Saturday, August 27, 2016

Recreating Medieval Music

My husband and I love Renaissance faires, and we've also become involved in Viking reenactment as well. As a musician, I'm fascinated by early music, from Gregorian chant to the music of the troubadours. While at a Viking and Renaissance Festival in Oklahoma last year, I was happy to meet a man from Instruments of Antiquity, who let me play his sample rebec. Since then, I've been seriously considering ordering a Medieval instrument, which are much more affordable than I would have thought.

As a violin and viola player, I find the history of musical instruments fascinating. It's so easy to assume that they've been around forever, but in fact many modern instruments were invented in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and a few were created in the early twentieth century (Sousaphone, anyone?). Yet, the history of string instruments stretches back in time, to ancient Greece if not earlier. Though much of the music of history has been lost, some of it can be recreated by musicians eager to research and experiment with the performances practices of the time.

Listening to the  music of instruments like rebecs, vielles, and viols is like listening to voices from the past. Each one gives us a sense of the soundscapes and tonal colors that would have been familiar to the people of the Middle ages, or even earlier. What's more, for modern musicians learning these instruments (or at least researching them) can inform our understanding of composers like J.S. Bach, who wrote music for the viola da gamba. Indeed, many music historians speculate that Bach's 6th Cello Suite may have originally been intended for a violincello piccolo (which Anner Bylsma used for his 2nd recording of this suite), a five-stringed instrument slightly smaller than a modern cello. Even if a modern musician isn't interested in buying or playing an instrument like a viol, understanding what one sounded like can give us a better understanding of the ways that music has developed over the centuries.

Yet for all that, I think one of the things that draws me to ancient musical instruments is the same thing that draws me to classical music in general--they are beautiful, rich parts of our cultural heritage. The rebec, for example, is a bowed string instrument that dates to as early as the 9th century in Europe, and may have originally come from the Arabic rebab, or spiked fiddle. It's a lovely instrument, with a softer sound than a modern violin, and playing it gave me a small taste of what life would have been like as a Medieval musician.  


  1. It's so interesting to get a small insight into the history of music. I can understand why you're fascinated. Thanks for joining the #weekendblogshare and I'm sorry my comment is so late