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Christmas Music in the Renaissance and Middle Ages

Two Spanish Carols - Anonymous (16th century) 
Dadme albricias, hijos d'Eva - vocal quartet, finger cymbals 
Riu, riu, chiu: El lobo - baritone, vocal quartet, krummhorns

Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen - two settings - Praetorius (1609) 
1. soprano, lute 
2. soprano and alto shawms, tenor and bass sacbuts

All my joy (Greensleeves) - two settings 
1. lute - Thysius Lute Book (16th century) 
2. bass and great bass recorders Read more about Christmas Music in the Renaissance and Middle Ages


Bagpipe playerclick image for bagpipe sound (175kb wav) 
or here for the same in mp3 format

The origins of the bagpipe can be traced back to the most ancient civilizations. The bagpipe probably originated as a rustic instrument in many cultures because a herdsman had the necessary materials at hand: a goat or sheep skin and a reed pipe. The instrument is mentioned in the Bible, and historians believe that it originated in Sumaria. Through Celtic migration it was introduced to Persia and India, and subsequently to Greece and Rome. In fact, a Roman historian of the first century wrote that the Emporer Nero knew how to play the pipe with his mouth and the bag thrust under his arm. During the Middle Ages, however, the bagpipe was heard and appreciated by all levels of society.

Bagpipes have always been made in many shapes and sizes, and have been played throughout Europe from before the Norman Conquest until the present day. Medieval pipes usually had a single drone - see contemporary illustrations of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales for English single-drone pipes. Around 1400 (give or take 50 years), most shepherd-style pipes acquired a second drone. A third drone is added about after 1550. See paintings by Brueghel and the illustrations in Praetorius' Syntagma Musicum. The Renaissance also saw the advent of small, quiet chamber pipes such as Praetorius' Hummelchen or the French shuttle-drone models, some blown with bellows under the arm rather than with the mouth.

The construction of the bagpipe allows a continuous supply of air to be maintained. By squeezing the bag with his left hand while a breath is taken, the flow of air can be kept up in both the drone pipes and chanter. Other features of this instrument are the mouthpipe and the double reed of the chanter and drone. The mouthpipe contains a round piece of leather hinged onto the bag end which acts as a one way valve. As the player blows air in, the flap opens; when he stops blowing the air pressure within the bag forces the flap shut. The chanter has seven finger holes and a thumb hole, and has a usual range of an octave and one note.

The bagpipe is ideal for solo dances and monophonic music. It has been mentioned for use in polyphony, but if so, problems would arise. The drone would preclude the possibility of any change of mode, and the continuous sound would prohibit observance of rests.

Stone carving of bagpipe During the Renaissance, the bagpipe gradually moved from country to court. Both Edward II and Edward III had pipers at court. King Henry VIII, composer and music patron, also had an extensive collection of instruments which, according to a contemporary account, included wone with pipes of ivorie and a bagge covered with purple vellat. As a rustic instrument it has been immortalized in the paintings of Pieter Breughel and his contemporaries.

Bagpipe DronesMusica Antiqua's collection includes a replica with two drones patterned after Brueghel's Peasant Wedding, and a Hummelchen (little bumblebee) bagpipe which is modelled after the smallest of the four included in Praetorius' Syntagma Musicum of 1619. The Brueghel model is smaller than a highland pipe and loud, but not as piercing as a today's highland pipes. The Praetorius model is tiny and has sweet and delicate tone, making it useful both as a solo instrument and in ensemble with other Renaissance instruments. The chanter has a range from c1 to d2 and two drones tuneable to and or g and d. This boxwood replica was made by Wolfgang Lentelme of Germany. 


Additional Resources:


Krumhorn being played(krumhorn)

click here for sound of bass crumhorn  (194kb wav)

Beginning with the fifteenth century a new type of double reed instrument was developed. The player's lips did not touch the reed because the reed was enclosed inside a protective cap with a slot at one end. Strongly blowing through this slot causes the reed to vibrate as it does in the bagpipe chanter. The name of the Crumhorn comes from the German krumhorn (also krummhorn, krumhorn), meaning curved horn (or the older English crump, meaning curve, surviving in modern English in crumpled and crumpet, a curved cake).

Lo Spagnoletto - dance tune by Negri 
(fifth  verse by bass crumhorn)

canario - dance tune by Fabritio Caroso
(sixth verse by bass crumhorn) 
(seventh verse includes soprano crumhorn)

The name first occurs in 1489 as an organ stop.The crumhorn, used in the 14th to17th centuries in Europe, is wooden, with a cylindrical bore. The crumhorn is the earliest and most common instrument of the reed cap family which also includes the kortholtcornamuse, and hirtenschalmei. The crumhorn is thought to have developed from the earlier bladder pipe.

The cylindrical bore (as opposed to a conical bore) and the reed closing the end of the resonating tube mean that the crumhorn overblows a twelfth rather than an octave, giving the instrument a fingering system similar to the lower register of the clarinet. However, the lack of direct control of the reed of a windcapped instrument renders these higher notes extremely difficult to access. 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. Many larger surviving instruments have auxiliary holes that extend the range downwards to just over an octave. On modern reconstructions additional keys are provided to extend the range upwards by one to three notes. And there is some evidence to suggest that crumhorns were sometimes played without the windcap, possibly to facilitate the production of higher notes. 


Click image for 140kb wav of Crumhorn trio 
or here for the entire Chichilichi cucurucu in mp3 format

L'innamorato in mp3 format 
(soprano with soprano recorder and lute 
with alto and great bass crumhorn)

krumhorn fingerings 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 of a bumble-bee to a rich, resonant buzzing.

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, having nothing to do with the sound. The curved bell section of many surviving instrument is hollowed out to form a more or less conical foot, which has the effect of raising the volume.

The reed comprises a thin strip of cane, folded over and bound to the staple (a short tube) inserted into the top of the wooden pipe. When the reed is blown through, it vibrates, causing a standing wave to develop in the bore of the crumhorn. Pitch is governed not only by the length of the pipe down to the open finger holes, but also by breath pressure, so that the crumhorns are played at a fixed dynamic level. Variations in pitch from changes in breathing are like the change in pitch of a bagpipe chanter as the player starts to fill the bag. Blow too hard and the reed closes (no sound). Blowing too softly allows the pitch to flatten or sag to unusable levels.

Note that larger crumhorns have a pipe or airway on the side of the cap (similar to the large recorders) which is blown into to allow reaching the finger holes on these longer instruments.

A four-part consort usually comprised an alto crumhorn (in F or G), two tenors (C) and a bass (F). Less frequently, soprano (C) and great bass (C) crumhorns were used.

krumhorn reedDespite its strange shape and the amusing reaction of listeners when the instrument is played poorly, the crumhorn played a serious role in all kinds of renaissance music ranging from dances and madrigals to church music. As early as 1500 crumhorns were used along with other instruments to accompany two masses performed for the wedding of Duke Johann to Sophia of Mecklenburg. King Henry the Eighth of England owned 25 crumhorns, so they may have been played at his court. However, they were not as popular in Great Britain as on the Continent, especially Germany, Italy and the Low Countries, from where a small repertoire of music specifically for crumhorns has been preserved.

Musica Antiqua's krummhorns include a soprano in c1, alto in f, 2 tenors in c, bass in F, and a great bass in C by Koerber of Germany as well as a great bass in C by Moulder of England and a soprano, alto, tenor, and bass by Steinkopf.

crumhorn caps

Margot labourez les vignes in mp3 format 
(soprano voice with three crumhorns)


Three Country Dances in One 
(ground bass by bass crumhorn)

Additional Crumhorn Sources

(some sources courtesy of Nicholas Lander of Crumhorn Home Page)

  • Agricola M. 1529/r1969) Musica instrumentalis deudsch

  • Boydell, B. (1979). Ieorg Wier, an early sixteenth-century crumhorn maker. Early Music 7: 511-517.
  • Boydell, B. (1982). The Crumhorn and other Windcap Instruments of the Renaissance Frits Knuf, Buren. Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. Encyclopedia Britannica.
  • Boydell, B. (1984). Crumhorn In Sadie, S. (ed) The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. McMillan, London.
  • Early Music Shop (undated). The Adjustment and Maintenance of Plastic reeds.
  • Brochure. Hanchet, J.F. (1980). Adjustment and control of double reeds for direct blown early instruments Early Music, July: 361-207.
  • Brown, H. M. (1973) Sixteenth-century Instrumentation: the Music for the Florentine Intermedii
  • Cerone, D. P. (1613/r1969) El melopeo y maestro
  • Diderot, D. (1765) Encyclopedie
  • Douwes, C. (1699/r1970) Grondig ondersoek van de toonen der musiek
  • Hantelmann, G. v. (19??). Directions for Playing the Crumhorn, Cornamuse and Kortholt Moeck Verlag, Celle. Ed. Nr. 2077.
  • Hunt, E. (1975). The Crumhorn Schott, London. Ed. 11239.
  • Kinsky, G. (1925) Doppelrohrblatt-Instrumente mit Windkapsel AMw
  • Kite-Powell, J.T. ed. (1994). A Performer's Guide to Renaissance Music Schirmer, New York.
  • Kite-Powell, J.T. (1994). The Crumhorn In Kite-Powell (loc. cit. 63-68).
  • Leguy, J. (1978). Precis de Facture d'Anches Renaissance -- Handbook of Renaissance Reed-Making. Zurfluh, Paris. French and English text.
  • Lesure, F. (1955) Le Traite des instruments de musique de Pierre Trichet AnnM
  • Lewin, G. (1985). The cornamuse - a reassessment. Recorder and Music Magazine 8(1): 9-14.
  • Lorraine, K. (1982). A Handbook on Making Double Reeds for Early Winds Musica Sacra et Profana, Berkeley.
  • Mersenne, M. (1636, 1648/r1972) Harmonicorum instrumentorum libri IV
  • Meyer, K.T. (1983). The Crumhorn: Its History, Design, Repertory, and Technique. Studies in Musicology 66. University of Michigan Research Press, Ann Arbor.
  • Moeck, H. (1971). Zur Geschichte von Krummhorn und Cornamuse Moeck, Celle.
  • Moeck, H. (undated). The Adjustment and Maintenance of Plastic reeds Brochure.
  • Monkeymeyer, H. (1976). Album of Pieces and Exercises in Four Volumes for the Crumhorn, Cornamusa, Curtall and Other Wind Instruments of the Renaissance and Baroque Era. Volume I, For two instruments with intervalic fifth relationship. Edition Moeck Nr 2088. Moeck, Celle.
  • Monkeymeyer, H. (1976). Album of pieces and Exercises in Four Volumes for the Crumhorn, Cornamusa, Curtall and Other Wind Instruments of the Renaissance and Baroque Era Volume II, For two instruments of the same pitch Edition Moeck Nr 2089. Moeck, Celle.
  • Montague, J. (1976). Mediaeval and Renaissance Musical Instruments Ure Smith, Sydney.
  • Munrow, D. (1976). Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance Oxford University Press: London.
  • Nickel, E. (1971) Der Holzblasinstrumentenbau in der Freien Reichsstadt Nurnberg
  • Papineau, G. (1980). Comment Tailler vos Anches -- Reed Do It Yourself. Le Droit Chemin de Musique, Paris.
  • Praetorius, M. (1618/r1980) Syntagma musicum
  • Robinson, T. (1973). The Amateur Wind Instrument Maker University of Massachusetts Press.
  • Sachs, C. (1909) Doppione und Dulzaina: zur Namensgechichte des Krummhorns SIMG
  • Smith, D.H. (1992). Reed Design for Early Woodwinds Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis.
  • Stevenson, C. (1980). Make your own Crumhorn Recorder & Music 6(12): 346.
  • Thomas, B. (1973). An introduction to the crumhorn repertoire. Early Music 1: 142-146.
  • Thomas, B. (1973). Playing the crumhorn: First steps. Early Music 1: 151-156.
  • Thorn, C. (1984). Things to play on crumhorns and the like. Recorder and Music 8(3): 76-78.
  • vander Straeten, E. (1888/r1969) La musique aux Pays-Bas avant le XIX
  • Virdung S. (1511/r1970) Musica getutscht
  • Wells, M. (1973). The crumhorn: Historical sources. Early Music 1: 139-141.
  • Whone, J.F. (1975). Constructing a crumhorn. Recorder & Music 5(3): 90-93.
  • Young, P.T. (1980). The Look of Music: Rare Musical Instruments 1500-1900. University of Washington Press, Seattle.
  • Young, P.T. (1993). 4900 Historical Woodwind Instruments: An Inventory of 200 Makers in International Collections Tony Bingham, London.
  • Zacconi L. (1592/r1967) Prattica di musica


Krumhorn cap


tenor viol being played (viol de gamba) 

"The musicke with a sette of violes 
doth no lesse delite a man: 
for it is verrie sweet and artificiall."
-Castiglione, 1528

The viols were bowed instruments with frets. They were usually played held downwards on the lap or between the legs (the name viola da gamba translates to leg viol). The tone is quiet but with a rather distinctly nasal quality which many think makes it too restrained for dance music but an ideal instrument for polyphony where the clarity of texture is so important. 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. The viols were used so much by court musicians throughout Europe, that it was explained that the viol was played by gentlemen, merchants and other men of virture, while the violin was played in the streets to accompany dances or to 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.

statue playing violThe 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 strings were usually tuned in a sequence of a 4th, 4th, M3rd, 4th, 4th (d-g-c'-e'-a'-d" for the treble). 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 rather convex in shape, as opposed to the violin bow's concave bend. It is held in an underhand grip, the palm facing upwards. C. Simpson said in 1659, Hold the Bow betwixt the ends of your Thumb and two foremost fingers, near to the Nut. The Thumb and first finger fastned on the Stalk; and the second fingers end turned in shorter, against the Hairs thereof; by which you may poize and keep up the point of the Bow. Danoville in 1687 gave the advice that the viol bow must be of Chinese wood, and should not be too heavy, because it makes the hand clumsy, nor too light, because than it cannot play chords enough; but a weight proportioned to the hand, which is why I leave that to the choice of the one who plays the Viol.

statue playing violMusica Antiqua's treble viol was made by Hart; the tenor viol was made by Glan y Gors.

Additional Resources:

  • The Viola da Gamba Society of America
  • ORPHEON - Museum of Historical Musical Instruments
  • The Viola da Gamba Society of Great Britain
  • Viola da Gamba Society of France
  • S. Virdung: Musica getutscht (Basle, 1511/r1970)
  • H. Judenkunig: Utilis et compendiaria introductio (Vienna, c1515-19)
  • M. Agricola: Musica instrumentalis deudsch (Wittenberg, 1529/r1969)
  • H. Gerle: Musica teusch (Nuremberg, 1532)
  • G. M. Lanfranco: Scintille di musica (Brescia, 1533/r1961)
  • S. di Ganassi: Regola rubertina (Venice, 1542/r1970)
  • D. Ortiz: Trattado de glosas (Rome, 1553)
  • V. Galilei: Dialogo....della musica antica et della moderna (Florence, 1581/r1968)
  • G. Dalla Casa: Il vero modo di diminuir (Venice, 1584)
  • S. Mareschall: Porta musices (Basle, 1589)
  • L. Zacconi: Prattica di musica (Venice, 1592/r1967)
  • S. Cerrato: Della prattica musica (Naples, 1601)
  • T. Robinson: The Schoole of Musicke (London, 1603)
  • P. Cerone: El melopeo y maestro (Naples, 1613)
  • M. Praetorius: Syntagma musicum, ii (Wolfenbuttel, 1618)
  • F. Rognoni: Selva de varii passaggi (Milan, 1620/r1970)
  • M Mersenne: Harmonie universelle (Paris, 1636/r1963)
  • J. Playford: Musick's Recreation on the Lyra Viol (London, 1642)
  • J. Rousseau: Traite de la viole (Paris, 1687/r1965)