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How early is early music? What qualities do our instruments have that relate to the early cultural history of humanity?
(a clay-tablet bas-relief from the city of Uruk, c. 2500 BCE)
Perhaps you might have asked those questions in the past, as we have all surely wondered what music might correspond with the earliest images in friezes and bas reliefs from Ur or Egypt. It is fascinating to wonder what was played on the ancient harps and lutes; what were the songs and instruments of the earliest civilizations? The lute and the keyboard, being "chordophones" in the Curt Sachs terminology, have much to do with this distant history.
(a tempera reproduction of Egyptian 18th dynasty musicians jamming with harp, lute, double shawm and lyre, implying a drone and modal melodic structure)
Many readers will know the Roman version of the Apollonian myth, that Orpheus picks up a turtle shell or 'testudo' from the beach, and it becomes his accompaniment for the serenade of Euridyce. Later, he cheats Death by crossing the river Styx to rescue her. His aura of invulnerability, partly derived from his bardic power, protects him for a time from the inevitable.
This seemingly absurd plot contains the grain of truth. The lute is indeed a metamorphic form of the turtle's shell. This testudo has been around since at least 2500 BC, dating back iconographically to ancient Sumerian and Persian friezes depicting round and flat-backed lutes and citterns.
As a sometime lecture-demonstrator of the playing and building of both period guitars and lutes, and as a luthier, I have had to consider the idea from the layman's point of view. How shall I show thousands of years of musical and instrumental evolution simply and effectively to an audience?
For most people, example is the most immediate image of history. On those frequent occasions when I have had to demonstrate the origins of the lute to an audience, out of my little bag I pull an instrument that my mother bought from a Moroccan boy in the 70's, while in North Africa touring ruins. It is a "gembrae", a Moroccan/Algerian folk instrument, which is a small rebec (bowed or plucked) with three strings, made from a sea-turtle shell about 8 cm. long , with a calf-skin stretched over its former belly, and what looks like a length of broom handle coming out of its former head hole. A simple bridge sits on the skin; the strings are held by pegs carved with a pen-knife.. Then I pull out a lute. Same instrument, I exclaim, with a seraphic smile and a wink.
(the turtle-shell gembrae, and 18th c. mandoras by Clive Titmuss from the EMS collection)
Animal parts - jaw-bones, teeth, femurs, skins, fur, feathers and of course glue, have been a part of musical instruments since at least paleolithic prehistory. I would divide lutherie into two broad periods, historic and pre-historic.
Historic instruments are metamorphic forms built up from their original animal-based prehistoric precursors, usually made from workable materials such as wood, metal, glass, and even ceramics, to suggest or imitate their neolithic ancestors. They would have been used in the ancient civilized cultures characterized by stable government, a literary or bardic tradition, agriculture, trade, organized religion, writing and mathematics. There would have been a very long period of transition, from which remnants such as my rebec and many other examples, remain today.
(Vir armatus or armed man, from a medieval treatise showing early awarness of weapon and stringed instrument relationship)
The wings and decorative finials of modern and baroque guitars (seen in our masthead) and lute bridges are not only glueing area, they are atavisms that represent the horns of the lyre or kithara. The solid-body electric guitar also has horn-forms, and the traditional f-holes of the violin are lyre-symbols as well. To get away from guitars, the entire brass family descends from horns, and woodwinds come from bone flutes of the neolithic period. Keyboards are elaborate "kitharae" originally with bone or ivory-covered keys.
(19th c. lyre-guitar, Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum)
The forms are not only symbolic of animal parts, but also the weapons used to kill them. Musical instruments are loaded with the baggage of weapon symbolism. The bow becomes, with its gourd or skull or sac, a resonator. The arrow is its actuator. The animal's skin is overlayed. Much later the string (intestine) is mounted on a fingerboard and a broom-handle neck, as with my rebec example. Musical instruments in many cases are swords beaten symbolically into ploughshares.
This raises the symbolic form from merely analagous to figurative, and then to the realm of the ceremonial. As vectors of archetypal symbolism, musical instruments evoke the hunt, the killing of the prey, its dissection and sharing, and finally its apotheosis. The invocation of the muse in the bardic tradition is a ceremonial allusion to the hunt, continued survival, and the odyssey of the journey - the memory of tribal effort to gather food and share it. Many pre-Classical musical masterpieces reflect the wholeness of this hunting and sharing allusion directly.
If you think this is farfetched, you have only to look for examples. Let's take Bach's sixth cello suite. The prelude is a free-form Italian concerto based on hunting-horn calls cunningly syncopated and worked into an extended modulation scheme. (See the Foreword to this work among my tablatures on the website). Before the recapitulation there is a chase scene, echoes of exchanged hunting calls, and a final resolution in which descending motion depicts the succesful conclusion. The Gavotte contains bagpipe (bladder and bone flute) references, with its drone and folk melody. Back to town, the Gigue is a clog-dance or a "Geigentanz" (fiddle tune). Bach filled the Brandenburg concerti, and even the Cantatas and Passions, with such imagery.
Allegory is never confined to literature and painting, it appears in all of the arts. Later, in the music of the symphony orchestra, military and nationalistic motives abound, all borrowed from the hunting and "cassation" (outdoor string and woodwind) music of the 18th c. Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven are particularly rich in this musical imagery, which eventually grew to include nationalism in music. The hunting allegory came to have military significance.
Rock music is full of of such hunting and prey references, only the "prey" may be human. It is a tribal dance, depending on drums and rhythm (skins struck by bone). It is a celebration of hunting, mating and feasting. Don't multinational fast-food and soft drink conglomerates use this symbolism to sell their products using images and music?
Instruments are ceremonial objects, and like the talking stick or the conch they compel us to listen to the tales of battles won and lost, animals and fish caught, celebrated and told from the hunters' and combatants' point of view.
When I put a parchment (sheepskin) rose in a baroque guitar and attach its leather moustaches, make its bone or ivory nut, the tooth of the serpent, and string it with gut and play it in public, I am carrying out a ceremonial imperative as old as homo sapiens, at least half a million years.
More Primitive Instruments: The Monochord
One of the earliest instruments which was used to teach fundamental theoretical principles of singing, acoustics and scale division, was the monochord. Two early treatises which deal with it specifically are those of Odo of Cluny, who became head of the famous abbey in 927. Its use as a pedagogical tool attracted my attention when I wished to teach the derivation of the string divisions to students as an adjunct to the study of the guitar and lute. The creation of a simple kit provided an opportunity to teach simple lutherie as well as basic musical physics.
Based on Odo's description and one I had seen, I devised a simple project of assembly of a simple monochord made from red cedar panelling with the tougues and grooves removed, a couple of blocks at each end, a couple of triangular bridges, a peg, a nail, and a guitar steel e string. Odo's monochord had only two bridges, but I decided that a "fretted" monochord could have moveable bridge, slightly higher than the two on the ends, which would act like a guitar fret, giving clear points which would result in the scale tones.
(monochord by Kyle Poirier)
Not only does the monochord provide an unbeatable example of the basic structure of fretted instruments, but by extension, keyboards as well. It also demonstrates the acoustical derivation of the scale tones in a way that I had never, in all my years of playing and endlessly plucking strings an listening to the ethereal overtones, suspected. I had assumed that monochords worked in one way, and being simple and direct, had never realized that they work in quite another when fretted with a third bridge.
When the string is plucked and the fretting bridge is placed at say, the halfway point precisely, then both halves of the string resonate on a single pitch, one octave higher. Obvious, but as fretted instrument players we never think about the dead portion of the string when playing other intervals. When the string division are simple whole number multiples or fractions, 2/3, 3/4, 4/5, the other portion of the string can be plucked as well, and it to resonates in perfect beatless harmony with its larger section on the other side of the fretting bridge, demonstrating the interval relationship of length with enormous clarity. This happens naturally when we pluck harmonics, but the clarity of sound on the monochord is ethereal.
When I discovered this, I felt as if an enormous hand had come and pushed me back in time. It was truly a "eureka" moment. The portions of the string can be demonstrated to be "enharmonic" at dozens of points. For weeks I was bothering perfect strangers with this priceless information, causing them to look at me very strangely as I maniacally plucked at my monochord with a crow quill on both sides of the bridge, hopping up and down with glee.
This is the basis of the Pythagorean scale, the intervals of just intonation, all demonstrated like magic on a box with a single string. When this instrument has been used in the prescence of children, who cannot resist models and working toys, a light comes into their eyes which can only be described as wonderful. This observation is common to the little turtle lute I mentioned above, and the mandora. No wonder Odo wrote "How can it be true that a string teaches more than a man? --A man sins as he will or can, but the string is divided with such art by very learned men, using the [aforesaid directions], that if it is diligently observed or considered, it cannot mislead."
(Further reading: A clear account of the monochord's acoustical physics may be easily found in the Harvard Dictionary of Music. The Harvard Brief Dictionary, intended for high school level, was the clearest and simplest explanation)
The restoration has made big strides in the past month, with the completion of the old finish being removed (thick enough for three pianos), the re-finishing and the beginning of the restringing. We'll document the finishing in a subsequent edition of "As the Bechstein Turns", but for now here are some pictures of the frame being fitted, the stringing and the tools used for it, and the restoration of the brass hardware.
A minor setback (not a setback in A minor, that would be the wrong key, it should be C minor...) in the stringing occurred when it was found that the company (who shall remain nameless) that hand-makes the bass strings had shortened the copper overspun coils, resulting in the possibility of inharmonious resonances in the non-speaking length of the string. We all know how upsetting that can be. But new ones were ordered and the project was not significantly retarded.
We are nearing the finished product...Really the only problem comes when the piano is moved from the restorer's shop, and Susan has to be stopped from turning green. She simply cannot stand to see heavy keyboard instruments moved as if they were furniture. A B-flat minor moment, for certain!
(Bechstein pictures from Marinus van Prattenburg's shop taken by the restorer himself)
[bas-relief, Egyptian musicians and bowman illustrations from "Man and His Music", Davis and Menuhin, Methuen 1979]
[gembrae, monochord, mandoras pictures by Kyle Poirier]
Questions or comments or, If you want a technical drawing of the monochord, e-mail us at email@example.com.
Stay tuned for a new look for our site, free sample downloads, new tablatures and more newsletters. Next month: How fast is fast in music of the 18th c.?
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