Tuesday, September 1, 2009


A nyckelharpa (literally "key harp”) is a string instrument. Its keys are attached to tangents which, when the key is depressed, serve as frets to change the pitch of the string. The nyckelharpa is more closely related to the hurdy gurdy than the fiddle. It is traditionally played with a strap around the neck, and stabilized by the right arm.
The oldest depiction of the nyckelharpa is a relief from about 1350 near one of the gates to Källunge church on Gotland showing two fiddles – presumingly nyckelharpor of European origin. Murals from 1450-1550 show angels playing the nyckelharpa, which is seen as evidence that the instrument was well-regarded.

The Swedish province of Uppland has been a stronghold for nyckelharpa music since the late 16th century, and during the 16th and 17th centuries, the ’Schlüsselfidel’ was known in Germany. Nowadays the nyckelharpa is best known in Sweden but is also used to play medieval music all over the world.

The Viol

The viol (also called viola da gamba and lira da gamba) is any one of a family of bowed, fretted, stringed musical instruments developed in the 1400s and used primarily in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The family is related to and descends primarily from the Spanish vihuela(a guitarlike plucked string instrument) and the lira, a bowed instrument developed in the Byzantine Empire in the 9th century.
Viols most commonly had six strings, although many 16th-century instruments had five or even four strings. Viols were (and are) strung with low-tension gut strings, unlike the steel strings used by members of the modern violin family. Gut strings produce a sonority far different from steel, the former generally described as softer and sweeter.
Viols are fretted in a manner similar to early guitars or lutes, by means of movable wrapped-around and tied-on gut frets. Unlike members of the violin family, which are tuned in fifths, viols are usually tuned in fourths with a major third in the middle, mirroring the tuning employed on the vihuela de mano and lute during the 16th century and similar to that of the modern six-string guitar. Alternate tunings (called scordatura) were often employed, particularly in the solo lyra viol style of playing, which also made use of many techniques such as chords and pizzicato, not generally used in consort playing. There is a vast repertoire of viol music, some by well-known composers such as Marin Marais, and much by anonymous ones.
Much viol music predates the adoption of equal temperament tuning by musicians. The movable nature of the tied-on frets permits the viol player to make adjustments to the tempering of the instrument, and some players and consorts adopt meantone temperaments, which are arguably more suited to Renaissance music. There are several recognized fretting schemes in which the frets are spaced unevenly in order to give "better-sounding" chords in a limited number of keys. In some of these schemes, the two strands of gut that comprise the fret are separated so that the player can finger a slightly sharper or flatter version of a note to suit different circumstances.

The Bagpipe

It is likely that the Scottish highlanders developed the bagpipe at a very early date, independently of other forms of pipes (e.g. Roman). Illustrations and carvings from as early as the 14th century show an instrument that we can clearly recognise as a true bagpipe. It often had only a single drone. The smallpipes, a variety of bagpipe, are a true Scottish folk instrument and their history can be traced well back into medieval times. They are also known as ‘parlour’ or ‘fireside’ pipes as they are suitable for indoor playing.
Unlike the well-known highland bagpipes, or war pipes, the Scottish smallpipes were never adopted by the army and so were not banned by the English authorities at the time of the Jacobite rebellion in the 1740s. Still, their use gradually declined until, by the mid-1970s, they were almost extinct. However, the Scottish smallpipes have gone through a huge revival in the last ten to fifteen years. There are now many configurations of smallpipes available in a range of keys.
This instrument used by Rare Byrds was made by a local craftsman, Yuri Terenyi, and the scale/fingering is that of the Scottish instrument. However, there are two differences:
the configuration of drone and chanter parallel comes from the now-extinct French Chabrette smallpipes and allows all of the sound to be projected forwards;
there are note extensions that allow for the playing of some medieval and renaissance music.

The Spinet

The spinet is closely related to the harpsichord, both in construction and sound; it is smaller, cheaper to build and is limited to a single keyboard and one string per note.
The oldest surviving spinets are Italian, from around 1610. The 'bentside spinet' seems to have been developed by the Italian Girolamo Zenti in the 1630s. It became popular throughout Europe and especially in England, where from about the 1680s it rapidly replaced the larger, rectangular (and 'plummier' sounding) virginals.
The instrument used by Rare Byrds is based on one built in 1770 by the Belgian Albertus Delin; the original is in the Brussels Museum. It has been assembled from a kitset designed and made by Marc Ducornet of The Paris Workshop.
The case, like the original, is of poplar, sealed with linseed oil. The keys are covered in maple, with the sharps and flats in cherry wood. The 3mm-thick soundboard is spruce, sealed with shellac. Oak and beech are used where hardwoods are necessary.
The strings are of red brass, yellow brass and very mild steel coated with tin; they replicate the types of string traditionally used. Each string is plucked by a tiny 'plectrum' made of a very precisely shaped piece of special plastic (originally the quill of a crow's feather was used). The plectrum sits in the 'tongue' of a wooden 'jack', which is pushed up when a key is depressed by a finger.
The instrument is currently tuned to a 'temperament' believed by some scholars to have been that normally used by J S Bach.

The Recorder

The recorder is a kind of duct flute (a wind instrument with a built-in windway). Duct flutes are relatively simple instruments to make and play, and examples can be found depicted in European art from the 11th century. These were often made from a single piece of bone or wood, and most have between three and five fingerholes. The earliest surviving examples of recorders date from the 14th century, and again, the number of fingerholes vary. By the late 15th century, the recorder had six finger holes and a thumbhole. Extra holes were gradually added: in Renaissance France, the instrument was called flute a neuf trous (‘flute with nine holes’). The term ‘recorder’ is English.
By the Renaissance the recorder was often played in consorts of various sizes rather than as a solo instrument and was popular in court circles. A quartet of recorder players dressed as wolves performed at the marriage of Charles the Bold to Margaret of York in 1468, and Henry VIII of England was an avid collector of sets of recorders (he owned many cased sets of 4-9 instruments). The fifteenth-century Flemish painting Mary Queen of Heaven shows three angels playing soprano, alto and tenor recorders. Polyphonic vocal music of this period was frequently adapted for recorder consort.
The instrument was popular with amateur groups throughout the 16th and 17th centuries (Samuel Pepys resolved to learn the recorder, “the sound of it being, of all sounds in the world, most pleasing to me”). In the 18th century, the recorder was an established part of the orchestra and was scored for by Bach and Handel. Yet at this time, it was supplanted by the transverse flute which has better dynamic range and pitch control, and the recorder largely vanished from use.
It was revived in the early twentieth century by early music pioneer Arnold Dolmetsch who made his own recorders in order to play authentic period music. The instrument underwent many improvements, and mass production of plastic recorders enabled it to be widely adopted as a teaching instrument in schools throughout the Western world. Modern masters of the recorder have included Franz Bruggen, David Munrow, Michaela Petrie, Marion Verbruggen and Genevieve Lacey.