he manuscript 9085 of the Bibliothèque Royale Albert Ier in Brussels, written on blackened parchment in gold and silver ink, presents itself in princely garb through and through. In fact, the owner Marguerite d’Autriche was of royal blood and an outspoken music lover. What makes this little booklet special are the dance steps that have been lettered to most of the tenor lines. Alta Capella and improvisation specialist Ian Harrison leads a wind ensemble that accompanies the dancers under the direction of Véronique Daniels, providing a festive backdrop for the artificial step combinations. Thus, music and dance for the princess can still be performed after more than 500 years.
Véronique Daniels – dance; reconstruction of the choreographies | Alain Christen – dance | Catherine Motuz – renaissance trombone | Josué Melendez – zinc | Raffaella Bortolini – pommer | Ian Harrison – shawm, pommer, bagpipes; direction | Team ReRenaissance – Marc Lewon
Vlog March 2022 on “La Margarite” – Dances for a Princess
Ian Harrison – Lecturer for shawm and pommer at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis
Thomas Christ (TC): You started your musical career as a professional singer in the choir of Canterbury Cathedral, to what experience do you/we owe your preference for the old wind instruments? Where did you discover the shawm or the zinc?
Ian Harrison (IH): Dear Thomas, Thank you for the pertinent questions.
Like many others, I discovered medieval or Renaissance music at an English medieval market. When I was 12 years old, I visited the “Barsham Fair” in the East of England in the summer with my family.
After admiring the artisan stalls for a while, medieval music was suddenly announced in an amphitheater. I can’t say what exactly was played there, nor what instruments they were (in retrospect, I suspect it was Renaissance dance music – Susato or something). From that moment on, I was enthralled and captivated, and I spent all my pocket money on LPs of medieval and Renaissance music, listening to the discs until the grooves were flat, and reading the “sleevenotes” (lyrics on the record covers, ReRen’s note) until I knew them by heart. That’s how I got to know the zinc and the shawm. The cornett was, according to the relevant CD texts, “the most versatile wind instrument” of the time. So I decided to learn zinc. But the shawm sounded great too, and besides, I was already playing bassoon, a double-reed instrument like the shawm. After all, I didn’t start learning these instruments until I was 21 – it was a long way until I could find these instruments and also the teachers.
TC: The shawm, the pommer or the bombarde, but also the zinc and the bagpipes are instruments that may not be very familiar to many of our listeners. Can you briefly tell us something about the history and places of origin of these instruments?
IH: This is one of my favorite topics, but I’ll try to be brief. It is impossible to name a single place of origin for the shawm or the zinc, because they are products of long processes of development. Just as every child at some point has cut the end of a drinking straw and blown a note on it, people from time immemorial have played on stalks, reeds and other pipes that grew in their area. Natural plant tubes are almost all acoustically cylindrical. As far as we can see from the pictures, the ancient Greek aulos or the Roman tibia, which are depicted on numerous vases, were also cylindrical reed instruments. Typical of these instruments is that the players each played two pipes, one for each hand.
In contrast, the European medieval and Renaissance shawm has a conical bore, which gives it quite different characteristics. It is higher, louder, and richer in overtones, and its conical profile must be artificially drilled by an instrument maker. Until now, the prevailing theory was that the conical shawms came to Western Europe from the Islamic world, either via North Africa to Spain or from the East as a result of the Crusades. However, I am not aware of any evidence for this theory. “Folk” shawms were played in a variety of forms all over the world – very intensively in the countries east and south of the Mediterranean, but also in Western Europe – for example, in central Italy, Istria, Brittany and northern Spain. In the course of the 14th century, a type of shawm with a very long funnel developed in Europe, enabling the player to play chromatically over two octaves with a large dynamic range. This instrument was still played until the end of the 17th century.
Zinc also has its roots in prehistory. Animal horns, unlike plant stems, are almost always acoustically conical. Who first cut off the tip of a horn, blew into it through his lips, and enjoyed the sound development through the conical bore – and when that happened – we will never know. Very few notes are possible on an animal horn. However, several tones can be produced by finger holes and hand combing. Such fingerhole horns were played, for example, in Sweden. From the 11th century onwards, there are images showing conically bored instruments blown through the lips, made of wood or other materials. There have been repeated attempts to circumvent the irregularity of natural horns and build a standard instrument, which we now call zinc in German. Unlike the shawm, which can be found everywhere in paintings and sculptures, however, the zinc never seems to have really gained a foothold in the early Middle Ages and remained an exotic item. In the late 15th century, however, this changed abruptly. Within 20 to 30 years, the cornett spread throughout Europe, replacing the shawm as the leading soprano wind instrument. A generation of players and instrument makers cracked the construction secret of the tine, causing one of the biggest and fastest revolutions in the history of musical instrument making.
The Pomeranian is a great and deep relative of the shawm. Together, shawm and pommer form the first family of instruments in the history of music. Just as the shawm got its classical form in the course of the 14th century, the pommer also developed at the same time – both, we assume, out of the desire to play polyphonic music in the style of the singers:inside. The name “Pommer” is a Germanization of the French name “bombarde”, which first appears in Strasbourg in 1326. The trademark of the Pomeranian is a barrel-shaped capsule with many small holes, just above the funnel, the fontanelle. The keys next to the finger holes allow players to play lower.
The very first images of the bagpipe come from 13th century Spain. So until further evidence surfaces, we must assume that the bagpipe is a Spanish invention. The instrument still enjoys great popularity there and is played in various traditional forms similar to medieval images. I will play a Galician gaita in our concert. The big question for me is whether only one person had the brilliant idea of combining a shawm with a sack, from which all the bagpipes in the whole world were born, or whether several people independently had the same idea.
TC: We like to place the music of the Middle Ages, and even more so that of the Renaissance, in a courtly and – even more so – in an ecclesiastical context; we know little of early instrumental music in a folkloristic setting. Weren’t the woodwind instruments also popular accompaniments of folk music and folk dance?
IH: Yes, certainly. We can see this in numerous pictures. Most famous are the rural scenes by the Breughels, where bagpipes were played for dancing, alone or in pairs. Also very often depicted was the pairing of bagpipes and shawm. Here’s the big question: what did they play? From the beginning, the early music movement has more or less consciously relied on written culture. We always need a written source, a manuscript, an early print, notes, tracts, descriptions, poetry. Oral folk traditions of the Renaissance have disappeared with very few exceptions. Every now and then, however, folk music and written sources meet. Many of the polyphonic compositions of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance are based on a pre-existing piece, a cantus firmus. These melodies often came from Gregorian or other chorales, but sometimes it was also common to use folk melodies as cantus firmus. As an example, we play Heinrich Isaac’s four-part piece E qui la dira dira on pommer, zinc and trombone – and the original melody on the bagpipes for dancing.
TC: You are touring with your early music ensembles in Europe, the USA, but also in Asia, one group calls itself “The Early Folk Band” – this raises two questions at once, namely that of improvising in the absence of clear notations and that of experimenting with other styles of the new music scene. Are you a friend of fusion or rather of separation of musical styles?
IH: In the years of the turn of the millennium, I thought that no one would be interested in listening to “pure” early music anymore, and that in the 21st century we would only produce early music in combination with jazz, world music, hip-hop and the like. So I’m always surprised how many people still want to hear concerts of “authentic” Renaissance music (not that I’m disappointed: I like it too!). However, The Early Folk Band is one of the most authentic early music ensembles I know. We perform music from sources before 1600 on period instruments and also use contemporary performance elements such as mime, drama, humor and dance. Our project “Ars Supernova”, on the other hand, was a deliberate crossover to show how jazz and “old” musicians can improvise on themes from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
That the sources of the Renaissance and especially of the Middle Ages often transmit only a sketch of what was played at that time is well known and gives this music a great charm for me. The dance music in this program is a good example – it is notated in unison in the handwritten source. Contemporary pictures of courtly dances very often depict an ensemble like ours, which definitely played polyphonically. Our challenge is to fill in the “missing” voices. We do this through a mixture of composition and improvisation.
TC: And finally, I always like to ask the stars of the Renaissance music scene the question of the mediation of early music – while Baroque music has enjoyed great popularity among a broad population for a few decades, the richly
Renaissance music world still largely undiscovered. Is this merely due to the lack of communication of a musical epoch that is still little known?
IH: Every generation makes the mistake of thinking that their early music revival is the first. Baroque music actually became very popular for a few decades – for about two decades. However, the most popular baroque pieces performed and sung today under historically informed performance practice are usually the same popular pieces that have been performed for a long time. With Renaissance music it’s not quite like that – here it’s more about discovering music that no one knows. In addition, unlike the Baroque, Renaissance music was not conceived for a concert setting. A baroque opera was meant for a full opera house, but a 16th-century chanson might be meant only for the people who played or sang it. When there are more people in the audience than on stage at a concert of Renaissance music, it is essentially no longer historical performance practice. We still hope that will be the case at our concert!
The Basse danse repertoire associated with the ducal court of Burgundy (not in Burgundy, of course, but in what is now Belgium, where the dukes acquired most of their fabulous wealth) has survived in two main sources. One is an extremely sloppy print, made perhaps in the mid-1490s and preserved in only one copy (now in London). The other, which contains more or less the same dances with the same choreographies, is the magnificent manuscript in Brussels, written with gold and silver ink on black colored parchment.
Various dates have been suggested, but I am inclined to agree with musicologist Frederick Crane, who, based on another five manuscripts also copied on black-stained parchment, estimates it to date from around 1470 – which would, of course, mean that it was notated before Margaret of Austria was born, although she certainly owned it later. The bizarre thing about this repertoire, however, is that it must date back to around 1420, at least if we assume the (now) five polyphonic songs that provide the only known links to the dance tunes: The recent discovery of the fifth song (in a manuscript fragment now in New Jersey) confirms the finding. And even if you add three slightly later, related pieces, the result is always the same: that each perfect semibreve note (consisting of three minims) in the polyphonic versions corresponds to two double steps in the choreography. And this can only mean that the dance has nothing to do with the traditional polyphonic versions and in some cases is even considered to be their origin. So for today’s performers, there is no easy solution, indeed, as far as I can see, no solution at all. Therefore, I am curious how these experienced musicians and dancers solve the riddle.
(Translation: Marc Lewon)
1. Sanctus / Agnus Dei from “Missa de Beata Virgine” – Pierre de La Rue (c1452-1518)
Misse Petri de la Rue. Beate virginis. Puer natus. Sexti. Utfa. Lomme arme. Nunqua fue pena maior, Venice (Ottaviano Petrucci) 1503, Superius: fol. Aaa3r-Aaa4r / Altus: fol. Ddd2v-Ddd3v / Tenor: fol. Ccc2v-Ccc3r / Bassus: fol. Fff2v-Fff3v
2. vexilla regis prodeunt / Passio Domini*– Pierre de La Rue
Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek / Bibliothèque royale, MS 11239, fol. 14v-15r & MS 228, fol. 29v-30r
3. in pace in idipsum*– Josquin des Prez (c1450/55-1521)
Brussels, MS 11239, fol. 31v-32r
4. O devotz cueurs / O vos omnes* – Loyset Compère (c1445-1518)
Brussels, MS 228, fol. 59v-60r
5. Triste plaisir – Gilles de Bins dit Binchois (c1400-1460)
Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Canon. misc. 213 (“Oxford Codex”), fol. 56v
6. triste plaisir – anonymous basse danse
Dance booklet of Margaret of Austria, fol. 15r
7. Lesperance de boubon* – anonymous Basse danse
Dance booklet of Margaret of Austria, fol. 21v
8. Tous les regretz – Antoine Brumel (c1460-1512/13)
Brussels, MS 11239, fol. 8v-9r
9. beaulte de castille – anonymous
Choreography: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, f. ital. 973 (tract of Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro), fol. 32r-v
Music: Brussels, Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek / Bibliothèque royale, MS 9085 (“Dance Booklet of Margaret of Austria”), fol. 13r
10. Sans faire de vous departie – Pierre Fontaine (c1380-c1450)
Oxford Codex, fol. 86v-87r
11. sans faire de vous departie*– anonyme Basse danse
Dance booklet of Margaret of Austria, fol. 12v
12. la franchoise nouvelle – anonymous basse danse
Dance booklet of Margaret of Austria, fol. 22v
13. E qui la dira dira – reconstructed monody
14. e qui la dira dira*– Henricus Isaac (c1450/55-1517)
Brussels, MS 11239, fol. 17v-18r
15 Une fois avant que mourir – anonymes Rondeau
London, British Library, MS Cotton Titus A. xxvi, fol. 4v-5r
16 Une fois avant que mourir – anonyme Basse danse
Dance booklet of Margaret of Austria, fol. 13r
17. la danse de cleves*– anonymous Basse danse
Dance booklet of Margaret of Austria, fol. 22r, 23r-v
18. le petit Rouen – anonymous Basse danse
Dance booklet of Margaret of Austria, fol. 11r
Roti boully joyeulx*– Domenico da Piacenza (c1400-c1476)
Dance booklet of Margaret of Austria, fol. 21r & intavolation by Johannes Weck (c1495-1536): “Hopper dancz”, in: Basel, University Library, F.IX.58 (“Tabulatur des Bonifacius Amerbach”), fol. 2v
* arranged by Ian Harrison and/or improvised by the musicians of the ensemble
Historical Museum Basel