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Musical Instruments at the Time of Shakespeare


Ronald Cook

Come, ho, and wake Diana with a hymn;
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear,
And draw her home with music.

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

The Merchant of Venice

Ah, sweet harmony. Each of us are pleased in some way by today's touches of sweet harmony, and we are familiar with the instruments that make the music, but what made the sounds of music Shakespeare wrote about in The Merchant of Venice? What did an audience hear when attending Shakespeare's plays? When these plays are performed today, we sometimes hear etherial-voiced violins, or crisp, clear Aaron Copelandesque trumpet fanfares, or full Eugene-Ormandy-style orchestras accompanying the play with emense works by composers living and dead. Sometimes we hear digital sounds sampled from every classical and modern instrument from around the world, and sometimes we hear analog sounds that sound like no other instrument in the world. But the music of the 17th century could not be recorded. What did it sound like? The only clue we have is in the few original surviving instruments and notations.

Many of the musical instruments of Shakespeare's time would look and sound alien to today's audience, but nearly every string, woodwind, brass, and percussion instrument played today had its beginnings before his era. Instruments evolved to different physical and sonic properties during the Renaissance, and many of them evolved to completely different properties today. The tuning of instruments has also changed. Today's standard is A=440, which means that the sound vibrations of A above middle C vibrate at 440 times a second. Music before Shakespeare, during what is called the Medieval period, was tuned several steps lower at approximately A=415. During the Renaissance, tuning shifted upwards to around A=420 or A=425.

Since there were hundreds of different types of musical instruments available in Europe during Shakespeare's time, I will limit myself to the most popular. My intent is to introduce the reader to early musical instruments by referencing passages from Shakespeare's plays, and, using this as a catalyst, expand on the subject so the reader will develop a fuller understanding into that era and its people.

The Renaissance in Europe lasted roughly 200 years, starting in the 14th century and lasting into the 16th. Toward the end of that time, when Shakespeare was enchanting England with his plays, musical instrument design and use was changing as rapidly as it does today in our fast moving, high-tech society. Back then some instruments would rise from the company of beggars and wandering minstrels to enter the houses of lords and ladies. But as soon as they lost favor, those same instruments would return to the streets again, usually being replaced by another instrument making the class change. Today, an instrument may begin as a design on a computer, then enter the home as state-of-the-art, only to be replaced by a new improved version the following year. Then, as today, the fads came and went.

Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616, and, as noted before, many of the musical instruments we are familiar with were quite different then. Much of today's knowledge about those instruments can be attributed to three important music historians: Virdung of Italy (c. 1500), Martin Agricola of Germany (1486-1556), and Michael Praetorius, also of Germany (c. 1600). Because of their writings and accompanying drawings, we not only have a more complete knowledge of European instruments, but we can build accurate reproductions of many of them. Much of the research that went into this paper would not have been possible if it were not for those three scholars.

Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!

Othello, The Moor of Venice

One of the easiest instruments to transport, especially by soldiers and wayfarers, was a small flute, commonly known during the Renaissance as a fife. Today, when people in the United States imagine what a fife looks like, they probably have an image in their minds of three disheveled American revolutionaries, two men and a boy, from the popular painting called "The Spirit of '76" by Ohio painter Archibald Willard (who produced 14 versions of the canvas for the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition). The boy is playing a drum and one of the men is playing a small transverse flute--a fife.

Even though Othello, in the previous quote, called the instrument a fife, what existed then, nearly two hundred years before "The Spirit of '76," differed greatly. Music historians have stated that in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, many of the different styles of transverse (side blown) flutes were called fifes. There were many sizes, from high-pitched "whistles" barely five inches long (probably the "ear-piercing fife" Othello spoke of), to three or four foot long bass flutes. Unfortunately, few specimens of these instruments survive today, even though it is "...mentioned in writing and depicted in the works of art too often to have been at all an uncommon type" (Adam Carse, Musical Wind Instruments, New York: Da Capo Press, 1975, p. 81).

The English word, fife, comes from the German, Pfeife (meaning pipe), which, ultimately, came from the Latin pipare (to chirp, to pipe). In German, the word pfeife is used in combination with a descriptive adjective to explain the type of instrument it is. For example, Schweitzerpfeiff means Swiss-pipe.

Adam Carse, in Musical Wind Instruments, describes one of the surviving instruments:

"The very few 16th- or early 17th-century flutes which survive in some of the continental collections (e.g., Vienna and Brussels) are made from one piece of wood, without any joints; they are cylindrical, and are provided with a mouth-hole and six finger-holes. The specimens are too few to form the basis of any satisfying conclusion as to a standard length and pitch, yet from early in the 17th century there are signs that the instrument of just under 2 feet in length, sounding the primary scale of D major, was to become the standard flute of the future."

Carse, in describing an instrument in a Virdung woodcut from 1511, says that it shows "...a narrow flute with six finger-holes placed unusually close together; this he called a zwerchpfeiff, and associates it with a small drum as the instrument of the soldier." (And was still the instrument of the soldier in 18th century America, as shown in "The Spirit of '76.") Carse goes on to mention that Agricola, in 1528, illustrated better proportioned representations of four flutes of different sizes, which he named Scheitzerpfeiffen (Swiss pipes), and Praetorius, in 1619, distinguished the different sizes with names of their own. The largest he called Querflotten, the alto and tenor, Querpfeiffen and Traversa, and for the small military fife he used Agricola's name of Schweitzerpfeiffen. (The military fife of this era was also called Feldpfeiffen.)

Shortly after Praetorius, our knowledge of the history of the keyless cylindrical flute comes to a sudden end, and as Carse mentions, "...after a period regarding which the historian must either remain silent or fall back on his imagination, the instrument emerges near the end of the 17th century in a practically standardized form," which was to last nearly a hundred years when wood gave way to metal.

Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain-tops that freeze,
Bow themselves when he did sing.

To his music plants and flowers
Ever spring; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.

King Henry VIII

"...As sweet and musical
As bright Apollo's lute, strung with his hair!
And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods
Makes heaven drowsy with the harmony."

Love's Labour's Lost

This passage from Love's Labour's Lost flows from start to finish in a pleasant alliteration akin to the tonal quality of the lute.

Today's lute has survived in its present form, with little change or modification, from the 16th century. One of the earliest known descendants of the lute was known to have come from 7th century Turkey and Persia, where it was called an Oud (or Ud, which is Arabic for wood). Originally, it did not have frets; these were added to the instrument in the 11th or 12th century Spain after the Arabs introduced it there. The late David Munrow, in Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, mentions that the instrument was reintroduced to Egypt in the 13th century "...and from Egypt it traveled to Europe by other routes and in such a round-about way that in 1555 [the scholar] Bermudo could call the lute 'Vihuela de Flandres'." Bermudo believed the lute had come from Flanders (Holland).

Today, the Ud has disappeared from Persia (Iran) and was only recently reintroduced to Turkey. Now it is played mostly in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. In the United States the Ud is seen and heard accompanying belly dancers in Moroccan restaurants.

The silk strings of the Ud evolved to twisted gut strings on the lute. A musician played the lute by plucking the strings with the fingers, gently, not using the fingernails. It was not strummed like the steel-string folk guitar of today.

When the Ud became the lute (also known as the Vihuela) in the 1500's, it acquired more strings, doubled (like a modern 12-string guitar) in sets of five to fifteen. Some lutes had more than thirty strings.

In Shakespeare's time, eight courses (sets) were common; the five highest stretched along the fingerboard, the three lowest were bass drones that were plucked but not fingered.

David Munrow described the Renaissance lute as follows:

The delicacy and expressiveness of Renaissance lute music is allied to the incredibly light construction of the instrument. The flat table, or belly, is usually made of pine, planed to as little as one sixteenth of an inch in thickness. Its most obvious feature is the carved circular sound-hole or "rose," though equally important acoustically are the wooden bars (six or more in number) glued underneath the table to strengthen it and increase the resonance; much of the lute-maker's skill lies in the barring and in the finish of the table. The pear-shaped back is built up of a series of ribs, shaped and bent over a mould, and then glued together edge to edge. Usually made of sycamore, the ribs are incredibly thin, often no more than one thirty-second of an inch in thickness. A well made lute is so sensitive that it literally trembles in response to the touch.

Around 1600 the lute's popularity was so great that hundreds of pieces were written for it. Before 1600 bass parts were left out of the music because of the lute's short neck (there was little bass response). To compensate, luthiers (stringed instrument builders) developed instruments with a second peg box set high on the bass side of the neck to carry the longer strings needed for the lowest notes. These strings were off of the fingerboard and were plucked one at a time; they were not stopped, or fingered, as with the treble strings.

The Theorbo was one of the first lute-style instruments to have a second peg head and bass strings. David Munrow said that "the earliest mention of this instrument was in the inventory of the Accademia Filamonica in Verona, 1544. The name (French: theorbe and tuorbe; German: Theorb; Italian: tiorba and tuorba) may derive from the Arabic tarab. Its origins in Europe are obscure, the invention having been ascribed to a number of people including Antonio Naldi, who served the Medici family, and a Signor Tiorba about 1600." It seems likely that the initial development took place in Italy.

An instrument that Praetorius referred to as a Roman Theorbo was in actuality a chitarrone. When stood on end, this instrument was over five feet high. The sound box, like that of the Theorbo, was the same size and shape of the lute. Again, a second peg box housed the tuning pegs for the bass strings; only this time the strings were wire and another octave was added to the bottom register. The range of the chitarrone could rival an 88-key piano (which was yet to be invented). The earliest surviving examples of the chitarrone date from the second half of the sixteenth century, and the earliest known music written for this instrument is from 1607. It was a piece for two chitarrones, called L'Orfeo.

For do but note a wild and wanton herd,
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts,
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing, and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood--

If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You will perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turn'd to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music...

The Merchant of Venice

The trumpet of Shakespeare's time was not the same type of instrument Louis Armstrong played. The tone was not loud by today's standards, but rather muted, because the trumpet's bell and mouthpiece were much smaller than they are today. Also, early trumpets did not have valves.

The true trumpet was a straight tapering tube, mouthpiece at one end, bell at the other. A modern version of this can be seen in movies where horns are used to herald the entrance of dignitaries into a medieval castle.

In 1511, a thurner horn was described by Virdung as an S-shaped instrument. It was from this S-shape that the later slide trumpet evolved (called a sackbutt, much later called a trombone). The name thurner horn means tower-horn. Originally, this horn was used by tower watchmen to raise the alarm for a fire, an attack, or some civil disturbance.

Around 1600, musician guilds were forming, and the free exchange of ideas, both in music and instrument development, was commonplace. Trumpets were being made in different sizes so the entire chromatic scale could be played by three musicians so equipped.

During this time the straight trumpet (e.g., thurner horn) was left to the military and to the hunt. The guilds were using finely crafted brass instruments that looped upon themselves, like the familiar military bugle. Many fanfares, toccatas, and concerti were written to demonstrate the capabilities of the players.

And the jocund rebecks sound
To many a youth, and many a maid,
Dancing in the chequered shade.

And young and old come forth to play
On a sunshine holiday.

John Milton (1608-1674) - L'Allegro [1632]

No references to violins, or the violin family, could be found in Shakespeare's writings. This is due to two facts: one, that the violin, as we know it today, was just being developed; and two, the general populace thought of violin music as the "screeching of donkeys." In other words, no one liked the sound of the instrument. However, bowed instruments of other types were very much in favor during the Renaissance. John Milton, nearely twenty years after Shakespeare's death, mentions an instrument in L'Allegro that is the direct descendant and closest in size and sound to the violin: the rebec.

The early history of the violin is unduly complicated by the fact that at first it had no name of its own, and later, as Sibyl Marcuse in Musical Instruments: A Comprehensive History said, it had "...a plethora of names, so that until the end of the 16th century we often cannot tell with certainty which of several instruments our sources refer to."

That the violin evolved from the medieval fiddle (rebec, evolved from the 9th century Persian rebab) is an accepted historical fact. Just how and when this transformation took place remains unknown, but the first pictorial reference was in a drawing of a musical group by Albrecht Durer (1515). It shows a harp, a lute, and an instrument appearing to be a small violin. The experts agree that the violin in this drawing is a transitional piece, having the recognizable violin-shaped body but an old-style peg head; it has the same flattened head with tuning pegs sticking through from behind as the rebec and the same number of strings, three.

The first record of a violin similar to today's is shown in the frescoes at Bergamo and Saronno that were created by Baudenzio Ferrari around 1535. At Saronno, three angels are depicted playing instruments of violin, viola, and tenor violin size, each with three strings, yet all true violins.

The earliest known violin music was written by Giovanni Gabrieli in 1597. But the instrument was still not known as a violin. Sibyl Marcuse stated that "Praetorius call the same instrument a Discant-Geige, kleine Geige, viola da braccio, violetta piccola, violino da vraccio, rebecchino, and adds that the viole da braccio were called Geigen or polnisch Geigen by musicians." Several other musical historians of the time gave the violin many other names such as dessus, cinquieme, haute-contre, and taille.

Hortense Panum, in Stringed Instruments of the Middle Ages, says that "the name 'violin' actually was used to denote a part in the Sacrae Symphoniae by Gabrieli in 1597, but, as the alto clef proves, this part was for a viola. Seven years later, Valentin Haussmann deliberately wrote 'violin' over the treble part of his 'Neue Intrada,' and [shortly after that] Monteverdi made reference to the Violino Piccolo as the treble instrument of the viola family."

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twandling instruments
will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again..."

The Tempest

There were literally "...a thousand twangling instruments..." of all sizes and descriptions being played all over Europe, from the pipe and tabor (which was referenced by Shakespeare several times in his plays) to the great organ.

The pipe and tabor were the traveler's companions. More often than not, they were the beggar's companions. The pipe was not side blown like a fife, but end blown; this makes it a relative of the recorder, but only four or five inches long and with two finger holes. This made it easy to use with one hand. The entire chromatic range could be played by combining fingering with breath control.

The tabor was a small hand drum, similar to a tambourine but without the rattles. It was held in one hand and hit with a stick held in the other. Usually, one person played the pipe as another kept up a lively tempo with the tabor. These two instruments never became popular, but a very similar music can be heard in recent Irish tin whistle songs. Tin whistles have pitch and tone much like the early pipe, and many times these are accompanied by a hand drum called a bodhran, which is almost identical to the Renaissance tabor.

Organs have been in existence since Roman times when the "water organ," a hydraulic pipe organ, was played for the emperors. In Shakespeare's time, the great church pipe organs were still in their infancy; usually, small portable organs served the same purposes. But, organ music was being written more complex and the instruments had to be improved for the musicians to play it. By the 1400's, several European churches had large organs ranging in size from 195 pipes (in Dijon, France) to 2500 pipes (in the Amiens Cathedral, also in France). For the next three hundred years, the only changes came in the improvement of tone and the ornateness of the casework.

Because so many instruments had come into existence by the time of Shakespeare, to discuss them all here in greater detail would require creating an encyclopedia. The intended purpose of this essay is to aquaint the reader with the most common instruments of that era, and to show the reader what Shakespeare might have been hearing in his mind when he wrote the quoted passages. Also, it is hoped that the reader, if he or she intends to pursue the history of the Renaissance, listen to some of the recordings available today of Renaissance music played on original instruments or on reproductions of those early instruments.

Part of historical knowledge is being able to make proper associations, comparisons, and relationships between the people of an era and their environment, and music is but one small topic in the history of civilization. However, the sound of music changes constantly and should be take into consideration when discussing lifestyles. It can definitely give us a clearer picture into the lives of our ancestors.

If music be the food of love, play on.

The Twelfth Night; Or, What You Will


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Baines, Anthony. Victoria and Albert Museum: Catalogue of Musical Instruments, Vol. II, London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1968.

Bartlett, John. Familiar Quotations, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1955.

Carse, Adam. Musical Wind Instruments, New York: Da Capo Press, 1975.

De Zayas, Rodrigo. "The Vihuela: Swoose, Lute, or Guitar?" Guitar Review Magazine, Summer, 1973, p. 2.

Downey, Peter. "The Renaissance Slide Trumpet," Journal of Early Music, Vol. 12, No. 1, p. 26.

Fenlon, Iain. "Monteverdi's Manuan Orfeo," Journal of Early Music, Vol. 12, No. 2, p. 163.

Marcuse, Sibyl. Musical Instruments: A Comprehensive Dictionary, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1975.

Munrow, David. Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, London: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Panum, Hortense. Stringed Instruments of the Middle Ages, London: William Reeves, 1971.

Russell, Raymond. Victoria and Albert Museum: Catalogue of Musical Instruments, Vol. I, London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1968.

Sachs, Curt. Real-Lexikon der Musikinstrumente, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1964.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, (New York: Avenal Books, 1965).

"The Flute," Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. by Eric Blom (New York: St. Martins Press, 1973), p. 166.

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