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Medieval and Renaissance Instruments

Throughout history, many new instruments were created and transformed into tools for creating great works of music. However, there are also some instruments that do not have such a successful history and are, tragically, sometimes forgotten about. The Renaissance was a time of heightened artistry and musical interest, which spawned new creative instruments for a generation of original musicians. The Medieval period also produced many new and unusual musical instruments. Many of these long-forgotten-about instruments are very unique but belong to the standard families of musical instruments.

There are a few exceptions that produced instruments that are not typically found in other families. The Zink is one type of instrument that does not fit into any of the standard musical categories. It is not necessarily a “family” of instruments, but, rather, it is a grouping of similar instruments that are synonymous with one another. The Zink collection consists of instruments such as the cornett, the lizard, and the serpent. The tenor of the Zink family is the lizard. This instrument has a unique shape similar to an elongated letter S.

This shape gives the instrument it’s name, and it allows the musician to fully reach all the inger holes. The holes on the lizard are positioned on the instrument in the areas of the curves closest to the player. The lizard is a pleasing instrument that combines well with voice parts. The cornett is made from a curved piece of wood that has been cut in half, hollowed out, and glued back together. The outside is then formed to an octagonal shape and a leather covering is glued around it to seal any weak portion of the wood against the wind pressure built up inside.

In the early Baroque it was in competition with the violin for instrumental supremacy. The violin, however, won the battle and is still considered one f the most sophisticated of modern instruments. Other competitors that finally drove the cornett into extinction are the baroque trumpet and oboe. The bass Zink is the serpent. This instrument is shaped just the way its name suggests. The serpent was created in 1590 by Edme Guillaume. This extremely curvy instrument was used in sacred performances to emphasize the low male voices.

The serpent has six finger holes arranged in two sets of three with a fundamental note of C. Just like the cornetto and the lizard, it takes a large amount of skill to produce a good sound because everything depends on the player’s pitch accuracy. Its construction is similar to the cornetto’s, and it has a mouthpiece for it to reach the player’s lips. The body is usually made of walnut wood and is sometimes made from several fairly short pieces joined together and covered with leather; other times, glued up from two complete halves of hollowed out blocks of wood.

Just like the lizard, the serpent’s shape brings the finger holes closest to the player. The serpent obtains chromatics but half-opening the finger holes, and its range can be extended to three octaves. During the next two hundred years after its invention, it was used s a military band instrument and later evolved into the ophecleide and tuba. The serpent, member of the Zink family, is considered the bass of the group. Invented in 1590, it is 6 feet in length and is curved to allow for easy access to the mouth piece and finger holes.

The most versatile Renaissance wind instrument was the cornett, or zink. Very little air was required to play the cornett. It was used mostly for outdoor dances and parties. The lizard, the tenor zink, has a peculiar shape of a flattened letter S. Its shape allows for easy access to the finger holes and mouthpiece. The lizard sounds best with vocal accompaniment. Another instrument group to emerge is the reed cap family. This includes the crumhorn, kortholt, cornamuse, and the hirtenschalmei. This family is so named because its reed does no touch the lips of the player.

The reed is enclosed inside a protective cap with a slot at one end. Strong blowing into this slot causes the air to vibrate to reed. The crumhorn’s name comes from the German word krumhorn, which means ‘curved horn”. The name was first used in 1489 as an organ stop. It was in use from the 14th century to the 17th century in Europe. The crumhorn, with its wooden body, is the earliest and most common instrument of the reed cap amily. Crumhorns have a characteristically sharp attack, which is very effective in an ensemble.

Depending on how their reeds are voiced, they range in tone from a gentle, somewhat nasal humming to a rich, resonant buzzing. It’s wooden, cylindrical body and reed-encasing means the instrument overblows a twelfth, rather than an octave, however this makes high notes difficult to obtain. Thus the normal range is limited to the simple fundamental sounds produced by successive opening of the holes giving a range of an octave and one note. On modern reconstructions additional keys are provided to extend the range upwards by one to three otes.

Sometimes, crumhorns were played without the wind cap attached in order to produce the higher notes. The crumhorn was turned out of a length of wood, which was then bored out, filled with sand, plugged, and the lower end steamed (to soften it) and finally bent into a half circle. The curve is decorative only, and has nothing to do with the sound. The curved bell section is hollowed out to form a conical foot, which raises the volume. The reed is a small piece of cane, folded over and bound to a short tube at the top of the pipe.

The reed vibrates when blown through, causing a standing wave to develop in the body of the crumhorn. Pitch is determined by length of air column until first open finger hole, and breath pressure. Blow too hard and the reed closes, but blow too softly allows the pitch to flatten or sag to unusable levels. Despite its odd shape, the crumhorn played a serious role in all kinds of renaissance music ranging from dances and madrigals to church music. In 1500, the crumhorn was used along with other instruments to accompany two masses at a royal wedding.

The crumhorn was very popular in Germany, Italy, and the Low Countries, but not as much in England. The kortholt is an instrument where the reed-cap principle was applied o the cylindrical double bore to give a soft low buzzy sound. There is a disparity in pitch between the kortholt and other instruments of the same size. This is because the kortholt was a double-bore instrument. Because of this doubling back of the pipe inside the instrument, the fingering system is unusual. Similar to the crumhorn, it cannot be overblown to produce an upper register.

The cornamuse, or sometimes called the dulziana, is a mystery in these modern days because none have survived this long, and there was massive confusion with the names of the instrument. Different names were used for imilar instruments, and similar names used for different instruments. The name cornamuse from the Latin cornamusa meant” bagpipe”, as in the French cornemuse. The use of the name dolzaina, from the Latin dulcis(“sweet”), is thought to be the same or a similar instrument to the cornamuse, and yet the name is often used with the dulzan or dulzian of the curtal families.

Cornamuses came in several sizes, each having a range of a ninth similar to other reed-cap instruments. The name hirtenschalmei (shepherd’s shawm) comes from the fact that this instrument, often found mentioned in medieval French literature and, as frequently depicted as being played by rustic types. The tone is produced by a capped double reed. The tone quality is rich and buzzy, one distinctly different from the krummhorm. The main bore is cylindrical and ends in a large flared bell. In 1980, Henry VIII’s ship uncovered the only surviving example of a hirtenschalmei.

The covering of silt in the hold of the ship had preserved it since it sunk in the English Channel in 1545. The hirtenschalmei was described as a reed instrument characterized by low volume and a limited range. String instruments were also developed in this time period. The viol, saltery, and the rebec were designed and used. These three instruments required bows in order to be played. The use of a bow on stringed instruments probably originated in central Asia during the ninth century, spreading through Islamic and Byzantine territories and later reaching Western Europe in the tenth to twelfth centuries.

Bowing may have developed in an attempt to create an instrument that could imitate the voice. Bowing gave stringed instruments the sustaining power necessary to play a continuous melodic line. The viol was a bowed instrument with frets. It was usually played downwards in the lap or between the legs. The tone is quiet but with a rather distinctly nasal quality that many think makes it too restrained for dance music but an ideal instrument for the clarity of texture of polyphony. The viol played on the lap was known in Europe as early as the 11th century, and is pictured in the art of the time.

After the 13th century this style of playing bowed instruments had almost completely disappeared, only to re-emerge two centuries later as the popular Renaissance viol. Contrary to popular belief, the viol was a more sophisticated instrument played by gentlemen, merchants, and other men of virtue. Whereas the violin was for playing in the streets to accompany dances or lead wedding processions. The instrument was introduced to the English court of Henry VIII by Italian and Flemish players and soon became popular with amateurs as well as court musicians.

Like madrigal singing, viol playing had become part of music making in the Elizabethan home by the end of the 16th century. Viols were popular in England long after they had been replaced by the violin on the Continent. The body of the viol was lightly constructed and the six strings were under rather low tension. Common sizes included the treble, alto, small tenor, tenor, and bass. The frets were made from pieces of stretched gut, and were tied around the neck with a special fret knot. The frets could be pushed around for easy tuning. The bow is convex in shape, as opposed to the violin bow’s concave bend.

The psaltery is an ancient instrument seen in many forms. Early versions were simply a wooden board with gut strings stretched between pegs, and the strings were plucked with the fingers. The player performed with the instrument on the lap or on a table, or in front of the chest held with a strap around his neck if movement was needed. The name of psaltery entered Christian literature in the 3rd century B. C. translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. Musicians in Southern Europe preferred the trapezoidal psaltery with three or four strings to a note.

Northern psalteries tended to be triangular or wing-shaped and single or double- strung. Like most other instruments of the time, the psaltery had no specific repertory, but was used to play whatever music the occasion demanded. The psaltery was widely used until about 1500, but could not cope well with the chromaticism of the Renaissance, so was used less as time passed. It is thought that the psaltery evolved into the harpsichord, ither, and other instruments. The use of a bow on stringed instruments probably originated in central Asia during the ninth century, and later reached Western Europe in the tenth to twelfth centuries.

The rebec was definitely an instrument of the lower classes, not the court. The word “rebec” came from the Arabian “rabob”. It has been known in Europe since the 10th century but their use in art music was chiefly during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The rebec’s rounded pear-shaped body is carved from a single block of wood and tapers in such a way that there is no visible distinction between the body and the neck. The fingerboard is a raised part of the soundboard or is fixed to it from above, but this does not change the frontal outline of the instrument.

Early rebecs had no sound post and the peg holder is flat. As with most early instruments, rebecs came in many sizes and pitches and although the number of strings on early rebecs varied from three to five, the three- stringed rebec seems to be the most popular. In the middle ages the most common rebec was the soprano, played by resting it on one’s shoulder, across the chest, or in the armpit. The instrument often has frets, and probably had a thin nasal, penetrating tone. Rebecs are associated with secular instrumental music, especially dance music, and their role in the latter continues to the eighteenth century.

Remnants of its tone and style can be heard in the country fiddling of the United States. A particular horn instrument that deserves mention is the rackett. The ingenuity of the Renaissance instrument maker was never exceeded after the development of the rackett. The instrument’s narrow cylindrical bore consists of nine parallel channels drilled in a wooden cylinder and connected alternately top and bottom. Because of the internal convolutions, he size of the rackett is amazingly small compared to its pitch.

The tenor rackett is only about four and one-half inches in height, yet its lowest note is F, two below middle c1. The many-channeled nature of this instrument makes for unusual fingering patterns. Another problem encountered by the rackett player is the removal of moisture in the inner passageways of the instrument. Some racketts have tiny brass tubes extending from the body for the player’s fingers or thumbs. A wide reed about the size of a bassoon reed is placed inside a pirouette in a manner similar to the shawm. The outlet of the bore is at the bottom of the nstrument.

The rackett has a warm, rich tone, and is capable of a wide range of tone color and dynamic range, from loud and buzzy to soft and gentle. Thus it is a highly versatile instrument. A painting of the Munich court band during the latter sixteenth century depicts the rackett in consort with flute, recorder, cornetts, sackbut, lute, viols, and harpsichord. Overall, history and mankind have produced some very interesting and unique musical instruments. Even though the majority are not in use today and have been forgotten about, they will always hold their place in history as the fore-runners of many instruments of the future.

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