Friday, June 8, 2018

The Dance Music of the Middle Ages - Europe

The middle ages covers a period of a thousand years – and yet much of its music-making is a mystery to us. We’re not completely in the dark, though, so the aim of this article is to give a broad beginner’s guide to the principles of secular medieval music. When were the middle ages? How do we know what the music sounded like? What were the earliest surviving songs? What was its dance music like? Why does medieval music sound so different to today’s? How did medieval musicians harmonize?

When were the middle ages?

The mediaeval or medieval period, or the middle ages, covers a huge stretch of time, from A.D. 476, following the fall of the Roman Empire, to the start of the renaissance in the 14th and 15th centuries, so that’s around a thousand years.

Francesco Petrarcha or Petrarch, 1304–1374, one of the creators, possibly the original creator, of the idea of an Italian renaissance, painted by Andrea del Castagno, c. 1421–1457.
Francesco Petrarcha or Petrarch, 1304–1374, one of the creators, possibly the original creator, of the idea of an Italian renaissance, painted by Andrea del Castagno, c. 1421–1457.
Some historians have taken to splitting the mediaeval period in two: the ‘dark ages’ until the 10th century (from an anglocentric view, that’s before the Norman invasion of 1066, when the language in England was Old English); and the ‘middle ages’ from the 11th century (between the Norman conquest and the renaissance, during which the language evolved into Middle English). This split is an ahistorical view which ignores how the term ‘middle ages’ was originally conceived by those who minted it.

It was Italians of the 14th and 15th century, primarily Francesco Petrarca or Petrarch, Leonardo Bruni and Flavio Biondo, who defined themselves and their generation as bringing about a renaissance (rebirth) of classical Roman and Greek wisdom. Thus, for the people of the self-defined Italian renaissance who delineated the ‘middle ages’, the term meant precisely and explicitly the same as the ‘dark ages’: it was a whole millennium of cultural darkness in the middle period between the fall of the Roman Empire and Italian culture’s rediscovery of its treasures. The idea of this alleged rediscovery of classical Roman and Greek art and wisdom (it wasn’t quite so straightforward as that in reality) spread steadily through the nation before then spreading internationally through Europe. This gradual broadening of the idea makes it impossible to give a precise date for the end of the middle ages and the beginning of the renaissance, so a nominal latest date of around 1470 is often given.

The recovery of medieval music

Much of medieval secular music is a mystery. Most people were illiterate, therefore most music was not written down but passed on and learned by ear and so, of course, we’ve lost it. The music that was written down was most often church music as it was largely clergy and monastics who could write. This ecclesiastical music is important in itself, but its predominance in surviving manuscripts gives a partial view of music-making.

Medieval music is not immediately accessible for a modern musician. There were different systems of musical notation, none of which indicated precise rhythm until the 12th century. Square notation is now the best known system developed in this period, and once you know square notation some of the music is easy to read. At times, though, it wasn’t written very accurately, or was written with a poor pen and so had vague or indecipherable note values, which is adequate if you know what it’s supposed to sound like, which they did, but we don’t.

It is extremely rare for us to have any idea what the intended instrument was to accompany a voice (if at all) or to play for dances, so we have to make our own choices from the scant available information and our own sense of what sounds right.

But there are many treasure troves of medieval music. One of the most notable is the Cantigas de Santa María, a book with 420 songs in praise of the Virgin Mary, compiled during the reign of Alfonso X, “The Wise”, 1221-1284, who was King of eight regions in modern day Spain and one in Portugal. During his reign, Alfonso composed, compiled and edited a large number of books, with subjects ranging from art and literature to scientific texts translated into Castillian from the Arabic originals. The melodies of the Cantigas were adapted from sacred sources or popular melodies from both sides of the Pyrenees, including some derived from troubadour songs in Provençal and others that have striking affinities with Arab music. The book of Cantigas, compiled 1257–1283, is beautifully illustrated with pictures of musicians, giving us much information about the instruments of the day, and its music notation is admirably clear.

Medieval dances and dance music

Gittern player with dancers, early 15th century.
There tended to be two kinds of medieval dance music: either each section started the same and ended differently; or each section ended the same and started differently. This goes for nearly all the medieval dance forms: estampie, rotta, trotto, royal dance, saltarello.

Often we find that subsequent sections of a dance grow longer, indicating something about the style of medieval dances.

But no dance instructions survive before the Gresley manuscript of c. 1500, found in Ashford, Derbyshire in 1984, so we know little about how medieval dances were performed and little about which instruments they were intended to be played on, so again we have to bring our own artistic and creative sense to bear, interpreting the clues found in iconography and brief scattered references in writing.

Musical Instruments of the Middle Ages in Europe

Musical instruments of the Middle Ages were divided into three rough categories:

  • Wind instruments, such as flutes, whistles, reeds
  • Stringed instruments, like harps, lutes
  • Percussion instruments, like drums, bells, gongs
These same categories can be applied to many or most instruments in common use today.

Wind Instruments

The simplest and most obvious example of a wind instrument is the flute. While flutes have continued to become more elaborate over time in order to provide more consistent sounds and more variation in possible notes, today’s flute bears a strong similarity to the flute of the Middle Ages. Flutes produced a high-pitched sound, with notes changing based on finger placement on holes or keys. The flute is unusual among instruments in the way it is held, sideways from the mouth rather than straight out or down. Wandering minstrels often played the flute, as it was easy to carry and required little preparation to begin playing.

Instruments similar to the flute included the shawm, the gemshorn, the crumhorn, and the recorder. The shawn was a simple instrument that used vent holes and a reed, a small piece of wood that vibrated against the tongue or lips to produce sound. Today’s saxophones and clarinets are reed instruments. The crumhorn was a curved horn that utilized a double reed to produce a similar sound, much the same way an oboe uses a double reed today. The recorder was a very simple instrument not significantly different from a flute. The gemshorn was played like a flute as well, but was a horn-shaped instrument made from ox horns.

Bagpipes were used during the Middle Ages as well. The bag was often made from animal skin, and the horn, or pipe, could be fashioned of wood or bone. The bagpipes were played with a reed. Bagpipes were particularly common among poorer people, perhaps because they could be made at home with materials readily available, such as the skins and bones of livestock.

Stringed Instruments

Stringed instruments today are little different from the stringed musical instruments in the Middle Ages. Some were clear precursors to more modern versions. Others have been abandoned or relegated to strictly historical status due to their sometimes cumbersome natures and the amount of practice needed to become skilled players. Stringed instruments included not only easily portable ones such as fiddles, but also largely stationary instruments, like the harpsichord.

Like the flute, the fiddle was a favorite of minstrels who traveled from village to village in search of work. Fiddles could be played with a bow, like violins, or plucked with the fingers. Each style produced a distinctive and unique sound.

An early ancestor of today’s violin was the rebec. The rebec had a rounded, pear-shaped body, very similar to the shape of modern violins. Rebecs, too, could be played by plucking or by bowing. Viols were popular as well, and could vary in size. Some were placed on the lap while playing, while others were large enough to rest on the floor. These would be the earliest versions of the modern viola and cello. They were not instruments that traveled as well as others, owing to the musician’s need to be seated in order to effectively play them.

The harp was one of the most common instruments of the time. Middle Ages harps were somewhat smaller than those we are accustomed to seeing today, generally measuring about 30 inches in height. Harps were played by strumming or plucking the strings in order to produce sound, and were easily transported enough that they were yet another favorite among minstrels.

The dulcimer and the harpsichord were unique instruments. Each was essentially based upon the harp, with the harpsichord offering keys to strike each string and the dulcimer requiring the player to strike the strings himself with a small hammer. Eventually, stationary, seated instruments such as these would give way to the piano, one of the most popular musical instruments in the world today.

Percussion Instruments

Percussion instruments create sound not with strings or with the musician’s breath, but by being struck. Drums are perhaps the most obvious type of percussion instrument, both today and in the Middle Ages. Drums were generally made from a hollowed-out trunk of tree or a metal or clay bowl. Animal skin would be stretched across the top of the hollow area, and beating, hitting, or striking the skin would create a percussive sound used to keep tempo and add interest to musical pieces.

Other musical instruments in the Middle Ages qualified as percussion instruments as well, however. The tambourine was designed by stretching animal skin across a hollow circle of wood, clay, or metal and affixing bells to the edges. The tambourine could be struck or shaken to produce two very different sounds, the first being a drum-like beat with added bells and the second being a simple bell jingle. Tambourines were widely considered a feminine instrument, and generally played by women.

Cymbals and the triangle rounded out the most widely used percussion instruments of the time. Cymbals were, like today, thin metal plates that could be struck with a hammer or crashed together. The triangle has not changed at all since its origination in the 1300s; triangles are smaller metal pipes bent into a triangular shape and struck with a mallet or hammer to produce a high-pitched, bell-like percussive sound.

Origins of Dance Music in Ireland

May Day, Beltane, and the menace of May Eve
It is likely that dance was evolved before or independently of music as we know it today.  Within historical time the melodic phrase has been the basis of European dance, not percussive beat (Subsahara).  The earliest social dances were circular and linear chain dances, dating to 1400-1200 BC in Crete/Mediterranean.  Of these, circle dances are most likely the original formal dances.  By the middle ages, the CAROLE (a circle dance) became the most popular form with two associated forms: the FARANDOLE, a line dance from the Mediterranean, and BRANLE, a circle dance from Northern parts of Europe.

The Farandole

In early forms of dance, the music was sung by the dancers in simple, compound double or triple time, with a regular pulse.  Performed exclusively outdoors, the dance steps were very primitive, with a leader directing the dancers in a variety of twists and turns.  This developed to use three arched figures with raised hands under which dancers passed: "Threading the needle", "L'Escargot" and "The Arches".  These fell out of popularity in the 15th century courts either because of high headdresses and pointed hats, or for religious reasons, but remained popular among rural/common dancers.  The dance then became known as HEY (hay, haye, heye or haye) with a changing of the dancers' location in relation to each other.  This pattern is reflected in part of the modern Reel.

The Branle 

From the French Branler: to sway, and the English: to braul, brawl.  These were circle dances.  The music had a pulse/rhythm "the branle double", an 8 bar phrase, the ballad metre, while the branle simple had a 6 bar phrase.  These and other branles became the basis of French folk dance by the 16th century and came in various styles including:

  • Couple Dances -
  • Country Dances (Contradances in New England) - the form of a courtly dance in England, a fashionable dance from the leisure class at court who had time to organize dances and steps.  There may have been more common "country dances" amongst the poor/working class in Ireland, but there is little evidence of such except in 1670 when Richard Head writes: "Their Sunday is the most leisure day they have, in which they use all manner of sport; in every field a fiddle and the lasses footing it till they are all of a foam", and in 1674 John Dunton reports of a wedding where: "a bagpiper and a blind harper that dinned us continually with their music, to which there was perpetual dancing".
  • Withie and Sword Dances - recorded from 1669 - another form of courtly dance in England
  • Quadrilles (sets of 4 dancers) -

16th century French branle performed by students of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.
Music by Jeremy Barlow and The Broadside Band.

Traditional Musical Instruments for Dancing

Instruments used while dancing was mainly drums and background lute, accompanied by singing. Other instruments also included bells, jingles, long drums, nakers (or nakir: a small drum of Arabic origin), side drums, tabors, tambourines and timpani (also known as a kettle drum).

Other forms of Dance (European During The Middle Ages)
    Circle Dances:
    • Sellingers Round
    • Estampie
    • Saltarello
    Court Dances:
    • Basse Dance
    • Black Alman
    • Black Nag
    • Rufty Tufty
    Line Dances:
    • Prince William
    • La Spagna
    • The Morris Dance
    • The Jig
    Country Dances
    • Scottish Dances
    • The Egg Dance
    • Ballet
    • Pavan
    • Burgundian Dance

    Dance in Ancient Ireland (13th - 17th centuries)

    In Ireland, the haye, rinnce fada and rinnce mor are three names used to refer to dance in old literature: "haye" was a chain dance, rinnce fada similar to an English country dance, rinnce mor or trenchmore, was a long dance.  In 1265 a poem on New Ross's fortifications talks of "carolling" (dancing and singing), and in 1413 dancing is described in relation to a Christmas visit by the Mayor of Waterford to the O'Driscoll seat in Co. Cork (Breathnach, 1977).  The first reference to the dance in the Irish language is 1588, when Tomas Dubh, tenth Earl of Ormond, talks of "a dance around fires by a slender, swift, vigorous company".  The Irish words for dance, "rinnce", first appears in 1609 and "damhsa", ten years later.  Descriptions of music and dance together come from 1602 at the court of Elizabeth I, where Irish tunes are mentioned: "We are at frolic here in court; much dancing in the privy chamber of Country dances before the queen's Majesty, who is exceedingly pleased therewith.  Irish tunes are at this time much liked."

    Dancing was associated with important times of the year:
    • Bealtaine: Gaelic May Day festival. Most commonly it is held on 1 May, or about halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man
    • Lughnasa: Gaelic festival marking the beginning of the harvest season. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. In Modern Irish it is called Lúnasa in Lùnastal, and in Luanistyn.
    • Samhain: Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the "darker half" of the year. Traditionally, it is celebrated from 31 October to 1 November, as the Celtic day began and ended at sunset. This is about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.
    • Imbolg: also called Brigid's Day, is a Gaelic traditional festival marking the beginning of spring. Most commonly it is held on 1/2 February, or about halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.
    Dancing was also associated with the rituals of life: births, weddings, and wakes.  

    Nobody knows for sure about dancing in Ireland before the 17th century.  But even though there is no official Irish word for dance (because the documentary evidence of dance is from the 17th century on), and because of its popularity depicted in Holland by painters like Peter Breughel in the 16th century (bagpipes and dance for weddings), it's a good assumption that it was practiced also in Ireland.

    Irish Dancing (18th - 19th Centuries)

    The original style of dancing is the solo step dance, and this is found all over Ireland.  This was taught by travelling dancing masters who were well established in the late 18th century.  They taught jig and reel steps, and also made up fancy circle dances for several couples, and "set" dances (not to be confused with sets or set-dancing), which were display dances for talented dancers.  

    NOTE: Solo and group step dancing have been refined in the 20th century into the costumed and choreographed kinds we see at competitions today, and in Riverdance and the Lord of the Dance.  In the competitions, dancers will be dressed in colored costumes decorated with Celtic designs, these dating to the early 20th century, their more elaborate forms originating in the USA and Australia.

    Irish Dancing (20th Century)

    The Gaelic League favored a deanglicization policy in anything culturally-related.  The banned all European circle, country and sets dances, encouraging a revival of older dances and creating new ones.  In 1939 the Coimisiun an Rinnce (Irish Dancing Commission) published instruction for the approved choreographies, "Siege of Ennis", "Walls of Limerick", "Sweets of May", etc.  Although sets were banned, they continued anyway, surviving to the present day in areas like Kerry and Clare, boosted in the 1980s by revival and in their original English (courtly) forms, they are still danced in some Orange halls in Co. Down.  

    The Church

    The Church opposition to dance was a European universal from the 1740s to the 1930s in Ireland in tandem with state desire for control, resulting in the 1935 Public Dance Halls Act (EDI).*  

    Houses and crossroads, where Irish music was played and danced, had been the main venues for social dance in Ireland prior to 1935.  These were still in "operation" well into the 1950s, especially for the American wakes.  House dances were often fundraisers, generally benefits or for the fun of it, but sometimes for political groups, and they could be held in anyone's house.  Neither they, nor cross-roads dancing could be legally controlled by the church and this of course they didn't like.  But emigration and recorded music combined with foreign dance forms (the waltz, foxtrot, twostep, shimmy-shake) were beginning to be popular in Ireland.  Private commercial dance halls were being opened to take advantage of the new fashion.  The Gaelic League was against this activity for its perceived "undermining of Irish culture".  

    The Church damned dances and saw them as not only improper (on the borderline of Christian modesty - Irish Catholic Directory, 1924), and "direct and unmistakable incitements to evil thoughts and evil desires".  In addition, there was concern among the authorities about the hazards of overcrowding in unsupervised premises, and even about groups like the IRA running dances to raise money for guns.  The issue became a battle for control.  Religious and political forces combined to demand licensing of dancing.  Intensely conservative lobbying was engaged in by the Church.  Under the Public Dance Halls Act (EDI) of 1935, dancing required a license, and this would only be given to people approved of by a district judge.  Failure to comply was a criminal offence.  Overzealous vigilante style enforcement of the Act by the Church destroyed social, noncommercial house dancing, and gradually shifted the social dance from private space to public.  

    Many argue that the Church destroyed Irish traditional music and discouraged new players.  But it also laid the groundwork for the "band", the "ceilidh band" in particular, as the mainstay of music for dancing in Ireland, opening a new chapter in Irish music History.

    Modern Irish Music

    Demands of dancing in large spaces altered the performance style of music.  It did not require solo and duet playing, it sacrificed rhythm to beat, impersonalized the musicians, prioritized the music=making over social occasion and obliged musicians to learn other forms of music (non-Irish) demanded by the modern venue.  The Accordion became important, for volume, diminishing the status of the subtlety inherent in expert fiddle playing.  Dancers were separated from the process of music-making, standards of appreciation declined, musicians lost local importance, became discouraged and many abandoned playing altogether, or switched to performing European or popular American music, which was becoming more popular in Ireland.

    *From Wikipedia:

    Public Dance Halls Act 1935 (Ireland) cover.jpg
    The Public Dance Halls Act 1935 (IrishAcht Um Hallai Rinnce Puibli, 1935) is an Act of the Oireachtas which regulates dance halls in Ireland by introducing a licensing system and a tax on admission tickets.
    The proposals were based on the recommendations of the 1932 report of the Carrigan Commission into juvenile sex crimes.[2] Other Carrigan Report recommendations were enacted in the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, which raised the age of consent and banned artificial contraception.[2][3] On dance halls, the report stated:
    In the course of the Inquiry no form of abuse was blamed more persistently for pernicious consequences than the unlicensed dances held all over the country in unsuitable buildings and surroundings, for the profit of persons who are liable to no control or supervision by any authority. The scandals that are the outcome of such a situation are notorious. They have been denounced in pastorals, exposed in the Press, and condemned by clergy, judges and justices, without avail. Before us the Commissioner, speaking for the Civic Guard, said these dance gatherings in many districts were turned into "orgies of dissipation, which in the present state of legislation the police are powerless to prevent." In short, there is no effective legislation to put down this nuisance.
    The Public Dance Halls Bill was introduced in 1934 by the then government of Fianna Fáil, and supported by the opposition Fine Gael and Labour parties.[4] It was supported by the Catholic hierarchy. Secular nationalist institutions like the Gaelic League the legislation were seen as beneficial for protecting Irish culture against foreign influence.

    Licensing is administered at the district court, subject to the discretion of the local judge. In the early years of its effect, they were less tolerant of more recently introduced musical styles, such as set dancing(seen as "foreign") and jazz dance clubs.[6][7][8] However, it also disadvantaged many traditional Irish musical activities, such as private house dances and crossroad dances, forcing spontaneous and social music and dance into a controlled and commercialized environment. This set the conditions for the predominance of the céilidh, with its large and loud musical ensembles and wide open dance spaces.[5][9] The ceilidh arose at the expense of older traditional music, which declined in popularity for decades until the creation of the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, and later the Folk Revival brought new attention to traditional Irish music.

    The Act remains in force, with amendments.[10] Nightclubs may be subject to stricter conditions in some districts than in others, depending on the particular judge. The Irish Nightclub Industry Association has described the legislation as "archaic".[11] In 2001 there was confusion about whether the Act applied to lapdancing clubs.[12]

    Thursday, June 7, 2018

    The Star Above The Garter - Origins of the Title and Music

    By Eddie 
    The title of this slide, “Star Above the Garter,” seems to be something of which no true gentleman would speak, especially in mixed company.  However, that view is more the result of said gentleman’s own salacious thoughts, than of anything factual about the name of this tune. This is because, first, there is a public house in Manchester, England called “The Star and Garter” which has a room upstairs for music. The building was built in 1803, not far from its current location.  When Manchester-Piccadilly station was expanded in 1849, the Star and Garter was moved, brick by brick, to its current site on Fairfield Street behind the railway station and reopened in 1877.  Built as a hotel that brewed its own beer, it has since been transformed into a pub and club venue.  Second, the name “Star and Garter” is an abbreviation of the insignia belonging to The Most Noble Order of the Garter, founded in 1348 by Edward, Prince of Wales. The tune seems to be of more recent origin, however.

    Following a comment on the, there also may be a relationship to British Order of Chivalry (Orders of the Garter, Star, and St. Patrick).

    Thursday, May 31, 2018

    Mandolin Players Facebook Group

    I'm the founder of one of the biggest mandolin groups on Facebook for Mandolin Players.  As of this posting (5/31/18), we have over 1,000 members.

    I've added two documents to the group's files.  The first one is a database I'm building of Luthiers who specialize in Mandolin repair and restoration.  The second one is a database of Mandolin Teachers. 

    If you know of any luthiers or teachers to add to either of these databases, please join the group and include them in the documents.

    Thank you!

    Wednesday, May 30, 2018

    66 year old retired Chinese man teaches mandolin!

    A 66-year-old former rubbish collector in south China who plays instruments on the street and teaches about 40 students for free has received high praise from netizens, People’s Daily reported on Wednesday.
    The man surnamed Wu, originally from Yunnan Province, now spends his time playing mandolin on the street after working as a rubbish collector for over seven years in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
    Wu has loved music since he was a child, and played bamboo flute for more than 40 years. As he grew older his teeth began falling out, making it hard to continue playing. That's when Wu decided to learn mandolin.
    In 2011, he bought a mandolin using some of the money he had saved and went about learning how to play the instrument on his own. Through a period of exploring and learning, he has formed his own unique musical style.
    Later, Wu began to play mandolin on the street. His performances attracted a number of pedestrians and more than 40 students who wanted to learn from him.
    Wu treats his students equally and teaches them patiently, all free of charge. He describes himself as an ordinary, grassroots person and argues that he's not qualified to charge people money for his time. He also likes to cook for his students and prepare fruit and cookies when they come.
    Netizens praised the old man after his story went viral online. "He has a clear mind and is so nice to people," one gushed. "He was definitely very handsome as a young man," another joked.

    Monday, May 28, 2018

    A bit of Irish fiddle history

    Although the fiddle was established in Irish traditional music before the Uilleann Pipes, the references to its predecessors do not date back as far as those of the pipes. Bowed instruments appear in numerous European carvings and illustrations dating from around 900 A.D. However, the interpretation of these carvings is difficult and the names given for the instruments differ and overlap in texts. The term 'fiddle' itself is somewhat general; it was originally the term for a twelfth century instrument, which was constructed of flat boards for the top, back and sides. This original 'fiddle' developed into the litre da braccio, the most significant predecessor of the violin. The term was later adopted for any member of the classical strings family, but has become particularly associated with the violin in the context of traditional music in Europe and America.

    The earliest examples of a bowed instrument and of a bow itself date from the eleventh century and were excavated in Dublin in the eighteenth century. The bow is the earliest example of a medieval bow in Europe. According to "The Companion to Irish Traditional Music" ( Vallely 1999, pg 123) The earliest reference to the fiddle in Ireland is from a seventh century account of the Fair of Carman by O'Curry: "Pipes, fiddles, chainmen, Bone-men and tube players ". Also in existence in Ireland was the timpán, a bowed or plucked instrument with three to eight strings. In 1674 Richard Head wrote about Ireland "in every field a fiddle, and the lasses footing it till they were all of a foam ". In John Neal's Dublin shop, there was an advert claiming, "There is fidles to be had". This suggests the abundant availability of fiddles in Ireland. However, these fiddles bore no connection to the modern day fiddle, or violin.

    Almost all European countries claim the invention of the violin, but none can seriously challenge the prominence of Italy in its history. The oldest surviving violin dates back to 1564 and was made by Andrea Amati, whose techniques have become the blueprints for all violin makers since. The accepted modern form of the violin, with the exception of the shape of the neck, was confirmed by 1710 thanks largely to Antonio Stradivari. It was in the early eighteenth century too, that the modern design of violin was firmly established throughout Ireland. In terms of its accepted construction, then, the fiddle is the oldest instrument in Irish traditional music. However, whereas the uilleann pipes have remained almost unchanged since its establishment in the tradition, the fiddle has undergone a process of continual development, particularly in the area of string and bow technologies.

    Gradually the finger board has become longer to facilitate moving into higher positions for greater range, and the neck has been made narrower to make this movement easier. In 1820 the chinrest was introduced and, later still, was followed by the shoulder rest. These additions permit the player to grip the instrument with the chin, so allowing the hand to move more freely. However, owing to the nature of the melodies and the social context in which the fiddle existed in Irish traditional music, many of these developments were ignored for many years after their introduction: The dance tunes that were played on the fiddle rarely reached above the notes covered in first position (that is the low G to the upper B") therefore the extended fingerboards and chin rest were considered unnecessary. Many players of traditional music today still play without chin and shoulder rests. Also the fiddle required great skill in making, so the peasantry, amongst whom the instrument was popular, did not have the skill to modify their instruments, nor could they afford to buy new ones.

    The afore-mentioned John Neal is the first recorded Irish fiddle maker. Along with his brother, William, he began making fiddles in Dublin in the 1720s. However, there is some debate about how the instrument travelled to Ireland. The most common theory is that fiddles, along with reels, were brought into the country by the Ulster-Scots. According to, the fiddle had been an established instrument in Scottish traditional music since the seventeenth century and was thought to have been introduced by the crusaders.

    The fiddle was an ideal instrument for traditional Irish music, especially for the dance tunes. It broadened the horizons of traditional music, in terms of ornamentation and melodic variations: there was scope for ornamentation with both the fingers and the bow, and, as the notes were not fixed in pitch, as they were on the whistles and harps, there was a greater melodic range available to the players. " The characteristic features of Irish dance tunes make the fiddle a very suitable instrument. Cuts and rolls are easily executed, triplets can be bowed legato or singly to get the same effects as the pipes. " (Vallely 1999, pg 129) I feel that this statement is slightly controversial in that, as previously stated in the same book, the fiddle existed in traditional Irish music before the pipes. Did the single-bowed triplet mentioned here develop after the introduction of the pipes or was it already in existence? Also previously stated in the same book is the fact that much Irish music was composed on the fiddle. So was the easy execution of triplets and rolls an advantage of the fiddle and a reason for its popularity, or were these techniques developed on the instrument, meaning it's popularity was as a result of something else? One school of thought states that these ornamentation techniques were developed on the tin whistle and then transferred across to the fiddle, but that is unlikely, since the earliest tin-plate whistles appeared in Britain only from 1825 and were even later arriving in Ireland.

    Although the wooden fiddle was long established and readily available in Ireland by the 1900s, a new style of fiddle was adopted by the travelling community and the peasantry: the tin fiddle. This was most popular in Donegal as it was very cheap to construct, was quieter than its wooden counterpart and very easy to mend. This was an important factor when one considers that in remote areas such as Donegal, access to those with the expert knowledge and skill needed to repair a timber instrument would have been limited. The properties also made it the perfect instrument for the children and learners in the travelling and peasant communities where houses were small and a loud timber instrument at night amongst large families and close neighbours would have been objectionable. Many of the great travelling fiddlers played these instruments, such as the Dohertys and their in-laws, the McConnells. Indeed Johnny Doherty was one of the most influential fiddlers in Donegal in the last century. He came from a family of tin smiths, whose " skill in working with thin-gauge sheet metal – typically tinplate – in times of high demand for fiddles was recruited for fiddle construction too. A skilled maker could turn out a fiddle body in two hours, to it was fixed either a home-made neck and fingerboard, or more commonly, a discarded neck from a damaged timber fiddle, with F-hole chiselled in the belly. " (Vallely 1999, pg 127)

    The tin fiddle was also adopted by sailors and those who emigrated from Ireland as it was able to withstand the horrendous conditions on ships. Many people attribute the dispersion of Irish music in part to this usage of tin fiddles. Some tin fiddles are still produced today in Donegal, but these levels of production do not even come close to matching those of the early twentieth century. Many of the tin fiddles made by the Doherty, McConnell and Irwin families still survive and are held in revere by their owners. Also still in existence is a single brass fiddle, often seen to be the icon of Donegal fiddle tradition, but which was probably popular right across the island.

    Similar in construction to the tin fiddle, the Stroh or phono fiddle was used until 1926 in wax cylinder recordings. Invented by Augustus Stroh, this metal fiddle had its own acoustic horn and was designed to provide a sharper sound for recordings. However, as discs overtook the wax cylinder recordings, the production of Stroh fiddles ceased, and today they are a rarity.

    Thanks to Patricia Clark with her source "The Companion to Irish Traditional Music"

    Some musical instruments you might hear at an Irish session today


    Pronounced “bow-rawn,” this is known as the heartbeat of trad music for good reason. This large drum is covered with stretched animal skin and struck with a stick (traditionally made from double-ended knucklebone) to provide our music with a pulsating beat that turns listeners into dancers with ease.

    Some speculate that the instrument served a double purpose as a husk sifter and grain tray. We prefer it as a drum. For a taster of what the bodhrán has to offer, re-watch Riverdance for the thousandth time.

    Uilleann pipes

    These ancient pipes have been mesmerising listeners with their haunting tones since the 5th Century. A popular instrument, the uilleann pipes (meaning “pipes of the elbow” because of their pump-operated bellows) take years to master.

    It was two County Louth brothers, William and Charles Taylor, who developed our most modern version after emigrating with the instrument from post-Famine Ireland to the United States.

    Today, though, Belfast-man John McSherry is our proudest piper and a true master. To imagine how the Ulster-Scot-influenced pipes sound, think Scottish bagpipes but better!

    Celtic Harp

    You know an instrument has reached iconic status when it has appeared on a national flag, Euro coins and gets reimagined as a Dublin bridge. The Celtic harp is that very instrument. Variations of the triangular, gut-stringed-instrument have been plucked in Ireland since as long ago as the 10th Century, when nomadic harpists would travel around Ireland performing songs for food or a warm bed.

    In 1792, the Belfast Harp Festival saw the best players competing for prizes. And today, the ornate and ancient Brian Boru harp can be viewed in Trinity College in Dublin.

    Sunday, May 6, 2018

    Five Ancient Musical Instruments from Ireland

    The Wicklow Pipes, c. 2200-2000 BC

    In 2003 a remarkable artefact was recovered during an archaeological excavation carried out by Bernice Molly at Greystones, Co. Wicklow. It consists of six carefully worked wooden pipes, which represent the world’s oldest surviving wooden musical instrument.

    They were discovered in a waterlogged trough belonging to an Early Bronze Age burnt mound (c. 2120-2085 BC). Fashioned out of yew wood, the pipes were found lying side by side, in descending order. They ranged in size from 57cm to 29 cm long, although not all were complete. Internally they had been hollowed out, with the resultant internal diameters being approximately 2 cm across. However, there was no evidence for finger holes.

    Instead, the ends of some of the pipes had been worked to a stepped taper, suggesting that this end was originally contained within an organic fitting. This may indicate that the pipes formed part of a composite wind instrument, such as an organ fed by a bag, or else a complex pan-pipe like device.

    Two Late Bronze Age Horns from Co. Antrim,   900-600 BC

    These two Late Bronze Age horns were discovered in bogs located in Drumbest, Co. Antrim and Derrynane, Co. Kerry. Made from bronze they were originally cast in clay moulds. They represent sophisticated pieces of early metal-working and were undoubtedly valuable items, whose deposition in a bog may represent ritual activity.

    During the Late Bronze Age there were two main types of horn Ireland. One blown from the end and the other from a side mouthpiece, with both types being illustrated above. In general, the end-blown horns are mainly found in the southwest of the country, while the side-blown horns have a more even distribution.

    They appear to have been  popular instruments and to-date over 122 have been discovered in Ireland (Coles 1967, 117). Amazingly, this accounts for over half the total number of Bronze Age horns that have so far been found in Europe and the Middle East (after Wallace 2000, 25).

    When the horns were blown they probably made a noise similar to a didgeridoo.

    Crotals/Rattles from Dowris, Co. Offaly,         900-600BC

    These distinctive bronze balls/pendants formed part of huge Late Bronze Age hoard which was uncovered at  Dowris in Co. Offaly during the mid-19th century. Hollow-cast and pear-shaped they typically contain a loose piece of bronze or stone inside, which rattles when the pendants are shook. This may indicate that they represent a rather simple form of musical instrument.

    Known as crotals, from the Latin crotalum, meaning rattle, the pendants are generally about 12 cm long and can weigh up to 270 grams. They have a loop at one end, indicating that they were probably suspended, although they appear to have been too heavy for attachment to normal clothing. A uniquely Irish artefact, crotals are not recorded from outside of the island.

    The Loughnashade Trumpet, Co. Armagh,                    c. 100 BC 

    The magnificent Loughnashade trumpet is one of the finest surviving horns of the European Iron Age. It was discovered during drainage works at the site of a former lake (Loughnashade) in Co. Armagh. Alongside it were three other horns, which have since been lost, and a collection of human skulls and bones. This array of finds is suggestive of ritual deposition and it is likely that the lake was a site of some importance for the inhabitants of the nearby royal site at Eamhain Macha/Navan Fort.
    Dating from circa the  1st century BC, the trumpet measures  1.86 m in length and is made from curved and rivetted sheets of bronze.  The decorative flange at the end  of the instrument is covered in an abstract floral design which is executed in repousse ornamentation. It has been suggested that originally there may have been a second, attached stem-piece that would have lengthened the trumpet and given it an overall S-shaped profile (O’Dwyer 1998).

    The original function of the trumpet is uncertain but it may have been used during special ceremonies or possibly even warfare. There are numerous classical accounts which detail how the Gauls and other continental Celtic tribes used similar bronze trumpets as war-horns. For example in c. 60-30 BC the Greek historian, Diodurus Siculus wrote this description,  ‘their trumpets again are of a peculiar barbarian kin, they blow into them and produce a harsh sound which suits the tumult of war’.

    The Brian Boru Harp, c. 15th century AD

    Also known as the  Trinity Harp, this instrument is one of Ireland’s national symbols. Its image has been used on Irish coinage and state insignia and it it was also the model for the famous Guinness logo. According to to the 18th century antiquarian, Charles Vallancey, the harp was once owned by Brian Boru. However, this is highly unlikely and instead it was probably constructed in the 15th century.

    The harp is decorated with intricate carvings and originally contained fittings for twenty nine strings, with an additional 30th fitting added over the course of its life. The person who commissioned the harp is unknown, although it does bear the O’Neill coat of arms, suggesting that this family once owned it.

    The "Irish Session"

    Some people are under the impression that Irish music sessions are a type of traditional event. However, authorities such as Breandan Breathnach and others agree that Irish music as played traditionally was a solo, unaccompanied musical form. Furthermore, the artistry of the music depends for a large extent on the variation and ornamentation of the basic tune by the performer—subtleties which are necessarily lost when there is more than one performer.

    In Cape Breton, which has probably the most conservative tradition in Gaelic music, it was unheard of until quite recently to have more than one fiddler playing at a time. To play while another person was playing would have been considered just as rude as talking while another person was talking.

    The only circumstance in which it was common to have more than one person playing at a time was at dances. The lack of affordable PA systems in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made it necessary to have multiple performers so that the music would be audible.

    From the reports of some of the early collectors, it appears that many professional musicians avoided performing in the presence of other musicians for fear that their tunes would be stolen. The stock of tunes in a given area may have been quite small, and knowing a tune that others didn't could be a distinct advantage. Many of the old musicians were extremely jealous of each other, and would carry their special tunes to the grave rather than teach them to anyone other than possibly a son or extremely well-loved pupil (with instructions not to perform them during the teacher's lifetime).
    Some of the professionals were more generous, however, and some schools of playing can be traced back to particular founders.

    While there were of course many talented amateur musicians, traditionally the best musicians were usually professional or at least semi-professional. However, being a professional musician in the early 19th century was a career rather similar to being a professional beggar. They often played for tips at cattle fairs, horse races, etc.

    A number of professional musicians in the old style kept going well into the 20th century. For example, Johnny Doherty

    and Padraig O'Keeffe

    made their livelihood from music without giving concerts until late in their lives, if at all (aside from being taped and played on the radio).

    The old harpers were almost all professionals, but they were usually maintained by the old aristocratic families. This form of patronage died out around the middle to late 18th century.
    In Scotland professional musicians adopted the modern style of giving concerts, going on tour, etc. around the middle 18th century, just as the old patronage system died out. The musician/beggar lifestyle existed as well—no doubt it depended on your class origins.

    Amateurs were much more likely to play in sessions than professionals, lacking the jealousy caused by having to depend on your store of tunes for your bread and butter, and lacking the artistry to perform elegant variations. Since such professional musicians as emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland in the 19th century tended to gravitate towards stage performance (since the opportunities for a traditional musical lifestyle and prejudices against lower-class performers appearing on stage were both absent), it may well be that the establishment of the session as the standard venue for the performance of Irish music was an American innovation.

    It is certain that the growth of sessions has changed the form of Irish music. The amount of variation of the tunes has decreased radically and the old descriptive pieces of music have almost totally died out.

    The lifestyle in which Irish music originated is almost totally gone, and before we become too nostalgic about it we should remember that it was a life of hard physical labor, grinding poverty, poor health and early death. The fact that the music is changing is an indication that it is still alive and has not become a museum piece. This is not the first time that the music has changed in order to adapt to changing social structures, by any means.

    Irish bardic poetry on the subject of harps and harpers.

    This is a selection of Irish bardic poetry on the subject of harps and harpers. The earliest of these come from a collection of Irish poems which were researched and translated by the great Gaelic scholar Osborn Bergin in the period 1918-1926.

    Bergin states:
    By Bardic Poetry I mean the writings of poets trained in the Bardic Schools as they existed in Ireland and the Gaelic parts of Scotland down to about the middle of the seventeenth century. In Scotland, indeed, they lingered on till the eighteenth century. At what time they were founded we don't know, for the Bardic order existed in prehistoric times, and their position in society is well established in the earliest tradition. You will understand that the subject is a vast one, but I mean to deal only with a small portion of it—the poetry of the later Bardic schools from about the thirteenth century to the close—that is to say, compositions of the period known as Later Middle Irish and Early Modern Irish."
    Osborn Bergin
    Irish Bardic PoetryDolmen Press, 1970
    p. 3

    The language of the poems is a somewhat artificial poetic Gaelic which remained almost unchanged over 500 years, although the spoken language continued to evolve in different areas. Hence, by the end of the period people complained that the poets were difficult to understand. It also means that the poetry can not be identified by region or date on stylistic grounds. Most of the words will be recognizable to the student of modern Irish, although the grammar is different enough that translation requires a specialist in the subject.

    The structure of the poems follows a precise formal structure based on one of the traditional syllabic metres. These are very polished works produced by skillful professionals in a very dignified style. The subject matter of the poems as a whole is quite wide, but I have chosen only those connected with harps. No other musical instruments are mentioned, except in one place "liric", which Bergin translates as "lyre". This may be just a synonym for harp.

    Poetry was a hereditary occupation, although training at a Bardic College for a period of about seven years was also required. The method of composing was to lie in a darkened room for an extended period of time until the poem was complete. Many have commented that this seems like a relic of some type of divination ceremony going back to pagan times.

    Some of the poems:

    The Strathspey: Scottish Precursor to the Reel

    strathspey (/stræθˈsp/) is a type of dance tune in 4
     time. It is similar to a hornpipe but slower and more stately, and contains many dot-cut 'snaps'. A so-called Scotch snap is a short note before a dotted note, which in traditional playing is generally exaggerated rhythmically for musical expression. An example of a strathspey would be the song "The Bonnie Banks O' Loch Lomond", provided it is sung staccato:
    "You'll tak the high road, and I'll tak the low road, and I'll be in Scotland afore ye."
    Other examples are Auld Lang Syne (based on Sir Alexander Don's Strathspey) and Coming through the Rye (based on an old strathspey tune called The Miller's Daughter).
    Because the strathspey rhythm has four strong beats to the bar, is played quickly (generally ranging from 108 beats per minute, for Highland Dance, up to 160 beats per minute, for step dance), and contains many dot-cut 'snaps', it is a rhythmically tense idiom. Traditionally, a strathspey will be followed by a reel, which is in 2
     with a swung rhythm, as a release of the rhythmic tension created during the strathspey.
    It has been hypothesized that strathspeys mimic the rhythms of Scottish Gaelic song.[1][2] Among traditional musicians, strathspeys are occasionally transmitted as canntaireachd, a style of singing in which various syllables stand in for traditional bagpipe ornaments.[3] 

    The dance is named after the Strathspey region of Scotland, in Moray and Badenoch and Strathspey. Strathspey refers both to the type of tune and to the type of dance usually done to it (although strathspeys are also frequently danced to pastoral airs played at the same tempo; an example of which would be the dance Autumn in Appin, danced to the tune The Hills of Lorne).[4] The strathspey is one of the dance types in Scottish country dancing. A Scottish country dance will typically consist of equal numbers of strathspeys, jigs and reels. The strathspey step is a slower and more stately version of the skip-change step used for jigs and reels. The strathspey also forms part of the musical format for competing pipe bands. Modern high grade pipe bands are required to play a march, a strathspey and a reel for competition purposes.
    The strathspey was originally conceived for the fiddle, using a peculiar bowing technique that would produce its characteristic "scotch-snap" rhythm; many newer strathspeys were written in the 18th and 19th centuries by composers such as William Marshall and James Scott Skinner, who utilised the full range of the fiddle to produce many memorable tunes. Skinner distinguished between dance tunes, which retained the staccato bowing (Laird o Drumblair), and airs which were for listening (Music of Spey). Angus Cumming produced the first collection of strathspeys to be published by a person from Strathspey. More recently, Muriel Johnstone has written some elegant piano strathspeys. These days there are at least four, some would say seven, varieties: the bouncy schottische, the strong strathspey, the song or air strathspey, all three of which can be enjoyed for dancing, and the competition strathspey for the Great Highland Bagpipe, primarily intended as a display of virtuosity. Although band and solo competition bagpiping generally involves a complicated, heavily ornamented setting, traditional pipers often play simpler, more rhythmically driven versions.
    In the Irish tradition, strathspeys are largely relegated to the Scottish-influenced traditions of Donegal. Unlike many duple-time tune types in the Irish tradition, strathspeys are articulated with four distinct beats to the bar, rather than two. Unlike their Scottish counterparts, Irish strathspeys are played with a smoother, less-jagged bowing articulation. The Irish repertoire also gravitates to tunes with long passages of triplets.[5]
    In the New World, the Cape Breton strathspey differs from its Scottish and Irish cousins in its rhythm patterns.

    While the dot-cut snaps are fairly standard in European strathspeys, in the Cape Breton style the dotted note can come before the short note, and the snaps can come at any point in the measure. These changes allow for the rhythmic "lift" needed for the Cape Breton style of Scottish step dancing. The dot-snap variations have been described as more "wild" than in Scottish playing.[6] Cape Breton dot-snaps often follow the same pattern within any given piece of music, and adhere to a local pattern shared among the community of Cape Breton-style players.[7] The same tune can be played in the Scottish and Cape Breton styles, but will sound different.

    The Dance Music of the Middle Ages - Europe

    The middle ages covers a period of a thousand years – and yet much of its music-making is a mystery to us. We’re not completely in the dark...