, she stayed true to her family origins. She married organist and harpsichord teacher Marin de la Guerre (d. before 1704) in 1684 and moved back to Paris. Marin was son of Michel de La Guerre (c.1605-1679), who’d been the organist at the Sainte-Chapelle. Once back in Paris, Jacquet de la Guerre maintained her connections with the court without having to live there.

In 1687, she published a book of harpsichord pieces that included several suites of French dances, unmeasured preludes, chaconnes, and toccatas. She united the French and Italian styles, much as her contemporary Francois Couperin (1668-1733) did. In the same year, she published a ballet, Les jeux a l’honneur de la victoire (1685), which is lost.

She later wrote an opera, Cephale et Procris, which was a tragedy in five acts. It was performed in Paris at the Acadamie Royale de Musique in 1694. After its disappointing reception, or perhaps because she didn’t receive further commissions, she limited herself afterward to the cantata form. The opera was revived in 1989 by Jean-Claude Malgoire (b.1940) and Daniel Ogier (dates unavailable) in Saint-Etienne.

Several manuscripts from the 1690s have survived, including solo and trio sonatas. In 1695, she wrote solo and trio violin sonatas within five years of the first of those styles appearing in France. She published more music, including another volume of harpsichord piece and a set of solo violin sonatas (both in 1707).

Both her son (name and dates unknown) and her husband had died by 1704. Her son was thought to be quite talented on the harpsichord too, and made his debut at age eight. He was dead by age ten. After the deaths of her husband and son, Jacquet de la Guerre stayed in Paris giving concerts in her home, and at the Theatre de la Foire, for which she composed a few songs and at least one comic scene. All the great musicians and local music fans went to hear her. She was famous for her gift at improvisation and extemporaneous fantasias.

She found a champion in Sebastien de Brossard (1655-1730), a Paris-loving provincial ecclesiastic who collected and composed music. He performed her opera with the addition of a few of his own compositions at the Strasbourg Academie de la Musique.

Perhaps her most significant accomplishment, she published three volumes of cantatas as part of the first wave of cantata production. The first cantata collection in France appeared in 1706 (published by Jean-Baptiste Morin, 1677-1745, Nicolas Bernier, 1664-1734, and Michel Pignolet de Montéclair, 1667-1737), and Jacquet de la Guerre’s appeared in 1707, 1708, and 1711. Uniquely, her cantatas have texts from the Old Testament, and three of them tell stories of Biblical women (Esther, Susannah and the Elders, and Judith). The third volume of cantatas reflected French tastes and used mythology as its subject. One is written for soloist and symphony (violin or violins in unison and an optional flute in the second aire) in addition to the basso continuo.

She never left France but her music was known in Germany. She performed for Maximilian Emanuel II (1662-1726), Elector of Bavaria in 1712 when he visited Paris and he brought her works home with him. She dedicated her mythological cantatas to him.

She retired from public performance in 1717 and moved a little further out of the center of town. In 1721, she wrote a Te Deum to celebrate the recovery of Louis XV (1710-1774) from smallpox, a commission of real significance. Sadly, the music is lost.

Walther’s German Lexicon of 1732 includes a longer article on her than on François Couperin (1668-1733), her much more famous—at least into our times—contemporary. Although her rediscovery took longer than Francois Couperin’s, today, she is the most likely female composer from the period to be known to modern audiences.

Jacquet de la Guerre’s parents and her brother Nicolas died in the early 1710s. After her own death in 1729, a commemorative medal was struck in her honor. She was also included in the listing by Titon du Tillet (1677-1762) in his Parnasse francais of 1732, one of only seven musicians listed, and the only woman.

Sources:

“The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.

“Women Making Music, The Western Art Traditions, 11-50-1950,” edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987.

“Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates. Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1996.

“Women and Music, A History,” edited by Karin Pendle. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001.

“The Pelican History of Music, Book 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1973.

“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, Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010.

Composer Biography: Francesca Caccini (1587-1638/40)

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Also Francesca Raffaelli, Signorini, Signorini-Malaspina, and La Cecchina

Francesca Caccini was an important Italian composer and singer of the late Italian Renaissance. The first female composer of opera of record, she was possibly the most prolific female composer of her time. She was among the earliest women to travel for her art, which later became common for professional musicians, much as it is today.

During her lifetime, her gifts as a singer, teacher, and composer were universally remembered as remarkable but reviews of her personality are mixed. One account calls her proud and restless, but she was a strong and intelligent woman, so it’s hard to know if that was merely misogyny or sour grapes, or perhaps she really was a bit haughty. Others refer to her as always gracious and generous with the loan of her manuscripts. For a number of years, she was involved in a feud with court poet Andrea Salvadori (1591-1634) over his alleged seduction of female singers, so she was clearly a woman prepared to stand up for others.

Born in Florence to a very musical family, she was the daughter, sister, and wife of singers and composers, and was immersed in a musical world from earliest childhood.

Her father, Giulio Caccini (1551-1618), was one of the creators of the “new music” (ars nova), which was dominated by solo singing and marked the beginning of the Baroque era. Both of his wives (Lucia and Margherita—dates for both unavailable, but the former was the mother of all of Giulio’s children) were also musicians, possibly students of Giulio. Both of Giulio’s daughters (Francesca and Settimia, 1591-c1661), a son (Pompeo, 1577-1624), and at least one granddaughter (Francesca’s Margherita, b.1622) were also musicians.

All of Giulio’s children received a literary education in addition to singing and composition. Records show that Francesca wrote poetry and played the harpsichord, lute, and harp. I found some sources that say it was a guitar instead of a lute, but that seems unlikely as that instrument wasn’t popular in Italy at the time (they were a big hit in Spain, but the Italians were more interested in the lute and would stay so until well into the Baroque era).

Francesca was one of “Le donne di Giulio Romano” (The ladies of Roman Giulio) who performed in Jacopo Peri’s (1561-1633) Euridice and in Giulio’s own Il rapimento di Cefalo in 1600. The group consisted of Francesca, her sister Settimia, her step-mother Margherita, some of Giulio’s pupils, Giulio himself, and his son Pompeo. Notice the ratio of women to men—this is going to come up again later when discussing Francesca’s compositions.

Sister Settimia (1591-c1661) made her first public appearance in 1600 or in 1602 in her father’s opera. She sang mostly with Giulio’s family consort until 1609 when she married Alessandro Ghivizzani (d.1632). She and her husband found work as composers and performers at various courts and were on friendly terms with the most famous composer of the time, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643).

The family travelled to France to sing for English King Henry IV (1553-1610) and Marie de Medici (1575-1642) in 1604 to 1605. Francesca received her first independent job offer from Marie to be a salaried court singer with a dowry of 1000 scudi. Letters from Giulio intimate that Grand Duke Ferdinand I (1549-1609) refused to release her from his service back home in Florence, so Francesca came back with her family in 1605, spending the autumn in Modena, where she was tutor to the Princess Giulia d’Este (1588-1645).

At a time when women were barred from singing in church, Francesca and her sister were soloists in the church of San Nicola in Pisa during Holy Week, directed by their father. Francesca soon gained a reputation for virtuosity and had students from among the nobility whom she trained for court performances. That she was a teacher to the high and mighty is indication of both her skill and her significance in musical circles.

In 1606, Giulio tried to negotiate a position for Francesca with Princess Margherita della Somaglia-Peretti (d.1613), sister-in-law of Cardinal Montalto (1571-1623) and Virginio Orsini (1572-1614) in Rome. The offer included both a salary and a dowry, along with the assumption that a suitable husband would be found. But negotiations dragged on, and in 1607, the deal was off and Francesca took a post at court in Florence, having been promised in marriage to Giovanni Battista Signorini (d.1625), whom she married later that year. Although Francesca signed letters with her married name, she remained Francesca Caccini in the Medici court records. There may have been some truth to the rumor of her being proud, eh? She was certainly independent and strong!

Francesca was more sought after as a performer than either of her siblings, and she had no trouble marrying well. With her dowry of 1000 scudi (about $50, roughly $3200 in today’s money), her husband (more on him in a minute) bought two adjoining houses in the via Valfonda near Sainte Maria Novella in 1610. They lived there until he died. They had one child, Margherita (b 1622), who grew up to become a singer and a nun.

The family dominated the polychoral singing of the Offices during Holy Week. Giulio and the Grand Duchess Christina of Lorraine (1565-1637) worked to ensure that Francesca didn’t outshine the group, but when Settima left for Mantua with her husband in 1611, the group disbanded. It was replaced by a group described in court diaries as “Francesca and her pupils” and they continued to perform chamber music for women’s voices until the late 1620s.

Court duties included singing the Office for Holy Week and singing at receptions given by the archduchess. She was also music tutor to the princesses, ladies in waiting, and at least one nun. In 1616, she was among those who traveled with Cardinal Carlo de’ Medici (1595-1666) to Rome, and there, she was cast as La Bellezza and Venus opposite her husband, who played Adonis.

In 1617, she and her husband toured Genoa, Savona, and Milan, winning the praise of Italian poet Gabriello Chiaberra (1552-1638, sometimes called Pindar).

By the 1620s, she was the highest-paid musician at court. Clearly a woman who could land on her feet, when Signorini died at the end of 1625, she soldiered on as a single mother on the strength of her well-established reputation. Francesca left the Medici payroll two years later when she married Lucca aristocrat and patron Tomaso Raffaelli (d.1630). Their marriage only lasted three years, when she was widowed again. This second marriage left her a wealthy landowner and mother to a son, Tomaso (b.1628).

After being quarantined in Lucca during the plague for three years, she returned to the Medici payroll in 1633. Between 1633 and 1637, she appeared often at the Grand Duchess’s court. She and her daughter Margherita (b.1522) performed as chamber singers during those years, and she composed and directed entertainments.

In 1637, Francesca forbade young Margherita from singing on stage at the Grand Duke’s command, because she feared that the 15-year-old’s chances of an honorable convent placement or suitable marriage contract might be at risk. She also feared that the social position of her son Tomaso would not only be tarnished, but that it would violate the terms of Raffaelli’s will. So Margherita entered the convent of San Firolamo in Florence instead of rising to shine her own light at court.

Court documents tell us that Francesca was still in Florence in 1638 and that she had probably died by 1645, when guardianship of her son, now a teenager, passed to his uncle, Girolamo Raffaelli (dates unavailable).

Compositions

In 1607, Francesca’s first composition for the stage, a torneo called “La stiava,” was performed at court. This was a setting of Michelangelo Buonarroti’s (1568-1646, the grandnephew of the artist by the same name) poetry. Buonarroti was a family friend and the Medici court poet. Letters from her papa reveal that Francesca composed the piece by singing to the poetry, writing out what she’d sung, and then her father corrected her notation. The piece was written for castrati to sing, and according to court diarist Cesare Tinghi (fl. 1600-1625), it was pretty darned good. The piece was performed again in 1626, but sadly, none of the music survives. Giulio considered the commission—and likely income—for his entire household rather than specifically for Francesca, which probably accounts for the lack of credit for other pieces that she composed to Buonarroti‘s poetry. If we look closely at Giulio’s works, we may find hers tucked in there, too.

From an early age, Francesca composed incidental and improvisational music for herself and her students, but the next documented work after “La Stiava” was incidental music for the 1611 Carnival entertainment of the masked ball. She also set Buonarroti‘s rustic comedy “La Tancia” that same year and in 1615, she set Ferdinando Saracinelli’s (1587-c1640) balletto “Il ball delle Zingane.”

In 1618, her father published some of Francesca’s compositions in a book called “Il primo libro delle musiche,” which is how they came to be preserved until modern times. The collection is one of the largest and most varied collections of early monody. One of its most striking features is how it’s organized, grouping the music into four different tables of contents: by poetic form, by possible uses, by genres (such as motets, hymns, etc.), and a collection of homophonic ensembles (all one type of voice, like soprano) with a bass. There are 19 works set to sacred texts, seven of which were in Latin, and 17 secular works, four of which are duets for soprano and bass.

Nearly all the songs in the Primo libro are variations of other pieces, even the sonnets and madrigals. In the arias, Francesca sticks closely to the integrity of poetic lines and reserves ornaments for accented words, internal pauses, and penultimate syllables. She uses silence and pauses to break poetic lines into syntactical units.

Francesca carefully documented vocal ornaments, which was unusual for the time. She also unleashed the ornaments in secular music much more than in sacred. Her notation is finicky, especially regarding rhythm and the placement of syllables. She often displaced syllables placed on a short upbeat, which allowed her to document the rhythm of Italian speech with rare precision.

She may have written the poetry herself for 12 of the devotional pieces in Primo libro. The anthology represents the largest collection of early monadic music by a single composer up to that time. Despite this accomplishment, we have only one other piece from her, the opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina about which you’ll hear in a moment.

During Carnival in 1619, Francesca’s setting of Buonarroti ‘s La fiera, a satirical comedy, was performed at court. It caused a scandal because it portrayed women in “unseemly” conditions, such as during pregnancy and labor, and it also affirmed capitalist and republican values over those of royalty.

In 1622, she collaborated with Giovanni Battista da Gagliano (1594-1651) in setting Jacopo Cicognini’s (1577-1631) Il martirio di Sante Agata, and it’s thought that the parts of Agatha and Eternita were played by her.

During his time in Rome with the Medici in 1623-1624, the poet Giambattista Marino (1569-1625) and her father Giulio compared the skills of Francesca and the singer-composer Adriana Basile (c1580-c1640). Marino said that Francesca’s musical understanding was deeper but that Basile had the better and more agile voice. Members of Marino’s academy wrote poems in praise of both women.

Francesca sang for Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644) in 1624. Later that year, her one surviving opera, La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina was in rehearsal in Florence. It was performed in 1625 at the Villa Poggio Imperiale during Carnival in front of visiting Polish royalty, Prince Wlayislaw IV (1595-1648). The piece was commissioned by Archduchess Maria Maddelena (1589-1631) and allegorically explores women’s roles in the wielding of power via a plot that contrasts a good and androgynous sorceress with an evil and sexually alluring one. Francesca uses different musical textures for the two main characters, and as a whole, the music is rich and varied.

The piece was originally billed as a ballet, but it had all the trappings of an opera, including a prologue, symphonies, recitatives, arias, choruses, instrumental ritornellos, and elaborate staging and sets. There were dances performed to music sung by the chorus or to instrumental music that weren’t included in the published score.

The cast for La liberazione included six sopranos, two altos, seven tenors and one bass, an indication of the 17th century’s fondness for high voices. The number of natural male voices and the absence of castrati used in the performance was unusual for the time as castrati and counter-tenors (men singing in falsetto) were the rage. Accompaniment included continuo, recorders, several short five- and six-part choruses, a brief chorus for six sopranos, and a double chorus madrigal in eight parts. The work was revived in the late 20th century in Europe, Asia, and the US.

Maybe it’s time to revive the other pieces too.

Sources:

“The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.

“Women and Music, A History,” edited by Karin Pendle. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001.

“Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates. Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1996.

“Women Making Music, the Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950,” edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987.

“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.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

Composer Biography: Maddalena Casulana (c1540-c1590)

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Also known as Signor Maddalena Casaulana de Mezari or Maddelena Mezari dette Casulana.

Maddalena Casulana was a composer, lutenist, and singer of some repute, and was probably the first woman to declare herself a professional musician and composer.

By 1568, when her piece was conducted at a royal wedding by Orlando di Lasso (c1530-1594), she was already known to be a woman of notable pride and confidence. In the same year, Antonio Molino (c1495-1571), a Venetian merchant, actor, and whimsical writer thought to be one of the founding fathers of the commedia dell’arte movement, dedicated his book of four-part madrigals to Casulana. He said that the work was a product of old age and of studying music with her.

In 1569, the Vicentine poet Giambattista Maganza (c1513-1586) dedicated a canzone to her. In the following year, Maddalena dedicated her second book of madrigals to Dom Antonio Londonio (dates unavailable), a highly placed official in Milan, whose wife, Isabella (dates unavailable), was a noted singer.

She was probably born in Casole d’Elsa near Sienna. Her name implies origin in Casole, but no one knows for sure. Author and astronomer Alessandro Piccolmini (1508-1579) claims her for Sienna, but tells us nothing else about her.

She trained in Casole and then moved to Florence, where her patrons were the first to hear her own compositions. From there, she went on to Venice, where she gave private lessons in singing and composition from around 1568. She was also known to play the lute for private entertainments. She visited Verona, Milan, and Florence, and probably met her husband as she traveled. Nothing is known about her husband. (Isn’t that a switch? Usually nothing is known about the wives!)

In 1568, she published her first collection of madrigals for four voices in Venice. The next two collections were published in 1570 and 1583, and her last was published in 1586. Her works also appeared in anthologies in 1566 and 1567.

As I mentioned at the start, one of her secular Latin pieces was played by Orlando di Lasso (c1532-1594) at the marriage of Archduke Wilhelm V of Bavaria in 1568, along with that of another female composer, Caterina Willaert, a relative (but not offspring) of the famous master, Adriano Willaert (c1490-1562). Sadly, the music hasn’t survived, but it was called Nil mage incundum. It was a five-part madrigal.

Her personal writings indicate that in her early 20s, Casulana set out to be a professional musician, and to support herself with her art. Despite this unusual assertion, she was regarded well by the upper echelons of society.

Not much is known about her activities after 1570, but the poet Giambattista Crispolti (dates unavailable) describes a banquet in Perugia where Casulana sang for her supper in 1582. In that same year, publisher Angelo Gardano (1540-1611) dedicated his collection of madrigals to her, begging her to favor him with her own contributions to the neglected genre.

She performed at a meeting of the Acadamia Olimpica in Vincenza in 1583, which, at one time, owned a portrait of her. In her 1583 publication, her name was Madalena Mezari detta Casulana Vicentina, which suggests that she married at some time after 1570 and settled in Vicenza. Perhaps it was her marriage that kept her out of the public eye. It isn’t known whether she had children or not.

Compositions

Casulana wrote three books of madrigals, the first published musical works ever by a woman. The first collection, printed in 1566, was called Il Primo libro di madrigal.

In total, there are 66 madrigals, of which five previously appeared in anthologies. Another is found only in an anthology (Primo libra de madrigal a Quattro voci, Venice 1568). It was dedicated to Isabella de’ Medici Orsina (1542-1576), a noted patron of the arts and an amateur musician. Casulana made a comment in her dedication to the effect that men don’t hold a monopoly on efforts of intellect.

Her madrigals reveal originality and personal style, but they suffer from being a kind of catalogue of word-painting devices. She doesn’t seem to have had a specific teacher, and some of the stock elements are missing, or are over- or underused. For instance, there are few examples of imitation, and themes are repeated at too close an interval to contrast with the generally homophonic texture. She overuses chromatic alteration and uses such mannerisms as excessive voice crossing (where a low voice ends up higher than a high voice), awkward ranges, strange chord inversions, and too-frequent parallel fifths and octaves.

These weaknesses are eclipsed by original and stunning effects. Textures, sometimes monotonous and cramped, at other times provide effective contrast, such as in passages with dramatic opposition between high and low registers, or passages in the fauxbourdon style (parallel fifths, sixths, or octaves). Her harmonic effects are often striking.

Sometimes, a long melodic line is created where one voice makes a slow and dramatic chromatic rise, culminating at the climax of the piece. Her use of dissonance is also masterful and modern, often sprinkled with dominant seventh chords, approached and resolved in the usual way, at a time when this chord could hardly be found elsewhere, except in the music of such composers as Cipriano Rore (c1515-1565), Adrian Willaert (c1490-1562), or Orlando di Lasso (c1530-1594).

Her texts include some of her own poetry and some by Petrarch (1304-1374), Annibale Caro (1507-1566), Luigi Tansillo (1510-1568), Jacopo Sannazaro (1458-1530), Serafino Aquilano (1466-1500), Vincenzo Quirino (dates unavailable), Bernardo Tasso (1493-1569) and Giulio Strozzi (dates unavailable, but adoptive—and probably natural—father of Barbara Strozzi).

Composer Philippus de Monte (1521-1603) tried to enlist her help in reviving the three-part madrigal, and referred to her as “the muse and siren of our age.” But then she disappeared.

Sources:

“The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.

“Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates. Northwestern University Press, Boston, 1996.

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

“Women & Music, A History,” by Karin Pendle. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001.

“Women Making Music, The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1959,” edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1997.

Composer Biography: Trobairitz, The Female Troubadours

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Only a few women are known to have produced troubadour music. As a species, they’re called the trobairitz, and there are probably more women among the unattributed troubadour music that haven’t yet been identified. The truth is, we don’t know who wrote most of the poems and songs.

There are 2100 troubadour pieces preserved, only 1400 of which include the music. Only 460 troubadours have been identified, and so far, the one who produced the most music (45 pieces) is Bernart de Ventadorn. That means that loads of the remaining pieces could have been written by women; we just haven’t identified them yet. Certainly, most of the pieces are ABOUT women. Which doesn’t preclude women from having written them.

The term trobairitz wasn’t used by these female troubadours themselves, but came up in 13th century Flamenca, which is now in Spain. Trobairitz comes from the same word as troubadour, “trobar,” which means “to compose” or “to find.”

The trobairitz composed, wrote poetry, and performed for the Occitan noble courts. They were part of courtly society—some of the troubadours, such as Bernart de Ventadorn, were of lower class, but the trobairitz weren’t. They were all nobility. They were also the first known female composers of western secular music.

Women at court were expected to sing, play instruments, and write poetical debates. And noblewomen in southern France had more control than elsewhere regarding land ownership because so many of the men were away on the Crusades. That led to the existence of the (somewhat) free-spirited trobairitz—educated, monied, and uncommitted.

We have records of their lives from something called vidas, which were loosely based the hagiographies called vitas. It’s interesting that most of these vidas were produced after the troubadour period ended. They’re pretty unreliable sources, as they often consisted of romanticized extrapolations from the poetry that the trobairitz (and troubadours) produced. But they name 23 female poets with 32 works attributed to them, so we have to be grateful for that.

The number of songs attributed to trobairitz is somewhere between 23 and 46, depending on your sources. There are many reasons for the discrepancy. It’s hard to know from the poetry itself whether or not it was written by a woman, a man speaking as a woman, or a woman speaking as a man. Some songs were presumed to be written by a certain person regardless of whether they were or not. Others were part of an exchange where two people wrote back and forth and perhaps only one got credit, or credit was given to two men when one of the writers was female. Some modern editors attribute the exchange only to the originator, male or female. And of course, many were anonymous.

The most famous trobairitz was Comtessa Beatriz de Dia, but you should know some other names, too.

Alamanda (fl. late 12th century)

Not much is known about Alamanda, but it’s thought that she was from Castelnau (near Montpelier).

She exchanged a tenso (argument song) with with Giraut (or Giraut) de Bornelh (c1138-1215) called S’ieus quier cossella bel ami Alamanda. The music survives in one manuscript and is the only example of her work that exists. Giraut wrote love songs to her.

Alamanda was considered fictitious until recent efforts revealed three other troubadours’ mention of her, including the trobaritz Lombarda (see below) from Toulouse.

Azalais de Porcairages (fl. mid12th century)

Also Alasais de Porcaragues

Nothing is known of Azalaiz’s dates but it’s thought that she came from the village of Portiragnes, just east of Beziers and about six miles south of Montpellier, close to the territories owned by the man she loved and his brothers.

Only one of her poems survives. The music is lost. The poem has 52 lines but the text varies considerably between manuscripts, so we only know for sure about the subject matter. The poem is nominally about the 1173 death of Raimbaut of Orange (c1147-1173). Raimbaut was the son of William VII and Tibors, who are going to come up again in a minute, in the Tibors discussion.

At any rate, the poem mentions Ermengarde of Narbonne (1143-1197), a well known patroness of troubadour poetry. The third strophe of the poem contributes to an ongoing debate begun by Guilhem de Saint-Leidier (c1150-c1200). The question was whether a lady was dishonored by taking a lover who was wealthier than herself. According to her vida, she was the lover of Gui Guerrejat (1135-1178), brother of Guillaume VII of Montpellier (1158-1202). Gui Guerrejat (1135-1178) returned her affections, but then he fell ill, became a monk, and died within the same year.

Castelloza (fl. early 13th century)

Castelloza was a noblewoman from Auvergne. She was the wife of Turc de Mairona (dates unavailable), probably the lord of Meyronne. Turc’s family participated in a Crusade sometime between 1210 or 1220, which was the origin of his name (meaning “Turk”). Castelloza was thought to be in love with Arman de Brion (dates unavailable), a member of the house of Breon and of greater social rank than her. She wrote several songs about him.

Castelloza’s vida says that she was very cheerful and fun as well as learned and beautiful. Three, possibly four, of her songs survive, all about courtly love, and all without the music. This number makes her the second most prolific of the trobairitz after Beatriz de Dia. Castelloza is a more conservative poet than Beatriz, and although she remained committed to absolute fidelity, she talks at length about conditional and unconditional love.

Garsenda de Proença (c1180-c1242)

Garsenda was Countess of Provence and Countess of Forcalquier. She was the daughter of Rainou (or Renier), who was Lord of Caylar (dates unavailable), and Garsenda (dates unavailable), daughter of William IV of Forcalquier (1130-1208). After her mother died, Garsenda inherited Forcalquier from her grandfather. The Crusades had eaten away at the males in the family.

Garsenda was only 13 years old when William IV and Alfonso II (1157-1209) signed the Treaty of Aix in 1193, which allowed Garsenda to inherit William’s whole county. They also agreed that Garsenda would marry Alfonso II, who was in line to become Count of Provence. They married at Aix-en-Provence the same year and had at least two children, Raymond Berengar IV (1198-1245) and Garsenda (dates unknown).

In 1209, both Garsenda’s father and her husband died, and Garsenda became the guardian of their son and heir. Her brother in law, Peter II of Aragon (1178-1213), assigned the regency of Provence to his own brother Sancho (dates unavailable), but when Peter II died in 1213, Sancho became regent of Aragon and passed Provence and Forcalquier to his son Nuno Sanchez (c1185-1242).

Dissension broke out between the Catalans and the partisans of the Countess, who accused Nuno of trying to supplant Garsenda’s son, Raymond Berengar (1198-1245). The Provencal aristocracy allied themselves with Garsenda. Overwhelmed, Nuno high-tailed it back to Catalonia. The regency passed to Garsenda and a regency council was established from among the local nobles. She brought Forcalquier to the House of Barcelona and united it to Provence.

During her tenure as regent (c1209-c1220), Garsenda became the focus of a literary circle. The vida of troubadour Elias de Barjols (fl.1191-1230) refers to his patron as Alfonso, but Alfonso was long dead, so it was likely Garsenda.

There’s a tenso (an argument or debate in song) between Garsenda and an anonymous troubadour. In the poem, the lady declares her love for her interlocutor, who responds rather carefully. Some experts think that the unidentified troubadour is Gui de Cavailon (fl.1200-1229), whose vida includes the rumor that he was the countess’ lover. Gui was at the Provençal court between 1200 and 1209, so it’s possible.

Garsenda was a patron of Occitan literature, especially the troubadours, as well as writing her own poetry and songs. One of Garsenda’s poems survives in two different manuscripts, without music.

She was also the subject of a few songs. Aquitainian troubadour Elias de Barjois (fl. 1191-1230) fell in love with her during her widowhood, and for the rest of his public life, wrote songs about her. He entered a monastery with his love unfulfilled. Raimon Vidal (c1196-1252) also praised Garsenda’s patronage of troubadours.

In 1217 or 1220, Garsenda ceded Forcalquier to her son and retired to the monastery of La Celle (about 140 miles northeast of Limoges and about 75 miles from Forcalquier) in 1225. In 1242, she left the monastery to visit her newly born great granddaughter, Beatrice of England (1242-1275) in Bordeaux. Beatrice’s father, Henry III of England (1207-1282) was engaged in a war in France, and Garsenda brought 60 knights to help his cause.

She may have lived until 1257, when someone named Garsenda made a significant donation to a church in St. Jean (in the Pyrenees) on the condition that three priests pray for her soul and that of her long-dead husband.

Gormonda de Monpeslier (fl. 1226-1229)

Gormonda was from Montpelier in Languedoc. Only one piece has been attributed to her, but it was called the first French political poem by a woman.

She wrote a response to the famous anti-papal songs of Guilhem Figueira (c1208-after 1244), called Greu m’es a durar, imitating Guilhem’s poem in meter and rhyme for about 20 stanzas. Instead of blaming the papal legate Pelagius of Albano (c1165-1230) for the failure of the Fifth Crusade, she laid the blame on the foolishness of wicked people. She approved of the Crusade against the heretics at home, saying that heresy was more dangerous than Islam, and that the hearts of the heretics were false. She expressed an interest in watching Guilhem being tortured to death; she was probably not as fun to be around as Garsenda or Castellosa.

Little else is known about her, but it seems likely that she was closely associated with the orthodox clergy of southern France, Pope Innocent III (1160-1216), the French monarchy, and many other troubadours because of her political stance.

Lombarda (c1190-1262)

Lombarda is known only from her vida and a short tenso (argument song). She was probably from a banking or merchant family, and possibly from Gascony. According to her vida, she was noble, beautiful, charming, learned, and skilled at composing songs about fin’amors.

She was probably married and in her early 20s at the time of her poetic activity. Before 1217, when Bernart Arnaut (d.1226) claimed Armagnac, Bernart’s brother Geraud V (d.1219) visited and befriended Lombarda. He didn’t get a chance to say goodbye when he left and sent a short poem to her house. Lombarda’s response is her only surviving work.

Her one attributed poem is in the trobar clus style (a “closed” style enjoyed by a scant few and perfected by Marcabru c1099-1150), one of the few women to do so. Her only surviving work is included in her vida.

Maria de Ventadorn (c. 1165-1222)

Also Maria Ventedorn, Marie de Ventadour, Marie de Turenne, Marguerite de Turenne.

Maria was the daughter of Raimon II Viscount of Turenne (1143-1191), and the wife of Eble V (d. after 1236), Viscount of Ventadorn. Along with her two sisters, she, according to Bertran de Born (c1140-before 1215), possessed “all earthly beauty.” She was the beloved patron of many troubadours.

She had a son, Elbe VI (dates unknown), who married Dauphine de la Tour d’Auvergne (1220-1299), and a daughter, called Alix or Alasia. Elbe V, Maria’s husband, was the grandson of Eble III (d.1170), who’d been a patron of the early troubadour Bernat de Ventadorn, and he was the great-grandson of Eble le chanteur (after 1086-1155), believed to have been among the creators of the troubadour genre.

Maria exchanged a tenso (debate song) with Gui d’Ussel (fl.1195-1209). This one poem is the only surviving example of her work, and no music survives. The song dates from around 1197. She and Gui alternated verses, debating whether becoming a lady’s lover elevates a man to be her social equal or whether he remains her servant. Maria argued the servant side.

She was mentioned in the works of several troubadours, including those of Gaucelm Faidit (c1170-c1202), the Monk of Mantaudon (fl 1193-1210), Gausbert de Puicibot (fl.1220-1231), Pons de Capduelh (fl. 1160-1220), Guiraut de Calanso (fl.1202-1212), Bertran de Born (1140s-c1215), and Gui d’Ussel (fl.1195-1209). She may also have had her own knight, Hugh IX of Lusignan (c1163-1219).

Tibors de Sarenom (c1130-after 1198)

Tibors was the sister and guardian of the troubadour Raimbaut d’Orange (c1147-1173) and the wife of the troubadour Bertrand des Baux (c1137-c1183). She was the earliest known trobairitz during the classical period of medieval Occitan literature, at the height of troubadour activity.

Only one poem and no music of hers survives. It’s the earliest surviving trobairitz poem, from 1150, called Beis dous amics and is included in her vida. Her name is in an anonymous ballad dated between 1220-1245, wherein she acts as the judge of a game of poetry.

She was a lady of Provence, from a castle of En Blacatz, called Sarenom, about 110 miles northeast of Marseille, and 40 miles from Forcalquier, where Garsenda (see above) lived near the end of Tibor’s life. Tibor was courtly and accomplished, gracious, and very wise. She knew how to write poems, and she fell in love frequently and had suitors. She was greatly honored by all the men in her circle, and she was admired and respected by all the worthy ladies, according to her vida.

Her history is hard to parse. Most of the vidas were more hypothetical than factual, and Tibors was a very common name in Occitania. Her mother (Tibors d’Aurenga, dates unavailable), and her two daughters (yes, both of them) were also named Tibors.

Her father was Guilhem d’Omelas (d.c1156), and he came to own the castle of Sarenom (possibly present-day Serignan-du-Comtat in Provence or maybe Serignan in the Roussillon) through his marriage to Tibors d’Aurenga. Tibors d’Aurenga’s minor son (our Tibors’ brother) Raimbaut d’Orange (c1147-1173) inherited the castle when Tibors d’Aurenga died, so Tibors (our Tibors) and her second husband Bertran dels Baus (c1137-c1183) took it over.

Tibors had three sons by Bertran, Uc, Bertran, and Guilhem, also a troubadour. Tibor died shortly after Bertran. Documents about her are confusing (for obvious reasons).

Sources:

“Music in the Medieval West; Western Music in Context,” by Margot Fassler. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2014.

“The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1995.

“Women Writers of the Middle Ages,” by Peter Dronke. Cambridge University Press, New York, 1984.

Composer Biography: Comtessa Beatriz de Dia (c1140-c1200)

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Also Countess of Dia, Comtess de Dia, and Beatritz

Pretty much all the press goes to male composers during the Middle Ages, but every now and then, a woman sneaks through their defenses. One of these was Comtessa Beatriz de Dia. She was a troubadour—or rather a trobairitz, which is the name for a female troubadour.

Troubadours were, for the most part, of noble blood, but were perhaps third (or fourth, etc.) sons (or a daughter) and not expected to inherit the family castle or join the priesthood. This left them with considerable funding and a lot of free time on their hands. Playing a musical instrument was considered suitable employment for the long and languorous hours, and a few found themselves wandering among various estates, entertaining as they went.

It was also popular at the time (12th through 14th centuries) to woo the mistress –married or otherwise—of the castle you were visiting, and the vast majority of troubadour songs are about this kind of courtly—and unrequited—love. Every now and then, like there were women troubadours, there were married noblewomen willing to stray for the sake of a little romantic poetry. Husbands looked the other way just as the wives were expected to look the other way about their own dalliances.

Beatriz was the wife of Guillem of Poitiers (dates unavailable, but possibly the grandson or great-grandson of Guillem IX, 1071-1176, the earliest of the troubadours whose works survive). Beatriz was also the lover of the famous troubadour Raimbaut d’Orange (1146-1173).

In most contemporary documents, Beatriz is known only as the Comtessa de Dia, but she was likely the daughter of Count Isoard II of Dia (dates unavailable), which is north of Montellmar in southern France. The names of these towns seem to have changed, but if Montellmar is the same place as Montelimar, it’s about 90 miles south of Lyon and halfway between Toulouse and Turin (Italy). A town called Die is about 60 miles east of Montelimar. These could just be towns with similar names and in about the same place as the troubadours hung out, though. I’m totally guessing.

It was fashionable at the time to write the lives of saints in biographies called vitas. Troubadours found that appealing and wrote secular versions called vidas. Some friend or relative wrote these things, and the details can’t be verified. This makes it entirely possible that Beatriz is a fictional character, according to one source. Or just embellished a bit. It’s hard to know.

Regardless of whether she was real or fantasy or whether anything known about her is true, her shadow reveals a lot about the women troubadours and their lovers through her poetry.

There are five pieces attributed to Beatriz, one of which is a tenso (debate). Incidentally, most of the songs attributed to trobairitz are argumentative. (History is written by the victors, and men have been the ones documenting music until the 20th century, for the most part. If you could slough off all your bad moods to the losers in a battle, wouldn’t you?)

At any rate, of the five pieces, only one has music associated with it, A chantar m’er de so qu’ieu non volria. This is a canso of five strophes plus a tornado, with each strophe having the musical form ABABCDB. The music was preserved in Le Manuscrit du Roi, collected by Charles of Anjou (1226-1285), the brother of Louis IX (1214-1270). Le Manuscrit du Roi contains over 600 songs, most composed between the 12th and 13th centuries.

Music notation was a slippery thing (for more about this, read The History of Music Notation) at the time, and whoever wrote down Beatriz’ surviving piece wrote it in tenor clef, as if a man would sing it, even though the pronouns that reveal gender are unequivocal. Let’s look at it!

A Chantar m’er de so qu’ieu non volria (translation by Meg Bogin)

Of things I’d rather keep in silence I must sing:

So bitter do I feel toward him

Whom I love more than anything.

With him my mercy and fine manners are in vain,

My beauty, virtue and intelligence.

For I’ve been tricked and cheated as if I were loathsome.

 

There’s one thing, though, that brings me recompense:

I’ve never wronged you under any circumstance,

And I love you more than Seguin loved Valensa [hero and heroine of a lost romance]

At least in love I have my victory,

Since I surpass the worthiest of men.

With me you always act so cold,

But with everyone else you’re so charming.

 

I have good reason to lament

When I feel your heart turn adamant

Toward me, my friend: it’s not right another love

Take you away from me, no matter what she says.

Remember how it was with us in the beginning

Of our love! May God not bring to pass

That I should be the one to bring it to an end.

 

The great renown that in your heart resides

And your great worth disquiet me,

For there’s no woman near or far

Who wouldn’t fall for you if love were on her mind.

But you, my friend, should have the acumen

To tell which one stands out above the rest.

And don’t forget the stanzas we exchanged.

 

My worth and noble birth should have some weight,

By beauty and especially my noble thoughts,

So I send you, there on your estate,

This song as messenger and delegate.

I want to know, my handsome noble friend,

Why I deserve so savage and cruel a fate.

I can’t tell whether it’s pride or malice you intend.

 

But above all, messenger, make him comprehend

That too much pride has undone many men.

 

There are recordings of this:

  • Studio der Frühen Musik on the album “Chansons der Troubadours”
  • Hesperion XX on “Cansos de Trobairitz”
  • Clemencic Consort on “Troubadours, volume 2”
  • French Anonymous on “Medieaval Banquet”
  • Montserrat Figueras on “Demina Nova: Canco—Estat Ai En Greu Cossirier”
  • Elizabethan Conversation, Andrea Folan, and Susan Sandman on “The Medieval Lady”
  • Giraut de Bornelh on “Troubarouds/Trouveres/Minstrels”
  • Catherine Bott on “Sweet is the Song: Music of the Troubadours & Trouvères”
  • Martin Codax on “Bella Domna: The Medieval Woman—Lover, Poet, Patroness, and Saint”

It’s important to note that this isn’t just the only piece to survive by Beatriz. It’s the only piece by a trobairitz to survive with the musical notes.

The rest of her poems were set to flute music, according to the vida. Her usual subject matter includes optimism, praise of herself and her true love, and betrayal. In one poem, Fin ioi me don’alegranssa, she makes fun of the alusengier, a person known for gossiping, comparing those who gossip to “a cloud that obscures the sun.”

East-German Irmtraud Morgner (1933-1990) uses Beatriz as the subject of a whole historical novel series. Some are available in English, but most are in German.

I find it interesting that only one of my sources written by men mentioned Beatriz. When there are only a few handfuls of music from a particular time and culture, why would they choose to leave one individual out, especially as she is the exception (being female) and not the rule?

Sources:

“The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. The Macmillan Press Limited, New York, 1995.

“Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates. Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1996.

“Women Making Music, The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950,” edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987.

“Women & Music, A History,” edited by Karin Pendle. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001.

“Music in the Medieval West,” by Margot Fassler. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2014.

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

Composer Biography: Byzantine Women Composers (8th and 9th Century)

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I was researching something else, and I came across the most wonderful CD. It was music by Byzantine composer Kassia, from the 9th century. And here I thought Hildegard was the first named composer! Apparently, she was only the first named composer in the West—Byzantium was naming them left and right, and Kassia is not only earlier, but she’s also a woman!

First, a little history about how Byzantium (which is a modern appellation, by the way. I’ll use it here as a convenience) came to be separate from the West in religion, culture, and language.

The Catholic papacy had a long tradition of eastern orientation, but in the 8th century, the Byzantines split off after the papacy refused to pay taxes to the Byzantine Empire. They also refused to destroy religious icons, because such destruction seemed too close to the Islamic policy banning religious images. There was more to it than iconoclastic differences and fear of Islam, but the result was a papacy vulnerable to the Lombards of Northern Italy, which ultimately led to an alliance with the Carolingian family in the form of Pepin the Short, Charlemagne’s father.

There was a lot of arguing about whether the Eucharistic bread actually became God’s body and so forth, but the great split between Eastern Orthodox Catholics and Roman Catholics happened when Pope Leo II crowned Charlemagne (c742-814) as Holy Roman Emperor in 800. Charlemagne was the first to be named Holy Roman Emperor since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier, when Justinian tried to bring Eastern (Byzantine) power further west and ended up dividing rule of the land into several pieces.

Not only the religions but also the cultures diverged wildly after this point. Byzantium used the Cyrillic alphabet, incorporated Indian and Arabian influences into music, architecture, and other art forms, and the language of the literate was Greek. Under Roman rule, Latin was the unifying language of the literate, music and other art forms took on what we now identify as distinctly European affects, and the Roman alphabet was used.

Byzantine music tends to be wildly ornamental, with lithe wriggling endings to long notes, quick turns and decorations in instrumental parts, and extremes of high and low voices. Roman music is more straightforward, requiring less virtuosity but with its own kind of serene beauty. Where church modes (see Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes) developed in Roman Catholic lands involving a tuning based on a sequence of three whole tones, a half tone, and another whole tone, Byzantium retained the old Greek modes, which were based on a stricter, more mathematical splitting of string lengths into five pentatonic notes. (For those interested in temperament, this ends up being the difference between Just and Mean tones before they knew it was called that.)

Byzantium became the Ottoman Empire, after bunches of wars and other disruptions, around the 15th century. Even so, a sharp divide between the sound of eastern music and that of western still remains.

Now that you have some context, let’s take a listen to some Byzantine music and explore some composers’ biographies.

Recordings:

  • “Les Tres Riches Heures du Moyen Age, CD 1: Les Premieres hueres de l’Ere Chretienne.” Harmonia Mundi, 1995
  • Hesperion XXI, Montserrat Figueras, Gürsoy Dinçer, Lior Elmaleh, Jordi Savall, et al. “La Sublime Porte, Voix d’Istanbul 1430-1750.” Alia Vox 2011.
  • Peter Rabenser, Belinda Sykes, Jeremy Avis, Oni Wytars Ensemble. “From Byzantium to Andalusa, Medieval Music and Poetry.” Naxos 2006.
  • Soeur Marie Keyrouse, SBC. “Chants Sacres Melchites, Hymnes a la Vierge.” Harmonia Mundi France, 1994.
  • Marcel Peres and Ensemble Organum. “Chant Mozarabe, Cathedrale de Tolede (15th Century).” Harmonia Mundi France 1995.
  • Sister Marie Keyrouz, SBC. “Byzantine Chant,” Harmonia Mundi France, 2008.

Sources:

  • “The Early Middle Ages, Part 2 of 2,” by Professor Philip Daileader of the College of William and Mary. The Teaching Company’s “The Great Courses,” Chantily, 2004.
  • “Charlemagne, A Biography,” by Derek Wilson. Vintage Books, New York, 2005.
  • “Charlemagne,” by Roger Collins. Unversity of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2008.

 

Kassia (c805-before 865):

Kassia (also Kassiani, Ikasia, Cassie, and Cassianne), was a Byzantine abbess, poet, composer, and hymnographer. Her name is the feminine Greek form of the Latin name Cassius.

She was one of the first Medieval composers whose scores have survived. We have about 50 of her hymns, and 23 are included in Orthodox Church liturgical books that are still used today. The exact number of her compositions is difficult to assess, as many hymns are ascribed to different authors in various manuscripts or are identified as anonymous. About 790 of her attributed non-liturgical verses still exist.

Kassia was born between 805 and 810 in Constantinople into a wealthy family, and was said to be very beautiful and intelligent. Three reliable chroniclers claim that she participated in a Bride Show where the prospective groom gives a golden apple to the woman of his choice, from among all the potential brides lined up at a party. In this case, the prospective groom was the soon-to-be-emperor Theophilos (813-842). He chose Kassia, and when he quoted a Bible verse meant as a compliment (something about all sin coming from intelligent and beautiful women, a reference to Eve), she responded to it in kind (something about good things coming from women, a reference to the Virgin Mary). He felt rebuffed and chose someone else, but remained Kassia’s supporter until his death.

In 843, Kassia founded a convent in Constantinople near the Constantinian Walls. She was the abbey’s first abbess. The monastery had a close relationship with the nearby monastery of Stoudios, which would play a key role in re-editing the Byzantine liturgical books in the 9th and 10th centuries, and which is why her work survived.

Emperor Theophilos was bothered by the Eastern Orthodox veneration of icons. Despite being scourged with a lash as punishment, Kassia remained an outspoken icon defender. When the Theophilos died, the age of iconoclastic destruction also ended.

Kassia is notable for being one of very few women to write in their own names during the Middle Ages. Her most famous composition is the “Hymn of Kassiani” is still sung every Holy Wednesday. It has a large range and is considered to be one of the most difficult pieces of solo Byzantine chant. It’s a unison piece, sometimes with a vocal bass drone. Church attendees make an issue of going to church specifically to “listen to Kassiani.”

Other important works include the “Doxastichon” (for Vespers on Christmas Eve), numerous hymns honoring saints, the “Triodon” (sung during Lent) and the “Irmoi” (for Matins for Great Thursday), and her longest piece, “Canon for the Departed” (for requiem services).

Kassia briefly traveled to Italy and then settled in the Greek Island of Kasos, which is where she died sometime between 867 and 890. Kassia’s tomb and reliquary are in a church in Panaghia.

Her feast day is September 7th, and she’s often pictured on the icon of the Sunday of Orthodoxy (the first Sunday of Great Lent).

Recordings include:

  • VocaMe: “Kassia—Byzantine Hymns of the First Woman Composer,” 2009. Only works by Kassia, including Augustus. (This is the one I’m completely hooked on.)
  • Kronos Quartet: “Early Music,” 1997. Includes an instrumental version of “Using the Apostate Tyrant as His Tool.”
  • Sarband: “Sacred Women, Women as Composers and Performers of Medieval Chant,” 2001. Includes “Augustus.”
  • Deborah Kayser and Nick Tsiavos: “The Fallen Woman,” 2008. Includes the Kassiani Hymn. Search for this one on YouTube
  • Capella Romana and the English Chamber Choir: “Choral Settings of Kassiani and When Augustus Reigned,” 2011.

Sources:

  • “The Byzantine World,” edited by Paul Stephenson, 2013.
  • “Byzantine Women, Varieties of Experience, 800-1200” edited by Lynda Garland. Ashgate, 2006.

 

Khosrovidukht (8th century)

Also Xosrociduxt.

One of the earliest known women musicians, Khosrovidukht was once thought to have been a member of the Armenian royal family, but experts are now uncertain. There are stories that her brother was abducted by Arabs and that she was taken to the fortress of Ani Kaakh (now called Kemah) for safekeeping. She stayed there as a hermit for 20 years.

She’s thought to be the composer of a sarakan, or canonical hymn, called “Zarmanaii e Ints” (How Wondrous it is”), which honors the memory of her brother, thought to have been assassinated in 737 for his conversion to Christianity. It’s a secular piece, but it was sanctioned for use in the Armenian Church.

Recordings include:

Sources:

  • “Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.

 

Sahakdukht (8th century)

Sahakdukht came from a musical Armenian family, and had a famous brother, music theorist Stephannos Syunetsi (dates unavailable—like hers).

She herself was a composer of hymns, and she was a poet and pedagogue. She lived in a cave near present-day Yerevan, and wrote ecclesiastical poems and liturgical chants. Only one survived, “Srbuhi Mariam” (St. Mary), a nine-stanza verse. Many of her works are Marian Hymns, and some may have helped to shape the genre. (In the Latin liturgy, the Marian hymns are my favorites. They’re often gentle and sweetly loving, and use metaphors that I find particularly pleasing.)

Sahakdukht is said to have taught lay musicians and clerical students who visited her cave. According to custom, she stayed seated behind a curtain during all interviews and visits. It must have been a very long and slow 20 years…

Recordings include:

Sources:

“The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1995.

Instrument Biography: The Virginal

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If you’re interested in the Tudors, you’re already familiar with the sweet little instrument known as the virginal (or the virginals—the S doesn’t make it plural, it’s just that some people pronounce it that way). The virginal looked like an itty bitty upright piano and sounded like a harpsichord. It only had a couple of centuries of popularity, but some of the biggest names in music wrote songs for it.

The virginal is a chordophone, which means that the sound is made by the vibration of strings. It sounds funny to say it because of the keyboard, but the virginal is a member of the zither family. The family of chordophones includes bows (like jaw harps), lyres, harps, and lutes (which includes guitars and violins) on one side, and zithers on the other. The zither side of the family includes simple instruments, like an array of strings across a board like a psaltery, more complex struck-string instruments like hammered dulcimers or pianos, or the strings can be plucked like a harpsichord or virginal.

The virginal was a popular domestic instrument in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially in England, and major composers like William Byrd (1543-1623) and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) wrote a lot for it. The spinet version (more on that in a minute) was first popular in Italy in the 16th century and, by the 18th century, was a favorite all over Europe. One of my favorite painters, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), painted several portraits with virginals in them, including Young Lady Seated at a Virginal (c1670).

Where the idea for the virginal came from and who built the first virginal isn’t known. Musical inventors of the time were fooling around with keyboards and organs, plucked psalteries, and bowed stringed instruments, all of which were being expanded by families (for more on that, read my blog post Instrument Biography: The Vielle or Instrument Biography: The Recorder or even Instrument Biography: The Pipe Organ). The virginal probably existed by the end of the 14th century.

Germany and England were both influential in the development of the instrument, along with Italy to a lesser degree. Virginals weren’t really musically significant until the 16th century when, due to developments in music notation (for more on this, see the History of Music Notation) and chords (for more on this, see Chords versus Polyphony), their harmonic opportunities could be properly exploited.

The oldest dated spinet version of the virginal that has survived was built in 1493 by Alessandro Pasi (dates unavailable) in Modena. The oldest dated harpsichord is also Italian, completed in Rome in 1521 by Geronini di Bologna (dates unavailable), and is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The same collection also has the most valuable spinet in existence, which is encrusted with nearly 2000 gems, built in 1577 by Annibale Rosso of Milan (dates unavailable). In 1867, that instrument was bought for $2000, which was a pretty hefty sum, roughly $33,000 in today’s money.

Posh versions aside, by the 16th century, everyone who was anyone had a virginal. Henry VIII had 32 virginals in his collection when inventory was taken in 1547. He also had three hybrid instruments that were part organ and part virginal. (For more about Henry VIII’s musical affinities, see my post On Their MP3 Player: Henry VIII.)

Henry’s very musical daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, played the virginal, and many people think that it got its name because she was “The Virgin Queen.” But the truth is that the virginal was already the most popular household instrument by Elizabethan England., and had its name long before Elizabeth was conceived, let alone crowned queen.

To show how ubiquitous it was, let me cite some examples. The virginal was mentioned in a proverb inscribed on the walls of Manor House, Leckingfield, Yorkshire, England in about 1500. The court organist at Budapest played the virginal to entertain the prince at mealtimes in 1501. Henry VIII bought five of them in 1530, and in 1549, the Innsbruck court bought one from an organ builder in Königsburg. By 1582, the orchestra of the Berlin court possessed four of them. In fact, by 1600, virginals were played throughout all of Europe.

Virginals were very popular domestic instruments in the Low Countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, and Flanders), England, Austria, and Germany. In England, they eventually gave way to the spinet and in Germany to the clavichord.

Virginal Structure

A virginal looks like a flat rectangular box with a keyboard cut out near the end of one long side. By definition, it has strings that run nearly parallel to the length of the keyboard. The virginal’s relative, the spinet, has strings that run diagonally away from the keyboard, and the harpsichord, another near relative, has strings that run perpendicular to the keyboard, directly away from the player.

The rectangular shape was the earliest and the longest-lived shape. Italian virginals included a wide variety of harp-shaped or polygonal designs with the keyboard protruding from the main body. Flemish models had a keyboard recessed into the box, which was either centered in one of the long sides or off to the left. The ones that had the keyboard off to the left were called spinetts (notice the double-T) and the ones that had the keyboard off to the right were called muselars. English virginals followed the Flemish design, with the keyboard off to the left.

There was also a double virginal that had two keyboards superimposed and played separately or coupled and played together. This was a Flemish development. The smaller of the two keyboards was called an ottavino, and it fitted like a drawer under the soundboard of the larger keyboard.

In the early models, the player placed the box on a table, or, more rarely, on their own lap. Later versions had their own stands. The boxes were small, perhaps five feet long, a foot and a half wide, and eight inches deep, and light enough that a musician could place it on the table without help.

Until late in the 17th century, the terms virginal and spinet (one T) were used interchangeably in the various countries of Europe. Both terms were used in England, but there, they described different instruments: the virginal had an oblong rectangular case and the spinet was approximately triangular or wing-shaped, with the keyboard at the the left of the strings, accommodating the long bass strings.

The 32 steel strings are plucked by plectra or quills rather than struck with a hammer like a piano. The strings are attached by a mechanical device to the keyboard.

Each key on the keyboard was attached at the far end to a small wooden rod or jack. The upper end of the jack had a hinged and movable wooden tongue that held the plectrum or quill. The plectrum projected horizontally with a hog’s bristle that served as a spring. The hog’s bristle held the wooden tongue in an upright position.

When the key was depressed, the jack rose and the plectrum plucked at the string above it. After the key was released, a lead weight in the bottom of the jack caused the key to fall back to its original position. The wooden tongue turned aside and the plectrum slid past the string so that the string wasn’t plucked a second time on the way down. A small patch of cloth was fixed to the upper end of the jack to dampen the sound.

The plectrum vibrated the string at the point of impact. In a plucked instrument, the whole string vibrates, which is the major difference between a virginal and a clavichord. In a clavichord, the string is divided so that two notes can be plucked on the same string on either side of a dividing node. That means that a clavichord can have twice as many notes with the same number of strings; a virginal has a single string for each note.

The keyboard could be off to either end of the rectangular box, in the middle, or two separate keyboards could be offset from one another. A spinet keyboard with a harp or pentagonal shape had the keyboard occupying most of the length of the rectangle because it housed more strings.

Remember back when I first started talking about the strings? I said that they ran NEARLY parallel to the keyboard. In truth, they’re at a slight angle, which means that the strings ended up being different lengths when strung from one short end of the box to the other. Lower notes, with longer strings, were harder to play than higher notes because the length of the string meant that the jack and wooden tongue mechanism had to move more weight.

The range of the instrument was limited to the number of strings the case could hold. To extend the range, the keyboard was moved to the narrow end of the soundboard. When they put the keyboard down at the narrow end like that, they had invented the harpsichord. Over time, the length of the keyboard and the number of strings increased until they’d invented the harpsichord you’d recognize today.

Virginals usually had only one register (only one type of sound, compared to organs, which could have many different sounds) and one keyboard (except for the aforementioned ottavinos). It was cheaper to make a virginal than a harpsichord and they were much easier to move. A virginal was louder than the clavichord so it could be used both as a solo instrument and in chamber music with other instruments. This made it as popular as both the harpsichord and the clavichord—it was like a combination of the two.

The tone was full and loud, and couldn’t be altered by varying the pressure on the keyboard. That’s what made the later invention of the piano so exciting—the piano could be played both loudly and softly—its full name is piano-forte, which means “soft-loud” in Italian.

The virginal had 32 metal strings (four octaves) that lay nearly parallel to the keyboard. Each string was longer than its neighbor, forming a triangle inside the case, with the long bass strings at the front. In Flemish virginals, the keyboard was placed either to the right or to the left of center of a long side, a feature that determined the timbre of the instrument. When placed to the right, the strings were plucked nearer their centers, producing a nasal tone that was described in 1730 as “grunting like pigs” by one critic. This form was called a muselar.

With the keyboard to the left, in the form called a spinett (with two Ts), the sound was brighter because the strings were plucked near one end, providing more resonance. It had a more flute-like sound than the muselar or the harpsichord, both of which are plucked near the end of the strings.

The double virginal (ottovino) was nicknamed “mother and child” and combined a large keyboard with a smaller one half the size. The smaller one was set in a recess between the soundboard and the bottom of the case, usually to the left of the larger keyboard. It could also be played on its own, but during performance, the child could be withdrawn and placed on top of the mother so that the mother keyboard played both instruments. The child sounded an octave higher than the mother. These instruments were built in the late 16th century.

The Flemish Ruckers family was famous for producing the mother and child version. The child, or ottavino, was placed over the strings of the larger instrument with the jack rail removed, so the jacks of the child instrument, which passed through a slot in the bottom of the ottavino, could activate the strings of the larger mother instrument. The jacks of the larger instrument activated the keys of the ottavino, so both instruments sounded together, giving a brighter sound.

Italian keyboards projected from the case, and the cases were often cypress wood, and quite delicate. Flemish keyboards had the keyboard recessed within a keywell, were often made of poplar, and were sturdier than the Italian instruments.

The earliest Italian virginals were hexagonal in shape, with the case following the lines of the strings and bridges. A few early Flemish examples were also hexagonal. After 1580, nearly all virginals were rectangular, although the Italian models often had an outer case like harpsichords. There are few surviving English virginals, and they look like Flemish instruments, with vaulted lids.

In the muselar version, plucking the string near the middle makes repeating a note difficult because the vibrating string prevents the plectrum from connecting again. Because of this, the muselar was better suited to chord-and-melody music, without complex left-hand parts. It could be provided with a stop called the harpsichordium, which consisted of lead hooks that were lightly applied against the ends of the bass strings so that the vibrating string produced a buzzing sound. Muselars were popular in the 16 and 17th centuries and their ubiquity has been compared to that of the upright piano in the early 20th century. But, like other forms of virginals, it fell into disuse in the 18th century.

Most virginals have between 32 and 45 notes, or four octaves. There were some Italian models with 54 notes, or five octaves.

They came in several sizes. The Dutch organist and harpsichordist Class Douwes (c1650-c1725) mentions instruments with strings from two and a half feet long to six feet long. The pitch difference between models offered by the Ruckers family corresponded to the musical intervals of a tone: a fourth, a fifth, an octave, and a ninth. Pitch assignments have been suggested based on scaling provided by Douwes.

Many virginals throughout Europe were plain wood, but many others were richly decorated. From the moldings on the case edges, through the jack rails, and name battens, they could be adorned with ivory, mother-of-pearl, marble, agate, tortoiseshell, semi-precious stones, and intricate painting.

Flemish virginals often had their soundboards painted with flowers, fruit, birds, caterpillars, moths, and even images of food, within blue scalloped borders and intricate blue arabesques. Many symbols are meant to suggest the Christian resurrection story.

The keys were in two tones, just like today’s keyboards. The natural keys (white keys on a piano) were covered in bone and the sharp keys (black keys on a piano) were of oak or chestnut. They might be left plain, or keys might be lavishly decorated with ivory, ebony, mother of pearl, or tortoiseshell.

Case exteriors were usually marbled, sometimes painted that way, and sometimes covered with marbleized paper. The inside was covered with elaborately block-printed papers. Sometimes the inside of the lid was painted with a scene, but more often, it was covered with papers printed with a Latin motto having to do with morality or music. Mottos were so often applied to the keywell batten that it’s often called the name batten.

Italian virginals didn’t have a standard form of decoration. The outer case was usually decorated in some way, but the actual instrument was often left plain. Cases might be decorated with grotesques (fantastic curly-cues and human forms), intricately painted classical scenes, or marquetry.

Soundboards were rarely painted. Soundboards of both Flemish and Italian virginals were pierced with a rose, sometimes two or three roses in the earlier models. The piercing served no acoustic function but was purely decorative. These decorations were a throwback to the rose in the medieval lute and were never carved integrally as part of the soundboard.

Italian soundboards were constructed by layering pierced parchment, so the final result looked like a gothic rose window or an inverted wedding cake. In Flemish instruments, the rose was usually cast lead that was gilded and often incorporated with the maker’s initials.

The Name

The name virginal has been erroneously connected with virginity and with the maiden queen Elizabeth. But Elizabeth was born in 1533, quite a few years after the first mention of a virginal. The term goes back to the 15th century, seen first in a poem during Henry VII’s reign (1485-1509, and Elizabeth’s grandfather) and nearly at the same time, in a manuscript in Cracow, written between 1459 and 1463, called the Liber virginti atrium by the Bohemian instrument maker Paulus Paulirinus (c1413-1471).

The word virginal is probably related to the Medieval Latin word virgo, meaning rod or branch. Virginals (with an S) is one variation, and like scissors or pants, is often used in the plural.

In Italian, the word is spinetto, from the Latin spina, meaning thorn. In Middle High German, they’re called Schachtbrett from Schacht or New High German Schaft, or rod, both meaning rod.

In French, the word is echiquier from a mistaken translation of the German word Schachtbrett. Echiquier may be where the term “jack” comes from, that describes part of the plucking mechanism lined up in little rows, like chessmen, which is at the root of the word “check” in echiquier.

A harpsichord could be called a virginal in England, a clavecin in France, and a clavicembalo in Italy. But remember, these are relatives of the virginal, not different forms.

Virginal Composers

The “Fitzwilliam Virginal Book” is probably the most famous collection of keyboard compositions, and contains nearly 300 pieces from English composers. It was compiled by a Catholic recusant (for more on recusants, see Composer Biography: William Byrd) called Francis Tregian (1574-1618), between 1609 and 1618. The most frequently represented composers are Byrd, John Bull (c1563-1628) and Giles Farnaby (c1566-1640). No one seems to know why it’s called the Fitzwilliam book, though. Perhaps it was a patron.

The “Fitzwilliam Virginal Book” is not necessarily meant only for the square form of harpsichord, and even within the square type, the term “virginal” was not limited to a single form. The use of the words spinet and virginal at the time were both vague and somewhat contradictory. The word harpsichord is commonly used for the grand piano-shaped elongated form, and virginal or spinet for the upright and square form. But the book was intended for all keyboard instruments, even organs.

The “Parthenia” was the first music ever printed for virginals. It contained 21 short pieces, including preludes and dances by William Byrd, John Bull (c1562-1628), and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), appeared in late 1612 or early 1613.

Although he didn’t write much for the virginal, English madrigalist Thomas Morley (c1557-1602) wrote variations of “Go from My Window” in his Consort Lessons.

Italian Andrea Gabrieli (c1532-1585) wrote Capriccio sopra Il Pass’ e mezzo Antico for the virginal. It was markedly unlike his usual work.

Both William Byrd and Giles Farnaby (c1563-1640) composed their virginal pieces on “grounds” (a phrase that repeats throughout the song in the same voice—in the left hand on the virginal) and extended sets of variations, usually on popular songs, but sometimes on dance tunes or the notes of the hexachord (a six-tone scale, like a mode).

Virginal works grew increasingly complex, culminating with Spaniard Antonio de Cabezon (1510-1566). Cabezon was certainly in England with his master, Philip of Spain (1527-1598), for more than a year, during 1554-1555, when it is likely that he was known to composer John Blitheman (c1525-1591), who was organist at the court of Queen Mary.

The most important English virginal composers were William Byrd (1543-1623), Thomas Morley (1557-1602), Peter Philips (1561-1628), Giles Farnaby (c1565-1640), John Bull (c1562-1628), Thomas Weelkes (c1575-1623), Thomas Tomkins, (1572-1656), and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). The repertory consists of dances (mostly pavanes and galliards), variations on popular tunes, preludes, fantasias, liturgical pieces (organ hymns and In nomine), and transcriptions of madrigals.

Other big names in virginal composition include:

  • Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), Italian
  • Giovanni Picchi (c1571-1643), Italian
  • Samuel Scheidt (c1587-1654), German
  • Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), Dutch

Famous Makers

There were quite a few virginal makers, some of whom were also harpsichord or organ makers. There were three major centers of virginal making: Italy, Belgium, and England.

Andreas Ruckers (1579-c1640), for instance, was a member of a famous Flemish family of plucked string instrument makers that flourished in Antwerp from 1580-1670. They’re thought to have made the earliest harpsichords with two manuals (keyboards) and a single register (like an organ stop, that controls what kind of sound the instrument makes). The first of the outstanding Ruckers was Hans Ruckers (c1550-c1625), whose instruments had a beauty of tone that won them—and him—a lasting reputation throughout Europe. Some of Hans’ innovations sprang from his expertise as an organ tuner.

Lodewejck Grauwels (dates unavailable), was Flemish and from the late 17th century. I found no other details about him or his instruments.

Sources:

“The History of Musical Instruments,” by Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Mineola, 2006.

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

“Musical Instruments of the World,” by the Diagram Group. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1997.

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

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1994.

“The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade-Matthews and Wendy Thompson. Lorenz Books, Wigston, 2012.

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

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

“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1959.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

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

Instrument Biography: The Recorder

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The recorder is an evolved form of flute, a woodwind from the family of fipple or internal duct flutes. Although many of the fingering principles are the same, it’s distinguished from the transverse flute by being end-blown. Although some forms of fippled flutes are older, the recorder as we know it may have originated in Italy in the 14th century. It soon became important as a consort instrument during the Renaissance. Like the viol, the recorder comes in a family of sizes—as many as eight, according to Michael Praetorius.

The recorder was popular from Medieval times through the Baroque, and declined in popularity in the 18th century in favor of orchestral woodwind instruments, such as the traverse flute, oboe, and clarinet. It was often associated with pastoral scenes, miraculous events, funerals, marriages, and amorous scenes. Images reflecting those sensibilities can be found in both literature and artwork.

The recorder was far more popular than its loud double-reeded cousin the shawm and its noisy cousin the bagpipe, and volume was probably a contributing factor. Sometimes players bound two recorders together, one to be played with the right hand and the other with the left. This seems an imitation of the ancient Greek aulos rather than an innovation, though.

The modern revival of interest in the instrument began at the turn of 20th century primarily due to resurgence of interest in early music (as defined by “music before 1750”). Arnold Dolmetsch in the UK and various scholars in Germany, including the Brussels Conservatory where Dolmetsch trained and the performance group Bogenhauser Künstlerkapelle, were largely responsible for this revival of interest, but even so, there were common misperceptions about it, including by such notables as Igor Stravinsky, who thought it was some sort of clarinet.

Recorder History

There are other end-blown flutes, such as panpipes, but the recorder is made distinctive by the contraption in the throat of it that controls the flow of air. This contraption is called a duct or a fipple, and its use is better described in the Structure portion of this article. It’s an ancient idea, and an Iron Age (1200-550 BCE) recorder made of sheep bone has been discovered.

Although common lore claims the recorder as a 14th century invention, Medieval paintings of whistles argue for an earlier inception. The difference between a whistle (like those used in Irish folk tunes), with six or fewer holes, is that a recorder has seven holes in the front and one in the back. The original design of the traverse flute, and the fingering that goes with it, was based on the six-holed whistle, not the recorder. Yup, I was surprised to learn this too.

A 14th century recorder was discovered in a castle moat in the Netherlands. It was largely intact, but no longer playable. They found another from the same period buried in a latrine (we can only wonder how THAT came to be) in Northern Germany. There are a few more from the same period elsewhere in Germany, and in Estonia and Poland. There’s a piece of a bone recorder from the 14th or 15th century that was dug up in Greece and a complete recorder from the 15th century was found in Poland.

The earliest recorders were designed to be played with the right hand below the left or vice versa, depending on the preferences of the player. The holes were all in a straight line, except the lowest hole, for the lower hand’s little finger. This was a double hole so that the player could fill the unused hole with clay, depending upon which hand they preferred to play with uppermost. This second hole is why the French called the instrument flute à neuf trous. Later, the right-hand lower style was declared standard and the second hole disappeared.

The recorder was very popular in the 16th and 17th century, probably because music was no longer strictly the purview of nobility and clergy. The invention of the printing press made music available to anyone with the money to pay for it. The recorder was also brought into royal courts, including that of Henry VIII. When he died in 1547, they found 76 recorders among his possessions.

During the Renaissance, recorders were used for dance music and as accompaniment for singers. Both William Shakespeare and John Milton also mention recorders. There are many vocal works with un-texted lines that were probably meant for instruments, such as vielles and recorders and lots of vocal music was easily playable (within the right range) by these instruments. Increasingly, composers wrote music solely for instruments, and they often didn’t specify which. This meant that a consort (a group containing a bunch of instruments from the same family, like various sizes of cornettos or recorders) could be played by whatever musicians and instruments were handy. This period of innovation and invention proved that if an instrument was good in one size, it would be even better in several sizes and with several ranges.

In the 15th century, recorders were increasingly used in polyphony along with voices, organs, shawms, trombones, trumpets, and cornetti. Polyphony was the style of the day during the Renaissance, but composers were just beginning to write chordal pieces. (For more on this, check out Chords versus Polyphony.) The Medieval tradition of juxtaposing two or three melodies on top of one another co-existed with imitation, where one part has the melody and then another does, each taking a turn. The late Renaissance also ushered in an interest in complex improvisation and ornamentation, something that was so very distinctive during the Baroque period.

There are many existing examples of recorders from the 16th century, all still playable. Like the Medieval recorders but unlike the later Baroque recorders, Renaissance recorders have a wide and nearly cylindrical bore (Baroque recorders tend to be conical). They have great low notes (better than the Baroque instruments, in fact) because of that wider bore. This bore shape meant that the player had to blow harder, but it also made the instrument more lithe and responsive.

The recorder’s relative, the flageolet, is thought to have been invented by someone called Juvigny in Paris at the close of the 16th century. It had unusual finger holes—four in the front and two in the back—and it had a particularly high-pitched sound.

In the 17th century, changes to the design of the recorder made it more suitable to the Baroque era, including improvements to the tone, which made it quieter and reduced its range. Praetorius mentions eight sizes of recorder in his 1618 treatise, but only three were still in use a century later: the descant, alto, and bass. Its gentle and subdued tone couldn’t keep up with the growing demand of the 18th century for dynamic and tonal contrasts, and it was slowly ousted by the traverse flute. In the 18th century, people called the recorder the flute because it was so wide-spread, and they called the traverse flute the traverse to distinguish it.

After the 18th century, there wasn’t much call for recorders. It’s possible that the versatility of the traverse flute made it more appealing to composers. Because of the fixed relationship of the wind-way to the fipple, the dynamics and expression of the recorder were limited, making it ill suited to the dramatic style of the period. Also, music as a pastime for aristocratic amateurs was changing to music for a society of professionals, and composers of the time began to write solely for professionals.

By the Romantic era, the recorder had been nearly completely replaced by the traverse flute and the clarinet. A keyed version of the recorder (called a czakan or Stockflöte) survived into 19th century concert halls. But still, its popularity waned. The recorder was basically ignored during the Romantic period. But in 1912, Arnold Dolmetsch, who was instrumental (ha ha) in reviving quite a few ancient instruments, made them popular again, especially in England and Germany. Now, recorders in various sizes, and mostly without keys, are made for the Early Music Movement, for music education in the schools, and for performances of folk music.

Fortunately for us, playing the recorder never completely died, and there are still makers all over Europe. There was a huge recorder revival in the 20th century as part of the historically informed performance (HIP) movement of early music, but also because it’s simple and ideally adapted to teaching music to amateurs. Lots of children played recorders as a “gateway” instrument, but there are many professional players who can show us the instrument’s full range.

The recorder is enjoyed by amateur groups large and small, which usually contain multiple sizes of instruments to compensate for limited note ranges in individual instruments. Four-part arrangements (soprano, alto, tenor, bass, just like vocal parts) are most common, although there are more complex arrangements (just like vocal parts). Recorder orchestras are a late-20th century invention, with 60 or more players, and up to nine sizes of the instrument. You can find such groups in Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, the US, Canada, the UK, and several other countries.

Recorder Structure

The recorder is a wind instrument with a beak mouthpiece, seven finger holes at the front, and a thumb hole at the back. It was well-known in the Middle Ages and had developed several sizes by the 14th century, when the name, meaning “keepsake” was first used. The recorder achieved its real pre-eminence during the Renaissance when it was the only wind instrument with its own tutorial. This instruction manual was written by Sylvestro Ganassi in 1535 and showed that great technical brilliance was possible over a range of nearly three octaves.

The recorder is held outward from the player’s lips, rather than to the side, like a traverse flute. The breath is compressed into a linear stream by a channel cut into the block (also called a fipple) in the mouthpiece of the instrument, and travels along the duct, called the windway. As it exits the windway, the air hits the hard edge of the body of the head, called the labium or the ramp, which causes the column of air to resonate within the tube. The recorder uses fingering (open holes, half-holes, and forking) to change notes.

Blowing harder on a recorder affects its pitch, so the dynamic range (loudness) of recorders is limited to subtleties. It’s renowned for its clear and lithe articulation, and a skilled player can take advantage of that to suggest dynamic changes. Some effects can be made by controlling the pitch with partially covered holes or alternative fingerings to accommodate harder breath pressure.

The sound of the instrument is clear and sweet, partially because it doesn’t have upper harmonics.

At its upper end, early recorders had a beak-like formation, which was blocked except for a narrow channel in the fipple. Today, some recorders have this beak-like shape, and others are blown into a slot cut into the fipple block itself.

The slit of the mouthpiece directs the stream of air against the sharp edge of the fipple block, which sets up vibrations. The block in the mouthpiece leaves a narrow channel for the air to pass through. The block is called a block in most countries, and in England, it’s called a fipple.

Sound in a recorder is produced in much the same way as in the flue pipes of an organ. Air is passed through a long vented tube that is a specific length to achieve the notes in the desired range. Finger holes provide the ability to change notes (unlike an organ’s pipes).

The recorder has a lightly tapered bore, widest at the mouthpiece and narrowed toward the foot on Baroque recorders, or flared at the bottom on Renaissance instruments.

Recently, organ-pipe-shaped recorders have been built with square cross-sections. These are cheaper than the traditional size, but aren’t as attractive. They have greater ranges and stronger low notes, making these newer instruments more audible when playing concertos. Some of these newer instruments can play three octaves in tune. The tenor is particularly popular because its range matches that of the traverse flute.

When overblown, a recorder sounds the next octave, so there is no way to produce a louder sound.

Internal duct flutes are not all recorders; only recorders have eight finger holes, seven on the front and one on the back for the upper hand’s thumb. Players could choose which hand was above the other; the lowest hole was often doubled and the player could stop up the unused one with clay.

There’s some debate about whether the thumb hole at the back of the instrument was a 16th century development. Pictorial references only show the front of the instrument, so there’s no way to know. No instruments have survived to prove or disprove this theory.

By the middle of the 17th century, the double lowest hole was considered impractical, and they invented a movable hole, putting the last hole on its own section so that it could be rotated to suit the player. It was at this point that four new keys were added to the bass and contrabass forms. Two of these keys were operated by foot pedals.

Double recorders weren’t common in the 16th century, but they did happen. The two pipes lay side-by-side and were carved from a single block of wood. There are two forms of this instrument, one where the holes are pierced in staggered positions and the other where the holes are side-by-side. The side-by-side version survived because adjacent holes could be stopped by fingers on the other hand—it was a more limber instrument to play, but it also required a certain agility from the player.

Double recorders during the Baroque were bored out of the same piece of wood with the finger holes close together so that each pair could be closed with a single finger. The width of the holes, the bore of the tubes, and the position of the flutes in the block was different for each of the two instruments, and it was possible to obtain an interval of a third between each pair of parallel finger holes. The instrument was popular in England and Switzerland. A fellow called Christian Schlegel of Basel was one of the best double recorder makers in the 18th century.

French innovations were brought to London by Frenchman Pierre Bressan (1663-17310). Thomas Stanesby (c1668-1734) was an instrument maker, mostly of oboes, in London—he and his son were the other important recorder-makers of the 18th century, along with Bressan.

In the early 20th century, Peter Harlan (a German) developed a (single) recorder that allowed simpler fingering, called the German fingering. Such instruments have a slightly smaller fifth hole, whereas Baroque and neo-Baroque instruments have the fourth hole smaller. This causes a difference in fingering for F and B-flat. Sadly, it also causes other notes to be out of tune. German fingering was popular in Europe, especially in Germany in the 1930s but was obsolete by the 1950s as musicians got more serious about the recorder and the limitations of German fingering became more of an annoyance.

In half-hole or forking fingering, air leaks out through part of the hole making the pitch higher than expected. Some Baroque instruments have divided holes to facilitate playing these notes accurately. Half-covering or not covering a hole and fully covering lower holes is called “forking” and has a different tonal character than those notes in the scale that peel up from the bottom.

Pinching is when the thumbhole in the back is only partially covered, and the higher notes that are achieved by this method call upon the harmonics of the instrument. Again, there is some degradation of the tone.

Recorders can be made of wood, plastic, or ivory. When they’re made of wood, they’re maple, pear, rosewood, granadilla, or boxwood with a block of red cedar. Plastic recorders are mass-produced and are cheaper to maintain than wood, and the good quality ones are equal to or better than the lower-end wooden recorders. Most beginners’ or children’s instruments are plastic.

Modern instruments are based on Baroque style, although some makers reproduce Renaissance-styled instruments. Those (Renaissance-style) have a wider, less tapered bore and usually have a less reedy and more blending tone, well-suited to consorts.

Until 1650 or so, the instrument was a smooth shaft that suited the taste of the Renaissance. But the Baroque style was much more complicated and the recorder was reshaped accordingly. The tube left the lathe with expansions at either end, so that the form curved gracefully.

The change in shape from the Renaissance to the Baroque was largely attributed to the Hotteterre family (see more on them in Instrument Biography: The Flute). They developed the tapered bore, which brought the lower hand’s fingers closer together, allowing a greater range and making it possible to build the instrument in several jointed sections. Separating the instrument into sections allowed more accurate shaping of each individual section, and it offered minor tuning adjustments by lengthening and shortening the length of the instrument with a change to the position of the sections.

In the mid-20th century, recorders were made of Bakelite and plastics, so they were cheap and easy to produce. This made them popular in schools, as they could be bought in bulk for a good price. They are pre-tuned and easy to play in tune, even at the most basic level of skill. Mastery, however, isn’t so easy. The success in schools has led to the misunderstanding of the recorder as a children’s instrument.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the recorder was being made in four sizes—a hundred years later, Praetorius describes eight sizes. The larger instruments have double-winged keys instead of the duplicate lower holes, and were blown through a brass S-shaped tube (like the bassoon) for greater ease in performance.

The treble recorder (called the alto in the US) is most commonly used as a solo instrument. If no size is specified, it’s this one that is meant. The descant (called the soprano in the USA) also has an important repertoire of solo music. There is some tenor and bass solo music, but not much compared to alto and soprano.

The largest recorder, the contrabass, even larger than the bass recorder, is seldom used due to its cost and size. It stands about 6.5 feet tall, and is in the key of F.

An experimental piccolino has been produced, which plays about 12 notes above the range of the soprano. The fingering for this instrument requires very small hands, and the holes tend to be side-by side rather than lined up down the length of the instrument (like an ocarina), so it’s pretty darned hard to play.

In ensembles, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass are most common, and many players play all the instruments and switch, as the needs of the music demand. Great basses and contrabasses are less common. The sopranino doesn’t blend well and is usually reserved for recorder orchestras and for playing concertos (solo pieces with orchestral backup). Larger recorders require larger hands, and instruments larger than the tenor have keys to enable the reach and provide a better tonal response (through consistently complete hole coverage). Some altos also have keys to aid in completely covering the holes.

The largest recorders are so long that the player can’t reach the finger holes and still reach the mouthpiece with the lips. Instruments larger than the bass (and some basses, too) use a bocal or a crook, which is a thin metal tube like that of the bassoon, to conduct the player’s breath to the windway, or they may be constructed in sections that fold the recorder into a shape that brings the windway back into reach.

Range

German instrument-maker Sebastian Virdung (born c.1465-   ) used alto, tenor, and bass sizes in his “Musica getuscht” of 1511 but Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) lists eight, from the great bass to sopranino. Praetorius recommends a consort of the larger sizes as sounding best because the lower ones had a soft and expressive tone suitable for all sorts of music.

Each different size of recorder comes with its own register. They are usually tuned in C or F, meaning that their lowest note is a C or an F. There are instruments in D, B-flat, G, and E-flat, but those are more common historically than today. The treble (alto) recorder is in G, and is commonly used in Renaissance ensembles. The tenor recorder is in D, and is also called a voice-flute because it was much like a human voice in its range.

Most recorders are pitched at “concert pitch” (A=440 Hz), but other pitches are available. For Baroque instruments, A=415 Hz is standard, and Renaissance instruments are at A=466. These alternative tunings are a compromise between historical accuracy and what is practical for playing in groups. There’s an alto pitched at A=403, and there are makers who offer two middle sections, each at a different pitch, so the instrument can be immediately adaptable. (A 415-pitch is an exact half-step lower than 440, so many other instruments, such as vielles, viola da gamba, and harpsichords, can be adapted relatively quickly.)

Music isn’t usually transposed for the recorder, but is written in the same key as it’s played. Some family members must transpose for the octave (soprano and above, and bass and great bass). Recorders are referred to as D-fingered, C-fingered, G-fingered, F-fingered, etc. based on their lowest notes (with all the finger holes closed). Players must know at least C- and F-fingering or spend some time transposing at sight.

Sizes from garklein down through tenor are notated in treble clef and bass and lower are notated in the bass clef. The six-inch-long garklein sounds two octaves above the written pitch, even higher than the sopranino and soprano, which both sound one octave above the written pitch. The alto and tenor sizes sound as written, and the bass and great bass sound one octave above the written bass (in bass clef). These transpositions are written by adding a small “8” above or below the treble or bass clef for those instruments that don’t sound as written, although it’s not always written in, and the transpositions must be assumed from context. Contrabass and sub-contrabass sound as written, and the octocontrabass sounds an octave below written pitch.

Recorders sound an octave above the human voice after which they’re named (soprano, alto, tenor, bass). They don’t sound like they’re an octave higher though, because of the harmonics involved in making the notes.

Michael Praetorius describes a narrower range than modern instruments have. This is partially from improvements in construction since his time and partially from the general skills of today’s players. Reproductions of period instruments often have a range of as little as an octave and a half, and modern instruments usually have a little more than two octaves.

Some reproductions use Sylvestro Ganassi’s fingerings and offer the larger range of modern instruments—music publishers mean that the range is of two octaves or more when they refer to Ganassi recorder.

Most recorder pieces encompass two octaves, except in virtuoso pieces. Higher notes are more difficult to play, and fingerings vary from instrument to instrument. It’s possible to hit some additional notes by covering the end of the instrument. Usually, this is accomplished with the player’s thigh. Some makers add a key to help with this note, and a longer bore can help reach these notes as well. Although common in 20th century music and later, this maneuver is seldom used in pre-20th century music.

Most modern recorders are based on the designs by Bressan, Stanesby, and Denner. The Denner family in Nuremberg were continental recorder makers from the 18th century.

Popular music in the 20th century required inventing new noises, rhythms, and effects, such as flutter tonguing and overblowing to produce multiphonics.

The Name

Called the recorder since the 14th century, the earliest known use of the term was in the household of the Earl of Derby (who later became King Henry IV) in 1388—he called it the fistula nomine Recordour which comes from ricordare especiale, which essentially means “remember” in Italian.

The recorder was called the flauto in Italian until the 18th century. Italian is the language (still) used in writing music. The instrument called the flute today was then known as the traverse. This name anomaly led to some music being performed on possibly the wrong instrument. Today, the recorder is known as the flauto dolce in Italian (sweet flute), with equivalents in other Latin languages, such as the flauta doce in Portuguese and flaute dulce in Spanish. In Portuguese and Spanish, the term “flauta” is ambiguous, as it can mean a traverse flute, a recorder, or even some other kind of wind instrument, like the pan flute, and some Central and South American instruments.

In French, the word flûte is similarly ambiguous—the French recorder is usually called the flûte a bec, or beaked flute. The Spanish picked up on this descriptive term and also called it the flauta de pico. The Old French name was flute à neuf trous for the recorder that had two holes in the lowest position depending on the handedness of the player.

From the “block” (fipple plug) in German, the recorder is known as a Blockflöte and the modern flute is known as the Querflöte (the traverse flute), the Grossflöte (great flute) or simply the Flöte. There’s also the Schnabelflöte, the mouth (or beak) flute for the recorder. Dutch follows the same convention as German, with blokfluit being the recorder and dwarsfluit the traverse flute.

An illustration of a recorder appears in England during the 12th century, but the name doesn’t occur until the 14th century. The name means “keepsake.” The English also call it the fipple-flute.

Bach called for two flauti d’echo in his 4th Brandenburg Concerto in G major. This instrument was the double recorder, two recorders (both in F) connected together by leather flanges. One was rigged to play softly and the other loudly, causing the echo effect and the name.

Recorder Composers

The numbers are too many to list, but I’ll tell you a few of my favorites: Guillaume Dufay, Johannes Ockeghem, Josquin Des Prez, Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517), Orlando di Lasso (c1532-1594), William Byrd (c1540-1543), and John Dowland (1563-1626). All of these gentlemen composed music for singers that could also be played by recorder consorts.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) used the flageolet in Rinaldo and in Acis and Galatea. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) used the flageolet in Sacred Cantatas ## 96 and 103. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote three concertos for the flautino and used it in the orchestra for his opera. Initially thought to mean a piccolo, later studies have determined that he called for a sopranino recorder.

Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) was probably one of the last to specify that a recorder rather than a flute be used in his Orfeo and Euridice.

Henry Purcell (c1659-1695), J.S. Bach (1685-1750), Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), and Vivaldi (1678-1741) all used the recorder to suggest shepherds and to imitate birds in their music, a theme that continued through the 20th century.

More modern composers for the recorder include Edgard Varèse (1883-1965), Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006), Richard Harvey (1953-   ), Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), Josef Tal (1910-2008), John Tavener (1944-   ), Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), and Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006).

Carl Orff (1895-1982) was largely responsible for the popularity of recorders for use in schools, and is most famous for his Carmina Burana. He wrote “Music for Children” with many pieces for recorders, plus other instruments.

Recorder Players

There are lots of them. I’ll list just a few. Frans Brüggen (1934-    ), Hans-Martin Linde (1930-   ), Bernard Krainis (1924-2000), David Munrow (1942-1976), Kees Otten (1924-  ), Michala Petri (1958-   ), Piers Adams (1963-   ), and Charlotte Barbour-Condini (1997-   ). Leticia Berlin and Frances Blaker, and their group Tibia Recorder Duo are my two local favorites. I’m not mentioning the years they were born because I don’t want them to bop me on the noggin with a recorder.

Carl Dolmetsch (1911-1997) was the son of Arnold, the big recorder designer and builder. Carl commissioned works from the leading composers of his day.

Famous groups include Sour Cream (led by Frans Brüggen), Flautando Köln, Flanders Recorder Quartet, Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet, Quartet New Generation have all combined mixtures of historical and contemporary repertoire.

Popular Music:

Loads of rock and rollers have used the recorder, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones (Ruby Tuesday), Yes (I’ve seen all Good People), Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin (Stairway to Heaven), Jimi Hendrix, Fairport Convention, and Mannheim Steamroller.

Sources:

“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.

“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 Lyre

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The lyre was ubiquitous from ancient times until the Middle Ages. It was present in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, endured in Asia, prospered in Africa, and wandered all over Europe and Great Britain. Even so, it has been nearly completely absent from musical experience for the last 600 years. But that doesn’t make it irrelevant. Without it, the harp, zither, lute, guitar, violin, vielle, and countless other instruments would never have been invented.

Back in ancient Egypt, the instruments in an “orchestra” (this term meant something different back then) were very quiet, like the lyre, harp, and flute. Middle Eastern groups of musicians came to resemble noisier Asian orchestras around 3000 BCE with the influx of newly conquered peoples and their instruments. By 1700-1500-BCE, this change affected the social standing of musicians—where once music had been a hobby for the elite, under the New Empire, music became the purview of professionals, often of ill repute. Upper-class conservatives preserved the old music in temples and schools, leaving noisier music to the general population—just like today!

The instruments adopted or developed by Egyptians during this period of transition were lyres (during the Hellenistic period), kitharas (a posh version of the lyre), lutes, harps, flutes, reed instruments (similar to oboes and clarinets), castanets, cymbals, bells, drums, and rattles. There are examples of failed attempts to make trumpets from this time as well.

It’s probable that the development of all these other instruments began because even the largest lyre couldn’t play more than two octaves. In fact, most could only play one octave or less because they had only three, five, or six strings. It’s also probable that this had long been an acceptable range because singers would have been all male, rendering a broader range unnecessary. (Because women often sing in both head and chest voice, even an untrained woman usually has nearly double the range of most men. It’s not a judgement fellahs, it’s the great estrogen/testosterone divide.)

Some musicologists think of the lyre as part of the zither family (which also includes lutes, guitars, kantele, and psalteries). Other musicologists insist that they’re not in the same family because zithers (and lutes, guitars, kanteles, and psalteries) have strings that cross the soundboard for their entire length or nearly the entire length, whereas a lyre’s strings cover the soundboard for half or less of their length.

The poetic recitations of the ancient Greeks were accompanied by lyres. Apparently, the Greek god Apollo played one, and for a while, the instrument became a cult favorite in ancient Greece during the rise of his cult. An account by Homer credits the invention of the lyre to the Greek god Hermes, but a Thracian account claims that they had used the lyre long before the Greeks.

In truth, this ancient stringed instrument was, with the kithara, the most important stringed instrument of both ancient Greece and ancient Rome, not to mention Asia, Africa, an d Egypt. Although its popularity waned a bit by the Middle Ages, its association with King David brought a small resurgence in popularity in Europe, and a lyre often appeared in illustrations of musicians and angels from the late 7th century onward.

The Judeo-Christian Bible mentions the lyre in 42 places. The Septuagent translates the word for lyre 20 times as kithara (in Psalms, Job, and Isaiah), 17 times as kinnyra (in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles), and several other times in Greek forms. The Vulgate translates 37 of the 42 times as cithara, once as cithara pro octava, in two places as psalterium, once as organum, and twice as lyra. The Aquila, Symmachos, and Theodotion (versions of the Bible) use either kithara or psalterion.

“Lyric music” originally meant “music sung to the lyre.” Betcha didn’t know that!

Oh, and just so we’re all playing in the same band, the difference between a harp and a lyre is that the lyre has a soundboard with two arms sticking out of it, roughly parallel like a U-shape, and with a crossbar connecting the two arms. The strings of a lyre run from the soundboard to the crossbar, parallel to the arms and across the face of the soundboard. The harp is a triangle and the strings are perpendicular to the soundboard, sticking out of it rather than running across it.

Lyre History

There isn’t much evidence of lyres in Mesopotamia before the Greeks came, but if flourished after that. Curt Sachs, one of the world’s greatest musicologists, said that there is no evidence of lyres anywhere until about the 15th century BCE, about 1200 or 1300 years after harps appeared. However, archaeological evidence disputes this. For instance, 20th century archaeologists exploring royal tombs at Ur, a Sumerian city on the Euphrates, found several lyres and harps, as well as paintings of them being played, from around 2500 BCE.

From the times of the pharaohs, around 1900 BCE, there are lyres in paintings (frescos), as played by Semitic or possibly Hebrew nomads, who came to ask for royal permission to settle in Egypt. A painting from c1650 BCE of the Hyksos depicts a Bedouin coming to visit the governor while playing a lyre of the same type as was brought to Mesopotamia by Semitic people.

During Akhenaton’s time (the 1330s BCE), Syrian girls played lyres with fingers or a plectrum according to tomb paintings. And, from about 1200 BCE, there’s a piece of ivory carved with a Canaanite king surrounded by luxury and lions (!) with a musician playing a lyre for his entertainment.

In the time of Ramses III (around the 1160s BCE) at Thebes, the usually 7-stringed lyre took a new form as the two gracefully curved arms were made in different lengths so that the crossbar was not quite parallel to the top of the soundbox. The arms had carved animal heads at their ends.

A vase from Megiddo depicts a lyre from around 1025 BCE, thought to be in the style that King David would have played. It was either brought to Egypt by the Israelites or the Canaanites and was discovered by the Hebrews in their new homeland. There are surviving instruments from the end of the first millennium BCE in the Cairo Museum and one in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

In Greece, a form of lyre was called a phorminx and like other lyres, was chiefly used as an accompanying instrument. Learning to play the lyre was considered a core element of education in Athens. Both men and women played the lyre, and it was used to accompany dancing, singing,, and recitation of epic poetry, such as Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.” The lyre was also used in ceremonies such as weddings and sometimes they used it just for fun.

The Greek form of lyre called the kithara would have been played by a professional who performed at public ceremonies. A lyre, on the other hand, would have been played by amateurs—free-born men who didn’t earn their livings by playing and performing.

The Egyptians adopted Asian instruments during the Hellenistic period (between 323 BCE and the first century CE), including lutes, kitharas, lyres, flutes, clarinet-types, and oboe-types, castanets, cymbals, bells, drums, and rattles, including sistrums. On the Isle of Skye in Scotland, a lyre from 300 BCE has been found.

In India, there were paintings made of dancing girls playing lyres (and harps and drums), until, in the 1st century CE in the Indo-Scythic courts, images of men appeared with lutes, lyres, and double oboes. The lyres and oboes disappeared fairly fast, as the Greek influence on Indian music was minimal.

Clement of Alexandria (c150-c200 CE) approved of the lyre and the kithara because they had been played by King David, but in general disapproved of instruments in Christian music. He feared that the pagan influence was too strong in those other instruments. He also admonished his fellow Christians to avoid the chromatic and theatrical melodies of the heathens (meaning the Greeks), and advised them to return to the spiritual songs , the traditional psalm singing of David. He cites one example in an ancient Greek drinking song:

Among the Ancient Greeks, in their banquets over brimming cups, a song was called skolion, after the manner of the Hebrew psalms, all together raising the paean with the voice, and sometimes taking turns in the song while they drank to everyone’s health, while those that were more musical than the rest sang to the lyre.

But the Christians weren’t alone in looking at music as worship. A passage in the Talmud encourages people to sing in celebration:

The song of thanksgiving was sung to the accompaniment of lutes, lyres, and cymbals at every corner and upon every great stone in Jerusalem.

Diodorus Siculus, in the 1st century BCE, used a lyre-like instrument to accompany Celtic songs. The Celtic version had an arched yoke to which the strings were attached rather than to a crossbar. The Celtic name was the crot or the cruit, which later evolved into the crwth in Welsh and the crowd in English. Crwths have six strings, four of which run across the fingerboard; the other two act as drones.

It seems that the Celtic north developed lyres independent of the Greek and Roman lyres. They were found in drawings from the 8th century CE, and looked surprisingly like Sumerian instruments. They were used by Anglo-Saxon minstrels and their continental contemporaries. Similar instruments were found all over the Europe.

In the 11th century CE, inventors combined the yoke of the lyre with the neck of fingerboard instruments, eventually evolving it into the stringed instrument we know today as the guitar.

The lyre-player’s function was to perform a free and florid version of the same melody that was sung—not harmony or accompaniment but heterophony, which anticipated ornamental variation but didn’t provide counterpoint. There was a lot going on in the early Middle Ages regarding music innovation. In particular, harmonies, rhythms, and chords resulted as part of the development of music notation. (For more on this, see The History of Music Notation.) By the late Middle Ages, the lyre had become less popular than other plucked or bowed instruments, because they had greater flexibility in tone, tuning, and playing multiple notes simultaneously. For instance. the fiedel or vielle, with its fingerboard and bow, appeared around then. Its descendents, like the gamba and the violin, are still popular. (There will be a blog on this someday.)

People still play lyres in North-Eastern Africa, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find them anywhere else.

Lyre Structure

The lyre has a soundbox, two arms, a crossbar that connects the two arms, and gut strings that are attached at the base of the soundbox, cross the length of the soundbox, and stretch across an open space to be attached at the crossbar. There is a second bar, parallel to the crossbar, that functions like a bridge o raise the strings above the surface of the soundbox. The strings stretch from the bridge to the crossbar, and are held there by strips of fatty ox hide. Twisting the fatty hide changes the pitch by tightening or loosening the strings.

The soundbox is hollow, often made of wood or tortoiseshell, and the arms can be made from the same piece of wood as the soundbox, added pieces of wood, or occasionally horns, antlers, or branches. Sometimes these arms have carvings at their ends. The crossbar can be made of wood, branches, metal, wire, or antler and can be parallel to the top edge of the soundbox, at an angle, or curved away from the soundbox.

Most lyres are small, from half a foot wide and a foot-and-a-quarter long, to about four feet long and a foot wide. They were meant to be played while seated or standing, and occasionally from horseback. The lyre was held in the left hand, resting on the left hip, perpendicular to the body.

A lyre has from five to seven strings, although there are instruments with fewer and some with more. The strings are all of equal width and length and a change in pitch is the result of varying the tension of the strings. If they are too thick or too loosely strung, they sound feeble, if too thin or too tightly strung, they break. In comparison, the harp’s strings are of different lengths, and a harp has more notes to offer; that’s probably why the harp’s popularity has endured and the lyre’s hasn’t.

Like the harp, the string with the deepest note on the lyre is furthest from the player’s body. The lyre is played by placing the fingers of the left hand on certain strings to stop them from sounding, and strumming or plucking the strings with a plectrum held in the right hand.

Mycenaean (Greek) examples include two ivory lyres, with their crossbars pierced for 8 strings. These pieces further the general belief that Greece got lyres from Egyptians and Phoenicians. Earlier forms, from the 8th century BCE, were small, with round bases and four strings. Slightly later, around the end of the 8th century, there’s a Hittite relief that shows a six-stringed lyre. By the end of the 7th century BCE, there are images  of 7-stringed instruments, played with a plectrum.

In ancient Greece, the tuning would have been E G A B D (five strings—or pentatonic tuning—in intervals of a third, three seconds and another third). I didn’t find any details on other tunings.

Tuning pegs developed in the early middle ages, but interest in the lyre was already fading, so this development didn’t catch on.

A tether (leather or cloth) attaches the bottom of the lyre to the left wrist, helping to balance the lyre on the left hip when the player stands. The wrist strap sometimes extends to be more of a sling, with decorative tassels and other ornaments.

Specific fingers on the left hand are used to pluck or damp specific strings. The right hand wields the plectrum, which looks like a small spoon and dangles from the instrument by a small cord in some instances. The right hand was used to pluck and strum the instrument with the plectrum and with bare fingertips.

The plectrum is made of animal horn. Playing close to the bridge (on the soundbox) produces a bright, loud sound, with harmonics and sympathetic strings sounding as a result of the strings vibrating. The plectrum is used for introductory passages—it produces too loud a sound to accompany the voice—and the strings are plucked with bare fingers during speaking or singing.

The lyre doubles the voice part or plays it at the octave rather than providing harmonies or accompaniment.

The lyra, which was a variation of the lyre, was a lyre-shaped instrument made of a tortoise shell with a tympanum (the top surface) of ox hide. A yoke was attached to the shell to form the arms; the older ones were made of antelope horns and later, they were made from curved pieces of wood. There were seven gut strings (or fewer) and, like the lyre, it was played with bare fingers or a plectrum. The difference is that the bare left hand plucked the melody and the right hand, with a plectrum fastened to it by a thong, swept across all of the strings rhythmically during the breaks between sung choruses.

Some musicologists assert that the lyra was brought by the Hellenes when they migrated into Greece from the north of the Balkan peninsular and Hungary. Similar instruments were played by Egyptians, Jews, Hittites, Elamites, and Assyrians, so Greece was sort of forced to join in the fun.

From the Sennacherib period (705-681 BCE) in Assyria, there are pictures of lyres with straight but unequal arms and others with gracefully curved arms, like the barbiton.

The barbiton is a lyre with long arms that angle slightly outward until they curve suddenly, at the very top, back toward one another. The arms are connected by a short crossbar. The barbiton has a very small soundbox and is played with the fingers of the left hand and a plectrum held in the right hand, just like the rest.

The kithara is a large lyre, used in processions and sacred ceremonies as well as in the Greek theater, and was always played with the musician standing. Kithara players who sang as they played were called kitharodes.

A Sumerian instrument from Ur, called a bull lyre, had religious significance. It looks kind of like a model of a ship, with a figurehead on the bow end that’s carved to look like a bull, and the horns of the bull forming the arms of the lyre, smoothly carved into cylinders and at a slight outward angle. The strings radiated from a single point in the center of the soundbox and attached to a smooth cylindrical crossbar. The number of strings would have varied, and they were knotted around sticks that that could be turned to change the tension/tuning at the crossbar. Replicas of this instrument are very pretty.

The early Medieval lyre in Europe was smallish and was made entirely from a single piece of wood. It had six or seven strings running from pegs on the crossbar and attached to a tailpiece on the soundboard. If you do a search for the Sutton Hoo lyre, this is the type that you’ll see.

Although eschewed by Archilochus (c680-645 BCE), the lyre was the preferred accompaniment of Sappho (c620-c570 BCE) and Alcaeus (c620-the 6th century BCE). Nothing remains of the melodies; only the lyrics remain.

Philo of Alexandria (c20 BCE-50 CE), who was an early Jewish philosopher, saw the seven strings of the lyre as representing the seven planets.

The Name

This instrument has had many names:

  • Arabian peninsula: tanbūra
  • Bangladesh: ektara
  • Egypt: kissar, tanbūra, simsimiyya, k-nn-r
  • English: rote
  • Old English: crowd
  • Old Irish: cruit or crot
  • Estonia: talharpa
  • Ethiopia: begena, dita, krar
  • Finland: jouhikko
  • German: cythara teutonica
  • Greece: barbiton, kithara, lyra, phorminx, kinnyra
  • India: ektara
  • Iraq: sammu, tanbūra, zami, zinar
  • Israel: kinnor
  • Kenya: kibugander, litungu, nyatiti, obokano
  • Nepal: sarangi
  • Norway: giga
  • Pakistan: barbat, ektara, tanbūra
  • Persian: kunnar
  • Scottish: gue
  • Semitic: kenanawr around 1200 BCE
  • Siberia: nares-jux
  • Sudan: kissar, tanbūra
  • Syrian: kenara
  • Tanzania: litungu
  • Uganda: endongo, ntongoli
  • Welsh: crwth
  • Yemen: tanbūra, simsimiyya

In the third chapter of the Book of Daniel of the Judeo-Christian Bible, King James translators named the instrument the quyteros, which translates to a kithara or lyre. The Book of Daniel was written in the 2nd century BCE.

Homer (who lived sometime between the 9th and the 12th century BCE) called a four- or six-stringed lyre the phorminx. That’s what Apollo is playing at the end of the First Book of the “Iliad.” When Odysseus and his companions visit Achilles in his tent, they find him singing and accompanying himself on a phorminx that has a silver crossbar. Phemius in the First Book of the “Odyssey” and blind Demodocus in the Eighth Book sing as they accompany themselves on the phorminx.

Both the Syrian kenara and the Arabic-Persian kunar are thought by some experts to be the root etymology of the term kinnor, but other experts disagree and say that the origin is unclear. The Phoenicians played a kinnor too, and it’s possible that they got the name from the Greeks, who had a kinnyra, from which the word kinnyrai (to lament) was derived. As an unusual linguistic peculiarity, kinnor has two plural forms, one masculine—kinnorim—and one feminine—kinnorot. It’s unexplainable, and not found in the names of any other instruments.

Famous Composers

Because music notation was just taking off when interest in the lyre was waning, there isn’t much evidence of compositions specifically for the lyre. I found only two citations.

  • A Syrian fellow called Bardesanes (154-233 CE) and his son Harmonios composed a complete gnostic psalter of 150 psalms to be sung to the lyre (ad lyra cantum), in the “Jewish” fashion.
  • Italian Baroque composer Jacopo Peri (1561-1633 CE) wrote the lyre into accompaniments where two choirs were doubled—the first was doubled by lyre, harp, large lute, and “sotto Basso di Viola” and the second choir was doubled by lyre, harp, chitarrone, and “Basso di Viola.”

Famous Players

I found only one famous lyre player, besides the one’s in Homer’s works: Italian philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), who regarded the lyre as therapeutic.

Oh, and while I have your attention, when I was reading all this varied material, I came across this caution for musicians in general:

“Whoever drinks (especially wine) to the accompaniment of four musical instruments brings five punishments to the world. Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink, that tarry late into the night, ‘til wine inflame them! And the harp, and the lute, the tabaret and the pipe, and wine, are in their feasts, but they regard not the work of the Lord.” From the Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sotah, folio 48a, lines 43-44.

Sources:

  • “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.
  • “Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.
  • “Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1940.
  • “The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.
  • “A History of Western Music,” J. Peter Berkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.
  • “A Dictionary of Early Music,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.
  • “Music in Ancient Israel,” by Alfred Sendrey. Philosophical Library, New York, 1969.
  • “The Music of the Jews in the Diaspora,” by Alfred Sendrey. Thomas Yoselof, New York, 1970.
  • “The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West,” Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 1971.
  • “Music in Ancient Greece and Rome,” by John G. Landers. Routledge, London, 1999.
  • “Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates. Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1996.
  • “Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture; Hildegard of Bingen to Chaucer,” by Bruce W. Holsinger. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2001.

Composer Biography: Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)

with 4 comments

Hildegard has a reputation as a composer and a visionary, but in truth, she was way more than that. Yes, she’s the first named composer in western music, and yes, she had visions, but she was also an herbal healer, a preacher, a moralist, a frequent correspondent with kings and popes, and a societal reformer. It’s no wonder that feminists have taken her as an icon, although she would have been more than a little horrified by that. She firmly believed that women had their place in the church and society, and that it was not as leaders. But times were changing in the 12th century and Hildegard was part of it all.

As the choir (a trained group of musicians) took over singing during religious services from the priests (not trained as musicians) in the 4th and 5th centuries, women began to participate in the services, most notably in monasteries. Life in a monastery revolved around the eight daily Divine Offices and regular Masses, but in between, the women worked, learned to read Latin, and learned to make music.

Women were forbidden to instruct or supervise men, and all communication outside the monastery would have been through abbots and bishops or male family members. But Hildegard didn’t need intercession. She claimed to have direct communication with God in the form of visions and prophecies, and it didn’t take long for her voice to be heard outside the convent.

Even as a small child, Hildegard’s health was poor and she suffered serious headaches, probably a type of migraine that causes visual hallucinations. Because of the nature and frequency of both her illnesses and her visions, Hildegard wanted to become a nun. She was also a tenth child, traditionally the child sent to a monastery as a tithe, so her family was thrilled that Hildegard was as eager to go to the monastery as they were to send her there.

She was the daughter of Hildebert and Mechtild (people didn’t have last names back then), a noble family in Bermersheim bei Alzey in the Rhein region of Germany. Several of her siblings would also enter the church. Some of them would help her later in life, but most are not documented—even some of their names are not known.

At age six or eight (there’s some disagreement on this) she left home to be boarded into an anchorage (a type of hermit life) with her-slightly older (and hyper-fanatical) cousin Jutta, and by age 14, she had taken vows herself. She spent the next 30 years boarded in with her cousin at Disibodenberg Abbey, a double monastery (both men and women). When her cousin died after 30 years of incarceration, Hildegard was unboarded from the anchorage and was soon elected to be the magistra, the leader of the women.

Not long after her release, Hildegard had a vision that she should write her visions down, and as a result, she developed a correspondence with the already-famous Bernard of Clairvaux. He thought fondly of her and was supportive of her writing, and brought her visions before the pope, who declared her a prophet and encouraged her work.

Soon, Hildegard found life at Disibodenberg restrictive and she made plans to build her own monastery further north, on a pleasant kink in the Rhein River, near the village of Bingen and about half way between Köln and Frankfurt. But the abbot and monks didn’t want her to leave (at least in part because of the dowries and benefactor-income that Hildegard and the nuns brought to the monastery), and in order to encourage them to change their minds, God struck her down with a wasting illness. She lay in her bed like a block of stone, according to her biographers. Even the abbot was unable to lift her head and began to question whether he dealt with human suffering or divine punishment.

Finally, against the wishes of the abbot and at least one of the priests at Disibodenberg, in 1148, she and most of the nuns went to Bingen and built a monastery there. The first attempt, at Rochusberg, burnt to the ground when nearly finished, and Hildegard moved to a more auspicious location where the Rhein met the Nahe River at Rupertsberg (across the Nahe from Bingen. Both structures were within a few minutes’ walk from the village of Bingen).

Controversy regarding the nuns’ dowries raged for many years—when Hildegard left Disibodenberg, she argued that the wealth of the nuns belonged with them and would provide independence for the Bingen monastery. The abbot at Disibodenberg profited from the nuns’ dowries and continued association with Hildegard, and he refused to relinquish the funds for more than a decade. Hildegard’s abbeys (there were two, in the end) were never to be free of the “parentage” of Disibodenberg in Hildegard’s lifetime, and even once the dowries were released, they still owed the presence of a priest and many other benefits to Disibodenberg.

Hildegard was so famous and popular (largely as a result of publishing her visions), that she formed a second monastery across the Rhein, in Eibingen. Breaking with tradition, this house was meant for merchant-class women rather than nobility, and these women had to earn their keep. To do this, they made pottery, grew medicinal herbs, gleaned honey from their own honey farms, and made small silver jewelry. (These activities continue to this day, in a refined form, in the Eibingen monastery. Both Bingen and Disibodenberg monasteries are ruins now.)

In addition to the visions, Hildegard also became notorious for the music she composed. She claimed that her music was divinely inspired, and it resembled no other music at the time. There’s a kind of ecstatic quality to the chant, and she wrote her own poetry rather than using Bible verses, like other religious music. People who came to Bingen for medicinal help or to hear Hildegard speak about her visions made copies of Hildegard’s music, which is why it survives today—the originals were destroyed or lost in countless wars and battles.

A nun called Richardis, who was a sister to the Archbishop Hartwig of Bermen, came to Disibodenberg around 1148 and they formed a very close relationship. There are some rumors of a lesbian affair, based on rather explicit descriptions of female orgasm in Hildegard’s writing, but the nature of the relationship was never established one way or the other. In 1151, Richardis’ mother arranged for her to become abbess (and out from the shadow of Hildegard) at Bassum, near her brother in Bremen. Hildegard objected strenuously and many letters were written beseeching officials not to separate her from her friend. But Richardis went off, and within a few months, Richardis died, leaving Hildegard tormented by grief. She had lost the one friend she’d ever had.

After a lengthy grieving period, Hildegard poured herself into her work again, and began writing books, music, and sermons like no one ever before. She came to the attention of the pope, clergy, church hierarchy, and the general public, including rulers and magistrates. She became so popular and powerful that she took to giving people unsolicited advice, an activity that could have cost her head on several occasions.

In 1164, she wrote a letter to Frederick Barbarossa, a notoriously violent emperor, condemning his lax attitude toward the Cathars (a nomadic fundamentalist group) and for his role in the appointment of the anti-pope Paschal III. Barbarossa had already written a letter of protection for Hildegard and the Bingen monastery in 1163, and despite his tendency to ruthlessly slaughter folks who disagreed with him, he continued his protection of Hildegard and her monasteries until and beyond her death.

She was renowned outside the monastery and the Catholic church as a visionary in her own time and in ours. Her writings and music were edited and published in the 19th century, starting a resurgence of interest in her. By the late 20th century, she had become almost a cult figure among philosophers, feminists, musicians, and naturopaths. She was canonized and made Doctor of the Church in 2012 (after many delays). She’s one of the most recorded and best-known composers of sacred monophony (chant), and one of very few known to have written both the music and the words. (Most chant from the period uses biblical passages.)

Although she claimed to be ignorant and uneducated, she wrote in Latin, and was clearly familiar with the writings of two musical theorists, Boethius (c480-524) and Guido D’Arezzo (c991-after 1033, who invented Do-Re-Me, and about whom you can read here). She probably denied her education (she had private tutoring when she was boarded into the anchorage) as part of her efforts to make people accept that she was divinely inspired, and partly because of gender politics.

She was a prolific writer. Between 1143 and 1171, she wrote Scivias (chronicling 26 visions), Physica and Causae et Curae (medical advice), Vita Meritorium (on virtuous living), Liber Divinorem Operum (on the works of the devine), Vita Sanct Disibod (biography of Saint Disibod, the hermit who founded her childhood home), and other books, which amounted to several thousand pages. She supervised a large number of illustrations for her visions, corresponded heavily with nobility and royalty throughout Europe, advised and sometimes chastised public figures—including church leaders—for what she thought was bad behavior, and spoke publically for church reform (mostly against the Cathars, an extremist and fundamentalist group).

Traditional (and almost reflexive) pressure to remain humble through humility and self-abnegation caused Hildegard, like most other composers of the time, to insist that her work came through external forces. She declared that she was merely a vessel for divine revelations. Men also made these claims, but it was particularly important for a woman to decry any ability to compete with the men who composed or documented music. But because others wanted copies of her music, we are fortunate both that they have survived and that we know who wrote them.

Hildegard set her own religious poems to music starting in the 1140s. There are 77 pieces in all, plus the morality play Ordo Virtutum, that includes another 82 antiphons. There are more surviving chants from Hildegard than any other composer in the entire Middle Ages.

Many of her works were written to honor a particular saint, with Disibod, Rochus, Rupert, and Ursula featured among them. The Ursulan antiphons are a cohesive group of eight songs that form a narrative, and tell the story of Ursula, a 6th or 7th century British saint who traveled with 11,000 virgins and was murdered by the Visigoths in Köln. This collection was a particular favorite of Hildegard’s and happens to be my favorite of her compositions as well. If you ask me to sing Hildegard, that’s probably what you’ll hear.

Most of Hildegard’s songs were antiphons and responsories for the Office and sequences for the Masses, some dedicated to local saints (Disibod, Rupert, Barbara, Ursula), or praising the Virgin Mary or the Trinity. They were preserved in two books, the Dendermonde manuscript, which was copied under Hildegard’s supervision, and the Reisencodex, which was copied after her death and contained slightly more of the music, including Ordo Virtutum.

The existence of the Dendermonde and the Reisen codices provide implied evidence that Hildegard’s music was performed beyond her own monastery and heard by others, who wanted to bring it home to their own monasteries. The originals were destroyed, but copies allow us to see the music in the hand of the priest Volmar, her steady tutor and friend until his own death in 1173.

Ordo Virtutum, written in 1151 or so, was a liturgical drama, yet not attached to liturgy. It’s a drama in verse with 82 separate songs that form a morality play with allegorical characters. In it, the Virtues lead the Soul back to the community of the faithful and out of the clutches of the Devil. All of the characters sing except the Devil, whose spoken part symbolizes his separation from God. This marvelous piece of musical theater is credited with being the earliest known liturgical morality play. The next one wasn’t written for two hundred years.

Hildegard’s music varies from highly syllabic to dramatic melismas (swirling melodies on a single open syllable). Her music is quite distinctive and easily recognizable, with unusual elements for the time, including exceeding an octave by a fourth or fifth, and large and frequent leaps. Her repertory of rhythmic and melodic tricks was small, making the music quite distinctive—like she had a theme she kept working on. Where Gregorian chant uses the words as a foundation, Hildegard writes to lengthen and emphasize the syllables of particular words using a concept of stable and unstable notes—in modern terms, that’s kind of like unmoving and moving notes in terms of gesture. She chose this over traditional Gregorian chant as a method for increasing contemplation on the words, making them a kind of sung prayer.

Because Hildegard wrote for women’s voices, there are many differences between her songs and traditional Gregorian chant. For one thing, women’s voices often have a greater range than men’s, so Hildegard’s songs can contain up to two octaves, where men’s chant seldom exceeds a single octave. Women’s voices are often more flexible, so quick little turns and flourishes are also a popular feature in Hildegard’s music that isn’t found in Gregorian chant.

It’s clear that she used music as a vehicle for her own mystical experience, and for those with a less audible connection, it was a way of making God seem palpable. It’s easy to imagine the songs being sung in a woodsy bower, little silvery songs of happiness floating up to the heavens.

Although she didn’t invent the concept, Hildegard loved to play with word-painting, where the shapes and sounds were often descriptive even without the text. For instance, “virga” was a favorite word: in music notation, it’s a 7-shaped squiggle that represents the most stable of notes,  in Latin, the word means a branch, like a branch of a tree (not the root but the result of growth), and it’s also the Latin term for virgin, a famous Christian theme. Another big theme for Hildegard was veriditas (greening), which was a way for heavenly integrity to overcome earthly dualisms. Many of Hildegard’s poems have to do with veriditas and how nature is a metaphor for a relationship with God.

Some theorists claim that Hildegard’s music and poetry is filtered within the female-centered religious experience that includes homo-erotic desire, while others claim it to be asexual, with metaphors of ecstasy and romance having more to do with the tradition of Christ as a bridegroom.

It was common for abbeys to have a special collection of chants written to celebrate whoever their local saints were, used on feast days and at other times during the year. But Hildegard went a little further. Many of her songs are about women: 16 to the Virgin Mary, 13 to St. Ursula, and four to various other groups of women. Sixteen of her songs are addressed to local or individual male saints, and the remaining 28 are dedicated to God and the Holy Spirit. Her imagery is predominantly woman-centered, but she was a nun, after all.

She corresponded with Bernard of Clairvaux  (1090-1153, prime builder of the Cistercian order of monasteries and probably the father of the movement that led to the Spanish Inquisition) and Frederick Barbarossa (1122-1190, prime motivator for the separation of church and state in Germany and a brutal enemy in war) and largely through the intercession of the former, she became a public figure, attracting people to her music and her advice (medical and societal). She wrote over 400 letters that have survived; she was clearly a prolific correspondent throughout her long life.

The texts on medicine that she wrote (or had written), Physica and Causae et Curae, were still consulted by physicians into the 15th century. They didn’t discover mistakes when they stopped consulting them, it’s just that they had learned a few things in 300 years.

There were three manuscripts illustrating the visions. It’s doubtful that these were done by Hildegard herself, but they were surely done under her watchful eye. Possible artists include the priest Volmar, her great friend Richardis, and any number of gifted and wealthy nuns or patrons. Sadly, one such manuscript was sent to Dresden for safekeeping during WWII, and like the rest of Dresden, was destroyed (or went missing). Luckily for posterity, there are black and white photocopies that survived, along with a full-color facsimile produced by the nuns at Eibingen in 1928. Without them, the text to Scivias might be missing or rather hard to reassemble from the remaining illustrations.

Hildegard had a biography of her own life written, although much of her early life is skipped over—30 years locked away with her cousin, and she barely comments on it! The work, which took several years to complete, was begun by her friend, the tutor and priest Volmar. After his death, it was continued by two monks from Trier, her cousin Wezelin, a monk named Gottfried, and finally, it was finished by Theodoric just after her death.

In her later years, Hildegard conducted preaching tours by boat and on foot, speaking to clergy and laymen, mostly against the Cathars, and urging reform from church officials. Women are STILL seldom invited to preach, so you can imagine how many feathers Hildegard’s invitations ruffled. It’s clear that she was invited, although her early sermons were probably offered at home in Bingen.

In what turned out to be the final year of her life, she suffered interdiction (which means that she was not allowed to take communion or sing) because she insisted that an excommunicated man had been reconciled to the church before death, and she refused to unbury him from consecrated grounds. The debate raged between religious leaders in Köln, Mainz, and the pope in Rome, and was finally resolved in her favor. It must have been a rough year, unable to make music, and all but excommunicated herself.

She died September 17, 1179 after a short illness. Witnesses insist that a ray of light emanated from her mouth as she breathed her last. Other stories say that two vast arcs illuminated the night and a red cross glowed beneath them, surrounded by cross-studded circles.

If reading non-fiction about Hildegard seems a bit much for you (some of it’s pretty heavy, I’ll admit), there are a few works of fiction that might interest you. I hope to add my own to the list shortly.

  • “Illuminations,” by Mary Sharratt. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012 (ISBN: 978-0-547-56784-6). A lovely tale, focusing for the first half on the 30 years Hildegard spent in the anchorage—even Hildegard doesn’t write much about this—combining the darkness of the time with the gorgeous imagery that Hildegard both wrote and inspired. I also really enjoyed the development of the friendship with Richardis, another subject that biographers tiptoe around.
  • “The Seer and the Scribe,” by G.M. Dyrek. Luminis Books, 2011 (ISBN-13: 978-1-935462-39-2). A clearly self-published novel (my opinion is based on historical and typographical errors) that turns the friendship of Hildegard with her scribe into a romance. The author clearly ran out of steam about three-quarters of the way through, rendering the last 75 pages not worth reading (although I did).
  • “Scarlett Music: Hildegard of Bingen,” by Joan Ohanneson. Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997 (ISBN: 0-8245-1646-X). A quick view of Hildegard’s lifetime, rendering Hildegard lively and real, rather than the somewhat distant paragon that her list of accomplishments might otherwise make her seem. The imagery in this book is delightful.
  • “The Journal of Hildegard of Bingen,” by Barbara Lachman. Bell Tower and Crown Publishers, 1993 (ISBN: 0-517-59169-3). A fictional account of a year in Hildegard’s life, focusing on the first year at the Rupertsberg Abbey.

Sources:

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

“Women & Music: A History,” by Karin Pendle, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001

“Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950,” edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987

“The Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages,” edited by Norman F. Cantor, Viking, 1999

“Medieval Women Writers,” edited by Katharina M. Wilson, University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1984, article by Kent Kraft,

“The German Visionary: Hildegard of Bingen” “Uppity Women of Medieval Times,” by Vicki Leon, Conari Press, Berkeley, 1997

“Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates, Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1996 “Hildegard of Bingen,” by Regine Pernoud, Marlow & Company, New York, English translation 1998

“Hildegard of Bingen; A Visionary Life,” by Sabina Flanagan, Routledge, London, 1989

“Sister of Wisdom; St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine,” by Barbara Newman, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1987

“Jutta & Hildegard: The Biographical Sources,” translated and introduced by Anna Silvas, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, 1998

“Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age,” by Fiona Maddocks, Doubleday, New York, 2001

“Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias,” translated by Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop, introduced by Barbara J. Newman, Paulist Press, New York, 1990

 

You can find out more about me here: www.MelanieSpiller.com, and more essays like this and on other topics here:  http://melaniespiller.com/lavender_004.htm