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F10178   [8595017417825]   released 11/2010

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arrangements by Mario Mesany and František Pok

Mario Mesany, artistic leader

ŠTĚPÁN KANIAK, fiddle, plucked string and wind instruments
PAVEL POLÁŠEK, wind instruments, santur
MARIO MESANY, wind instruments, hurdy-gurdy, bagpipes
ŠTĚPÁN MESANY, wind instruments, organetto
ERIKA REITSCHMIEDOVÁ, harp, plucked string instruments
LIBOR ŽÍDEK, voice, percussion


“Everywhere the clamour of drums beating,
and the hammering of zithers,
the echo of the trumpets’ call,
the stroke of a myriad lyres,
jesters gambol and revel here,
the choir rejoices and the organ sounds,
the King smiles at his people ...”

Abbot Ota in the Zbraslav Chronicle (1283)

If today’s listener enters the musical world of the Middle Ages, he is often staggered by the sheer number of new sounds, timbres, colours, different dimensions of sound, and naturally also by the way in which these musical tracts are divided and what they contain. What we no longer consider even as old, since it has been entirely forgotten, is now regarded as something new and fascinating. This is not simply due to the diversity of instruments involved, but also to the numerous Arabic incursions, whose imaginary spikes long remained sharp before being softened by European culture. It would make no sense here to study how much contemporary reconstructions of period instruments try to approximate the sound of the originals in use seven hundred years ago, however, traces of it, partly surviving in the Arabic musical tradition, testify more to a marked similarity.
      Mediaeval culture likes to imagine that it has not introduced any innovations, giving the impression that everything has already been said (in the Holy Scripture) and thus it “only” comments and cites. We try not to succumb to this illusion, even if it artfully conceals its innovations beneath a veil of repetition of what has already been said – unlike modern culture, feigning innovation when it is often a case of mere repetition. Newly established or adopted instruments thus often acquired names once ascribed to other instruments; in consequence, our terminological sense, refined by the precision of present-day specialist vocabulary, is somewhat left to run idle. In spite of this situation, we will try not only to name some of the instruments on this recording, but also to indicate their tendency to cling to the web of relationships and meanings so important for the mediaeval mind.
      The first few centuries of the second millennium was a period when the instrument range of the modern era was essentially only beginning to emerge and, as period testimony shows, certain instruments, even whole groups, were merely at the creation stage. A highly comprehensive contemporary classification of musical instruments was compiled, for instance, by Johannes de Muris (1290-1351), who divided them into three groups: chordalia – stringed; foraminalia – wind (with holes, perforated); and vasalia – percussive (crafted using vessels).
      Probably the most widely used was the group of plucked string instruments. The psaltery, considered the instrument of King David, according to Paulus Paulerinus of Prague (c. 1460) had metal strings played most frequently using a quill held in one hand, unlike the harp, whose gut strings were plucked with the player’s fingers or nails. In terms of resonance, the latter was far superior to both the quinterna and the lute, whose five double strings were also played using a plectrum. Both these last mentioned instruments appeared during the 9th century in regions of Arabic influence, Italy and Spain and, since they were primarily intended for a single melodic line, they retained a fingerboard without frets, which is, in fact, typical of the Arabic al ’ud [oud]. The modern name for the lute, as reflected in many languages – laúd, liuto, loutna, Laute – points to the instrument’s original provenance. The instrument known as the “wing” – ala, ala bohemica, apart from its shape, had absolutely nothing in common with the grand piano. Even its size enabled players during the 14th century to pluck the metal strings with both hands from one side of the instrument, like the psaltery. Keyboard instruments, such as the clavichord or harpsichord, were also classified as plucked instruments.
      The instruments from the mediaeval string collection which developed most rapidly were those performed using a bow. These included, in particular, the three- to five-string fiddle, in shape and principles of playing technique similar to the violin. It also existed in various sizes and tunings. According to Paulus Paulerinus, its melodic tones, together with those of the lute, afforded a mellifluous blend of sound that could not be accomplished with any other combination of instruments. Perhaps this notion was also cultivated by the fact that, in keeping with the symbolism of the elements, the fiddle represented the Earth, and the lute signified Water, namely an extremely positive, let alone fertile, synthesis. The endeavour to layer and interweave different timbres in effect went hand in hand with the emphasis on the horizontal concept of melodies and on their distinctive character. Also for this reason, instruments of the same type did not generally play the same parts, as in a modern orchestra.
      The instrument to make wide use of harmonic notes was the trumscheit. Depending on its size, it rested against the player’s collarbone or was placed on the floor and, thanks to a special pivoted bridge, it gave out a strong buzzing, almost rattling tone. It was thus also given the name tromba marina – marine trumpet, enabling ships to warn each other of their presence in the fog. The hurdy-gurdy – also known as the organistrum, similar to the trumscheit, may have been an instrument typical for the lower social strata a few centuries later, however, during the 11th – 14th centuries, it played a highly significant role in the performance of church music. Certain hurdy-gurdies even grew to such dimensions that they had to be mastered by two players. One turned a wooden rosined wheel with a crank, as if rubbing against the strings with a continuous bow; the other at the keyboard, which altered the pitches of the same strings, played assorted melodies above a constant drone note. The hurdy-gurdy and trumscheit also fulfilled an important rhythmical function.
      Wind instruments are among the oldest; horn-pipes and cow horns, in particular, were essentially natural products which were cleaned and bored with several holes and a labium, a voicing window similar to that on a recorder, for instance. The cornett, a wooden mouthpiece instrument, appeared during the 11th century and, together with the sackbut, shawm or pommer, it formed a group going by the name musica alta, or “loud”, performed most frequently at dances or in the open air. Bagpipes were often also part of this group. Conversely, musica bassa, “soft”, included the majority of plucked and bowed string instruments and, apart from being performed indoors, they would also accompany the voice.
      Percussion instruments during this period were likewise varied and were consistently used to reinforce rhythm – drums, timpani, castanets or tambourine, or as melodic instruments – bells, chimes or cymbals.
      It isn’t possible here to cover in more detail all the instruments used, or even to name them, as attempted by musician and poet Guillaume de Machaut, secretary to John of Luxembourg, in his composition about Peter I, King of Cyprus. When he describes the sovereign’s arrival at the court of Charles IV, he names around thirty instruments from all groups which were to participate in this ceremonial event.
      However, one can hardly accept a literal interpretation of poetic testimonies such as these. Similarly, if we see, for example, a series of angels in certain images playing all sorts of instruments, this does not necessarily mean that they were actually played in the roles depicted. One of the main characteristics of mediaeval aesthetics was a predominance of encoded allegories. Musical instruments often symbolised, made references to, and illustrated, other things. The harp, for instance, in different contexts symbolised the Sun, in alchemical symbolism the King, the metal Gold, the element Fire, and the zodiac sign Scorpio etc.
      The combination of instrument and human voice was highly significant. The instruments either imitated or accompanied the singing, as in the songs of the southern French troubadours, the northern French trouvères, or the German Minnesänger. The singing poet, often with an instrument in his hand, became the vassal and servant of a lady who was greatly desired, but generally untouchable.
     Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (1221-1274) stated that “the image of the devil is called ‘beautiful’ if it portrays the devil’s ugliness well, and if he is therefore ugly”. We would hardly find an example of Bonaventure’s “devilish beauty” on this recording, however, quite the contrary. While Francesco da Firenze (Landini) extols his beloved in his ballata Angelica beltà, we may also construe its text as an invitation to listen.

An angelic beauty descended to Earth.
He who loves beauty, and virtue,
and endearing ways and lightness,
may he come and marvel at she
who has also captured my soul with her grace.
Yet I do not believe that such stirring sentiment
will bring tranquillity to all.

Miloslav Študent

further recording by Rožmberská kapela

© 2HP Production, January 2018
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