Musical instruments in Medieval Mediterranean Europe (12th – 13th centuries)

The Codex Callixtinus is a famous twelfth century guide book, song book,  and manual to the pilgrimage at Santiago de Compostela.  Situated on the west coast of the Iberian peninsula, Compostela was one of the most sacred destinations of the Christian Middle Ages. A passage from this precious book (cited in Bec, 1992) describes how the pilgrims to that place made music:Medieval Instruments

Alii citharus psallunt, alii liris,  alii tympanis, alii tibiis, alii fistulis, alii tubis, alii sambucis, alii violis, alii rotis britannicis vel gallicis, alii psateriis, alii diversis generibus musicorum cantando vigilant.

Which we may translate (with allowances made for the ambiguities of  instrumental terminology in medieval Latin):

Some play the  gittern  other the lyre, others percussion, others the flute, others the fistula, others the trumpet, others the hurdy gurdy, others the fiddle, others the crwth,  English or French, others the psaltery; others pass the night singing to diverse sorts of [instrumental] music.

Typically, as we examine relevant old sources,  we are dealing with ambiguity and imprecision — what was the fistula?    What were the precise forms of the other instruments designated? None survive from this early period. Nonetheless,  the word-picture is evocative,  and,  unlike the many, quasi-symbolic  instrumental “series” of medieval literature and visual art,  just possibly a description of historical reality.  Here,  as in other tangible records from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries — sculpture,  painting, illumination,  poetic narrative,  scholarly treatise — we get the sense of intense musical activity,  and of delectation in a wide variety of instrumental sounds and colors.

The mystery remains largely unsolved, however,  as to exactly what music or musics these many medieval instrumentalists performed upon their instruments.  While we have many manuscripts of notated music from this period,  the repertoires notated are destined for singing. There are a handful of exceptions:   some dances, several polyphonic* pieces,  and a few songs clearly derived from dance tunes. These works are often delightful to the ear, and enormously helpful to the historian.   But the record is still much to sparse and incomplete. We can safely assume that the instrumental music of the Middle Ages was almost entirely improvised,  and has sadly been lost forever.  From the surviving compositions,  from pictorial evidence,  and from literary descriptions,  we know that instrumentalists performed dances and accompanied various minstrel and trained- animal “turns”; they improvised preludes and interludes; they almost certainly adapted vocal music for instrumental performance;  and, in some kinds of vernacular repertoire,  such as the Occitan* troubador* canso* and the Iberian cantiga*,  as well as in other non-notated genres, they were able to provide accompaniments to the voice.

Dealing with every musical instrument of the Middle Ages is clearly impossible within a shortly article.  We shall focus here on the “courtly” instruments associated with vernacular medieval song and narrative.  These are in the main string instruments,  plucked and bowed – harps*,  lutes*, psalteries*, and (for the early Middle Ages) hurdy gurdies*.  The wind instruments such as flutes*,  shawms*,  and trumpets* generally have a more rustic,  folk-oriented, or outdoor context; an exception to this rule of thumb concerning winds is perhaps the portative organ*.  The favorable prejudice towards softer instruments as a vehicle for refined musical expression,  still very much in evidence today,  is typically medieval as well.

Bowed string instruments are ubiquitous in medieval civilization. The use of the bow to set taut strings vibrating  is not documented in pre-medieval antiquity, and is probably a contribution of Byzantine or Arabic civilization to the world’s musical culture;  Arab theorists from the tenth century forward discuss its role[1].  In Europe, the combination of a bow with a flat bridge is not unusual  in depictions of medieval string instruments, and we note the occasional presence of a separate bourdon* (drone) string.  All these factors  indicate that,  besides single note playing,  the sustained sound thus produced could easily be used across several strings at once, to produce drones or some sort of polyphony.   Besides a certain constitutive unity in European musical thought, there were doubtless many techniques and styles of fiddle playing.  The modern day reconstitutions by early music ensembles of medieval instrumental practice,  including strings and other instruments as well,  are very largely hypothetical.

The medieval fiddle (Occitan* and Galician* viola*; old French vièle* or vielle*) had many morphologocal variants and many possible tunings. These bowed instruments,  liked the plucked harp and lute, had an association with courtly civilization and refined music making.  In the art music of the Mediterranean middle ages,  the viola is prominently associated with the poetry and singing of the troubadours, and is in fact the only instrument to be securely documented as a regular part of the troubadour’s art. There are some mentions of Occitan fiddle/viola players working or accompanying in pairs, but the prevailing ethos of troubadour song is not ensemble oriented.  Rather it is soloistic,  comparable perhaps to that of the solo chanson singers and balladeer entertainers of the twentieth century who accompanied their vocal renditions on the guitar.

Bowed string instruments are important in medieval Spain. A viola-playing minstrel is the subject of a cantiga (number 8) in the monumental collection of King Alfonso X.

One of the four extant Cantigas manuscripts contains a justly famous and extensive series of miniatures showing all sorts of musical instruments and their performers.  The fiddle/viola is prominent among these, as is the pear or almond shaped string instrument called rebab* in Arabic, rabé  in Spanish,  rebec* in French and English.  Among the other European names for this type of instrument are lira and gigue.   The rebec is no longer in use in modern European art music,  but it continues in North Africa; it was traditionally the central or lead instrument in Arabo-Andalusian* ensembles of Morocco, although it is now losing ground to the violin (this instrument played,  however, vertically, rebab style). In medieval European musical culture the rebec was often associated with popular or rustic music-making.

We also see in one of the Cantigas miniatures a “wheel fiddle”,  the French vielle à roue or chifonie, Italian/Galician sambuca, Latin symphonia,  English hurdy-gurdy.  This instrument,  too,  has a Byzantine and/or Islamic origin. In later centuries the hurdy-gurdy became associated with country life and the lowest forms of minstrelsy; but in early medieval Europe it was an important teaching and performing tool of the Church.  On the famous sculpted portico of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela,  we see two elders jointly playing an oversized hurdy-gurdy or organistrum.  Like the flat-bridged bowed fiddle,  which is its closest relative in the instrumentarium,  the hurdy-gurdy can play more than one note at the same time,  including sustained drones.

Literary descriptions sometimes use the word vielle indiscriminately, so that we do not always know whether the instrument referred to in a given text is the bowed fiddle or the hurdy gurdy.

Like the fiddle/viola,  the medieval harp is associated with courtly/aristocratic society. The roots of harp making and playing of course go much farther back,  to ancient Mesapotamia, Egypt, and  Babylon.  Its presence is attested in Europe from the eighth century forward. Although it is associated in popular imagination with northern European and Celtic cultures, the harp has a signifigant place in the medieval Spanish instrumentarium. The Hispanic penchant for harp sound has in fact  continued across the centuries,  in Spain proper and in the Hispanic New World.  Two harp-related miniatures come from the thirteenth century manuscripts of King Alfonso:  one,  from the Cantigas,  shows two Jews playing similar frame harps.  The other,  from the Libro de Jeugos, or book of games,  depicts a chess game between Moorish nobles, one of whom is flanked by a veiled  concubine or wife playing a vertical angled harp.  Harps also figure in medieval Italian iconography,  and there is a harp-playing minstrel illumination in a troubadour manuscript.

An important instrumental family  in medieval Spain,  to judge from the five different sizes and shapes shown in the Cantigas miniatures,  was the zither group. Zither playing angels are also frequent and familiar in Italian painting of the fourteenth century. Medieval terms include for these instruments include psaltery* or canun*.  The former,  Latin-derived term (psalterium, psalterion) led to many medieval commentaries on the supposed relation between Kind David,  the musical  instrument,  and the composition of the psalms. The second term derives from the Arabic,  but the word is Greek,  meaning “rule”,  as a single string zither or monochord* was used from antiquity onwards to demonstrate the overtone series of a vibrating string.  Although it has disappeared from European art music, the psaltery/canun continues to be important in Arabic music of the mashreq*, the eastern-lying Arab countries,  and has more recently entered (or, most likely re-entered) the instrumentarium of Arabo-andalusian* instrumental ensemble.

Seven of the Cantigas miniatures show plucked string instruments of various types,  including the gittern*,  the “classic” Arabic lute  and the long-necked lute;  such plucked instruments are also evident in medieval Italian art. All the European terms for lute (Spanish laúd, French luth,  Italian liuto,  German Laute derive from the Arabic word oud*.  The instrument family can be traced back as far as Mesapotamian and ancient Egyptian times,  but the European medieval instruments are evidently closely related to their predecessors in  Arabic civilization.  The oud  was and is central to Arabic musical thought and practice.  The frequency of its depiction in the most important medieval Spanish source indicates at least some degree of prominence in that society as well.

One of the best known of the Cantigas miniatures shows two musicians performing together,  each on a long-necked lute.  One of this is dark-skinned,  in Arabic dress.  The other,  paler figure, who also appears to be singing,  is in European garb.  The image is interesting because it clearly depicts the lute in the role of accompanist to the voice.  It also points to the very likely reality of an intercultural or cross-cultural musical ethos in medieval Spain.

Once again,  we note that there is no extant performance treatise from the Middle Ages,  neither for the lute or  for any other instrument.. Many modern day European and American early-music performers who perform medieval repertoires on lutes and other plucked instruments derive their styles and techniques at least in part from current near Eastern practices.

The flute and the trumpet are mentioned in the Codex Callextinus passage cited above;  various wind  instruments are also featured in the Cantigas miniatures,  some of these probably pointing to contexts of rustic music making and ceremony rather than to courtly society.  Transverse flutes of the type portrayed in the miniature accompanying Cantiga 240 are still used in Algerian Arabo-andalusian ensembles (though not in Moroccan groups).  Like other members of the organ family, the tiny portative organ* found in the Cantigas miniatures and in Italian medieval painting was probably a monodic instrument,  played with one hand on the keyboard and the other operating the bellows. Long trumpets of the kind seen near Cantiga 320 are frequently encountered in Moroccan festivities and are sounded in the mosque during Ramadan ceremonies.

The tambourine* (tar* in Moroccan Arabic) is so important to Arabo-andalusian ensemble music that its absence in the Cantigas  miniature is a source of  surprise.  It is an ancient instrument indeed;  the onomatopaeic Hebrew word toph,  naming the instrument Miriam plays in the book of Exodus[2],   is traditionally shown as a tambourine in European painting (but see also the Arabic duff*  and the Portugese adufa, which designate frame drums). Tambourines are frequently seen in medieval Italian art.  The tubular drum or  darbouk*  depicted at the head of Cantiga 300 is played over the shoulder;  this manner of playing is still in use in Moroccan folk music. The Cantigas miniatures also depict tuned bells and cymbals,  these latter instruments, like so many others in the medieval instrumentarium, of Oriental origin.

Drums were probably in wide use in popular minstrely,  those repertoires which were generally left un-notated. The role  of percussion instruments in the performance of medieval monodic art song is unclear, however, even more so than the place of courtly instruments like the fiddle and the harp.  In Arabic classical music,  regularly recurring rhythmic cycles are an intrinsic element of music theory,  and the drum is ubiquitous in performances of secular repertoire.  In the European learned tradition,  measured rhythm begins to be discussed and notated only in the thirteenth century,  and much of the vernacular song repertory reposes,  like Gregorian chant,  on other principles of articulation and accent.  In view of the semi-mensural notation of many Cantigas,  of their popularizing melodies, and in view of the evident influence of Arabic civilization in the Iberian peninsula,  the use of tambourine and drum appears plausible and even likely for that Hispanic repertoire.  Similar evidence is  lacking to justify such additions to modern day performances of old French,  Occitan,  and Italian songs from extant written sources.

How were these various instruments used in combination?  The fiddle was the preferred accompaniment of courtly solo song. Minstrels working in pairs are documented in Occitan sources,  in the majority of the Cantigas miniatures,  and in descriptions of minstrelsy into the sixteenth century.  One famous example,  from the turn of the thirteenth century, is that of the troubadour Raimbaut de Vaquieras composing a song to an instrumental  dance tune,  an estampida*  (French estampie,  English stanpipes). The Occitan narration says Raimbaut first heard the tune played by two French minstrels,  who fiddled very well (Dos joglars de Franza… qe sabion ben violar).  Like the dos joglars de Franza,  most of the minstrel pair in the Cantigas illuminations are playing the same or similar instruments,  but there are also examples of mixity:  fiddle and gittern, lute and rebec, horn and darbouk,  pan flute and castanets/singing. Pierre Bec notes numerous literary descriptions of fiddle and harp performing together, and trios of fiddle, harp, and a wind instrument.

A medium sized instrumental ensemble,  not dissimilar in makeup to those still performing Arabo-andalusian repertoire in Morocco and Algeria,  can be seem in one of King Alfonso’s manuscripts illustrating the music of Paradise, where joy and laughter are omnipresent (Cantiga 100).  In one illumination from this group of manuscripts, dancers are seen as participants in performance.

Many poems and courtly narratives give long series of instrument names,  in the course of descriptions of splendid events — festivals and banquets.  While larger ensembles could well have been  formed on an ad hoc basis,  the large groups described in these texts may owe a great deal to romanticised exaggeration and poetic license — and in any case they often describe minstrels performing sequentially,  rather than all together.  The angel consorts of medieval art,  such as are often   found in fourteenth century Italian painting,  are a delight to the eye and the imagination.  But these may be seen as moral allegories,  and are not necessarily depictions of lived reality.


Pierre Bec,  Vièles ou violes? Editions Klinsieck, Paris, 1992

Joel Cohen, “Peirol’s Vielle” in Historical Performance,  1990,  or online at

Sibyl Marcuse,  A Survey of Musical Instruments New York, 1975

Timothy J. McGee, Medieval Instrumental Dances, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1992

Christopher Page, Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages London, 1987

Reproductions of the Cantigas instrumental miniatures are available online at


estampida, estampie
rebec, rebab
vièle, vielle

[1] A propos of bowing in the Islamic world, Dr. Walter Feldman,  in a communication to the author of this paper, mentions an old tradition of bowed instrumental practice among shamans from Kazakhstan to Baluchistan.  Dr. Feldman points out that much of what we say in this matter is of necessity based on surmise.

  • [2]Exodus 15: 20 “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel (toff) in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.”

Vernacular Monody in the Middle Ages: Canso, Cantiga, and Lauda

Vernacular MonodyThe invention of musical notation during the European Middle Ages is at once a blessing and a handicap to those who would seek to understand the place of music in society in southern Europe of those distant times.  Notation  must be counted a blessing because,  unlike the musics of other countries bordering the Mediterranean,  the sung vernacular repertoires of Spain,  southern France,  and Italy could be written down with some degree of accuracy and re-examined by future generations. It is also handicap because only a tiny portion of the living sound of that period was ever captured by musically literate scribes.  We must therefore resist the tendency to consider the (notated) part as representing the (largely un-notated) whole.  All our written sources are courtly, aristocratic, or ecclesiastical/religious in nature. These surviving manuscripts too often give an enigmatic,  fragmented and partial view of the repertoires they represent. And  we alas  know nothing of the folk and popular music of the Middle Ages,  except that which is reflected,  indirectly,  in these “learned” sources.

Secular Monody and the Troubadours

What we do possess is,  however, of the highest historical interest and musical/literary value.  The vernacular repertoire of southern France is largely secular, the work of the  troubadours*,  and deals in the main with love and man-woman relations in aristocratic circles.  Beginning in the late twelfth century, major poet-musicians such as Bernard de Ventadorn, Peire Vidal,  Marcabru, and Raimbaut de Vacqueyras — as well as a host of lesser-known figures —  forged a magnificent corpus of lyric poems in the Occitan* language.  Our own concept of “music” seems scarcely adequate to describe the aesthetics of the troubadours.  True, their poems (cansos*) were intended to be sung,  and something under three hundred melodies (only about a tenth of the total number of poems) have survived.  But for the troubadour/composer  the son or sound of a poem  included,  not just the  sung pitches, but also  the form of the strophe:  the number of lines and feet,  and the rhyme schemes.  All of these elements,  in combination,  were intended to charm the ears of the performer’s audience.

The troubadour’s art was in fact intimately tied to orality, and to live performance for a small circle of courtly initiates. The written sources of troubadour poetry and music,  many of them from “foreign” places like Northern France and Italy,  are considerably posterior to the creation of the works,  as though it were becoming imperative in later generations to capture a disappearing world of song and gesture.  A clear distinction was made,  at least in prinicple,  between the creator of a song (the trobador*, frequently a member of the aritstocracy) and the interpreter (the minstrel or joglar*,  generally recruited from the lower classes).  These categories often overlapped and blurred in lived reality,  and a  joglar of humble origin could rise n the world and achieve troubadour status through a combination of creative gift and personal charm — the romanticized medieval biography or vida of Ventadorn recounts such an odyssey.

Some of the troubadours  were reknowned as performers,  and a few (Peirol the most outstanding) were praised or criticized for their achievements as performers on the medieval fiddle (Occitan viola*).  We have no notated examples of instrumental accompaniments from the period,  and it seems likely that one or occasionally two bowed string instruments were the maximum for the accompaniment of troubadour song.  Unaccompanied singing was probably the norm in many instances.

Modern day performance,  vitally important to a fuller appreciation of this repertoire,  presents many challenges.  It is evident by now that the “classical” singing of the nineteenth and twentieth century conservatory does violence to this repertoire.  On the other hand,  the twentieth century “revival” of medieval repertoires has produced its own excesses. The  use of  wind and percussion instruments, of larger  instrumental ensembles, and of techniques self-consciously derived from Arabic or other Middle Eastern musical traditions are widely current in contemporary reconstitutions of troubadour song by numerous European and American early music ensembles.  Such approaches do not appear to be justified by the historical record, and may well distort the delicate,  text-driven ethos of these works. More important than orchestration to the “truth” of the troubadour’s art is a careful quest on the solo singer’s part, aided as required by a sensitive instrumentalist,  to unite the sense and structure and gesture of the text with the sung pitches,  in order to produce an organic whole,  motz e son.

Sacred Song: The Cantigas

King Alfonso el Sabio of Spain (1221-1284) called the musicians of his court associated with his monumental collection of sacred songs “troubadours”.  And the troubadour saber/ skill-set  is a major influence on these works.  The “bella domna” of the Occitan poet/musicians is transformed in these Cantigas* into the Virgin Mary;  metaphors and similes originally applied to fair ladies of the Occitan courts are now addressed to the Virgin.  There are also some direct melodic borrowings from the musical repertores of the troubadours and the trouvères* (the French-language homologues of the troubadours in Northern France).

Nonetheless the differences between the Occitan troubadour and Spanish Cantigas repertoire are important,  both in terms of socio-cultural context and musical-poetic content.

The troubadour corpus is the work of over 200 authors, working over several generations, interdependent certainly in many ways but nonetheless individuals and free agents.  The Cantigas,  by contrast, were conceived under the editorial control of a single person (the king),  at one brief moment in time,  at a single court.

Troubadour songs deal in their immense majority with interpersonal relations,  or affairs of the day.  The approximately four hundred Cantigas are concerned,  every one,  with the Virgin Mary.

The troubadours composed lyric poetry,  while 90% of the Cantigas are miracle narratives. Though both repertoires issue from a courtly, aristocratic milieu,  the Cantigas  apparently incorporate numerous elements of folk and popular culture.

The troubadour repertoire is without a doubt soloist oriented,  while the Cantigas,  with their fixed-form poetic structures, generally  rhythmicized melodies,  and recurring refrains, suggest group or ensemble participation along with the soloist.

There is little in troubadour repertoire to suggest a direct extra-European influence; but the Cantigas,  with their strophic forms reminiscent of classical Arabic poetry (the Zajal*), and their gapped-scale melodies recalling Arabo-Andalusian modal patterns,  may well have been influenced by the Muslim cultural presence in the Iberian peninsula.

A final difference concerns the state of conservation of the music:  While only a tenth of the extant troubadour poems survive with their medodies,  all but four  of the 417  Cantigas,  preserved in four related manuscripts, have fortunately  come down to us with their tunes.

The language of the Cantigas is Galician*. While the literary content is entirely Christian and “European” — many of the miracle stories are derived from Northern European sour ces —   the melodies,  some of them certainly borrowed from other places,  conceivably derive from a variety of places,  including Moslem and perhaps even Jewish traditions.  We can demonstrate with certainty certain relationships with troubadour* and trouvère* song and with Christian liturgical chant because these latter repertoires, too, had a notational system in the Middle Ages.  Because of the lack of written sources, possible extra-European influences are  more difficult to document. However Mohamed Briouel,  leader of the Abdelkrim Rais Orchestra of Fez,  has noted numerous correlations between the Cantigas’ typical melodic patterns and the Arabo-Analusian* nouba* repertoire of Morocco.[1]  This repertoire preserves,  according to Moroccan understanding of it, the Islamic court music of medieval Spain.

The presence in one of the Cantigas manuscripts of numerous miniatures showing instrumentalists and their instruments, occasionally in groups,  strongly suggests that instrumental accompaniments (and even dance) may be appropriate for this repertoire.

Sacred Song: The Italian Lauda*

Like the Spanish Cantigas,  the Italian language laude of the  thirteenth and fourteenth century  were inspired by religious fervour rather than by troubadouresque erotic passion. Their social context was palpably less aristocratic and courtly than that of the Cantigas and the troubadour canso.  True,  the fraternities who came together to sing these songs were composed of literate and well-to-do citizens; but these gatherings for the sake of worship seems to be rooted in a larger social movement of religious revivalism,   and the songs seem to bring us close  to the hopes and yearnings of the population at large. Like the troubadour canso or the Hispanic Cantiga,  the lauda is a strophic song.  The context of performance of the laude  is popularizing rather than courtly.  If the troubadour songs are largely soloistic, certain laude, like the Cantigas point towards collective participation. Other songs,  however,  develop a troubadour-like strophic complexity, and some,  incorporating Mediterranean-like vocal melismas*, seem to point to solo performance.

Unfortunately,  as is the case with the troubadour repertoire,  extant  melodies are few,  only about 135 in the the two main musical sources.   Thousands of other medieval laude survive as poems only; their music has not been preserved. Specific indications of performance practice are virtually nonexistent.  The religious art of medieval Italy frequently depicts angel musicians playing a variety of instruments,  including medieval fiddles* with drone strings;  thus,  the tempation on the part of modern performing ensembles to “orchestrate” the tunes.  But it is entirely possible that a cappella* singing of these devotional songs was the accepted mode.

Joel Cohen
Amesbury, MA – Paris
June 2004

Glossary list

A Capella
Canso, cansos
Cantiga, cantigas
Lauda,  laude
Troubadour, troubadours, trobador
Trouvère,  trouvères

[1] Observations made during the course of study of selected Cantigas melodies,  undertaken in collaboration with the author of this article in Fez,  Morocco,  January 1998.


Joel CohenEarly Music America

JC: As the politicians like to say,  clearing their throats, “I’m glad you asked me that question”.  In fact, the Boston Camerata and I often get nicked by people who wish we would concentrate more on one specific repertoire or another.   There was a lot of flack a number of seasons back when we began adding early American repertoire to our medieval-Renaissance performing profile. We even lost a state arts council grant one year because the review committee said our programming “lacked focus”.

Well,  focus is where you find it. I suppose we could record thirty madrigals books published in Venice between 1550 and 1580,  but that’s just not how my mind works.  I like to find connections that go farther afield,  and that are a bit surprising perhaps. To quote my favorite early music guru, William Blake,  “the tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction”.

EMA: So,  are there connections between thirteenth  century Cantigas and Shaker songs? You might have trouble convincing some people of this.

JC:  Externals of style to one side,  there are in fact deep affinities.  You have two considerable  bodies of religious monodic song.  In both cases the wellsprings of inspiration  come not from theological speculation but from the lived,  or imagined,  experience of divine intervention in human life — the miracle tales of Cantigas on one side,  the mystical visions of the Shakers on the other.  And in both cases you have bodies of art music,  written down by literate scribes,  that nonetheless draw melodic inspiration from oral traditions, from currents of folk and popular music.

EMA:  You’ve done two Shaker CD recordings,  given many performances,  and collaborated on a book of Shaker songs.  How do the Finns come into the picture?  I assume they are not Shakers…

JC:  No,  but the choreographer,  Tero Saarinen,  is very interested in religious expression and in the life of religious communities.  He himself spent time in Japan on a kind of spiritual quest.  On the other hand,  the dance work he fashioned from Shaker song,  “Borrowed Light”,  is most definitely not an illustration of Shaker life or belief.  Sometimes even the dance movements,  the black costumes,  and the mostly-somber lighting seem to be engaged in a contradictory dialogue with the tranquil simplicity of the songs.   There’s a lot of struggle in the piece,  among the members of this imaginary religious community,  and within individual lives. At other times there is a happy flow,  and a glimpse of something beyond the travails of earthly existence.  It’s not a simple work at all.

EMA:  So,  did you need to adapt the Shaker music to the choreography?

JC:  Not really.  Tero and I worked hard to find an ordering of the material that would give an overall architecture to the evening,  and that would support his choreographic ideas.  The songs themselves,  however,  are performed as we always do them, a cappella,  in straightforward fashion,  as best we understand the Shaker manner.   One exception is the famous “Simple Gifts”,  which we sing very slowly, as one solo dancer does a spiritual exercise.

EMA:  Do you have an orchestra pit or a reserved space for the live music?

JC:  The eight singers are onstage at all times,  and they move around almost constantly,  relating to the eight dancers and their movements.  It’s the most brilliant integration of live music and dance I have ever witnessed.

EMA: How do your audiences relate to this?

JC:  Last season there were seventeen performances in Europe, in six different countries.  The Italians had the most trouble with it;  the dance is not “decorative” in ways that are familiar to them.  They loved the singing,  however.

In other venues — Germany and France — we had enthusiastic welcomes.  The Brits loved it,  there were a slew of excellent reviews in the London press.  Not unsurprisingly,  the most electric interactions with the public took place in Scandinavia,   Stockholm and Helsinki.  I think they recognized the place that Tero’s mind inhabits,  and related to it immediately.  I remember the stunned silence after the first show in Stockholm — it felt like we had all,  dancers and singers,  participated in a prophetic moment with the Swedish public.

EMA:  And in America?

JC: Well, we are chatting before the run of six performances scheduled for July at Jacob’s Pillow in western Massachussetts.   I’m quite curious to see how this production is received here at home.  Nobody on the European continent — except perhaps in England — has any particular knowledge or awareness of Shakerism.  In the U.S.,  on the contrary,  the Shakers are almost a part of our collective self-image.  Will that a priori consciousness  of ours conflict or complement Tero’s very personal take?  In any case “Borrowed Light” is a powerful work,  and needs to be seen and heard here.

EMA:  What’s coming up?  More Americana?  More medieval?

Neither,  exactly. But an outgrowth of much of our recent work. I have a big new project in mind,  one that will probably take years to work through,  and that opens up a new chapter in my career.  Starting in 2008,  I’ll be going part time with the Boston Camerata,  and the board will be recruiting new talent to plan and direct programs.

different countries.  The Italians had the most trouble with it;  the dance is not “decorative” in ways that are familiar to them.  They loved the singing,  however.

In other venues — Germany and France — we had enthusiastic welcomes.  The Brits loved it,  there were a slew of excellent reviews in the London press.  Not unsurprisingly,  the most electric interactions with the public took place in Scandinavia,   Stockholm and Helsinki.  I think they recognized the place that Tero’s mind inhabits,  and related to it immediately.  I remember the stunned silence after the first show in Stockholm — it felt like we had all,  dancers and singers,  participated in a prophetic moment with the Swedish public.

EMA:  And in America?

JC: Well, we are chatting before the run of six performances scheduled for July at Jacob’s Pillow in western Massachussetts.   I’m quite curious to see how this production is received here at home.  Nobody on the European continent — except perhaps in England — has any particular knowledge or awareness of Shakerism.  In the U.S.,  on the contrary,  the Shakers are almost a part of our collective self-image.  Will that a priori consciousness  of ours conflict or complement Tero’s very personal take?  In any case “Borrowed Light” is a powerful work,  and needs to be seen and heard here.

EMA:  What’s coming up?  More Americana?  More medieval?

Neither,  exactly. But an outgrowth of much of our recent work. I have a big new project in mind,  one that will probably take years to work through,  and that opens up a new chapter in my career.  Starting in 2008,  I’ll be going part time with the Boston Camerata,  and the board will be recruiting new talent to plan and direct programs.

What I want to do next is an outgrowth of the Cantigas project,  and other things we have done in that vein — “The Sacred Bridge”,  the recent Warner Classics recording of “A Mediterranean Christmas”.   As we have worked with  musicians of Middle Eastern origin,  both here and in Morocco,  I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing more important at this point in history than to explore the common roots and meeting points of our respective civilizations.  There is such a huge gap of knowledge and understanding — the first thing we need to do is to talk and learn from each other.  I can’t do this with politics and economics,  and wouldn’t want to if I could — but on the level of music,  culture,  and the arts there is so much to be discovered! I have a little piece  of that knowledge  accumulated in my brain,  there are others who hold other pieces,  we need to meet and to talk to put the fragments together once again.

So I want to create an Institute of sorts where Arabs and Europeans,  Christians and Muslims and Jews,  can do serious work in music and related disciplines.  I figure this is the best contribution I can make at this stage of my life to the global malaise we all feel.  Hey,  anybody out there want to help me put this thing together?  We might actually have some fun!

EMA:  So — Cantigas to Shakers and back to Cantigas?

JC:  I don’t want to sound like a New Age goofball, but really, it’s all part of the same cosmic chain….it’s a matter of focus!


Joel Cohen
An inquiring American musician pays tribute to the teaching of a noted French Occitan language poet and linguist.Conceptualizing the Art of the Troubadour_Image 1

I owe it to my late friend Pierre Bec, a scholar of words who was at the same time passionately devoted to everything musical, for clarifying an essential dimension of the troubadours’ art: the relation of content (mots, in old Occitan) to formal structure, including but also subsuming the dimension we nowadays call music (son). His teaching concerning these medieval terms is of special concern and value to performers of this important repertoire who aim to enter into the mindset of a medieval poet or minstrel.

Learned analyses have been proffered in modern times about the relation of troubadour lyric verse to the notated pitches—or, as is too often the case, the lack of pitches—that are a part of the creator’s enterprise. In general, these discussions center on our modern concept of “words” and “music.” After all, what could be more natural to our modern minds than such a juxtaposition? And yet, retrofitting our ideas onto an eight-hundred-year-old body of work can and does lead us astray in significant ways.

I find Pierre’s reference to the troubadours’ own vocabulary, and his analysis of the underlying concepts of the medieval terms, to be much more satisfying and useful to us in studying this body of work than our contemporary vocabulary. To begin with, it’s unlikely a medieval poet-performer would have recognized our modern term, music. And that word we habitually use—music, musique, Musik—fails to encapsulate or capture the mentality of these twelfth- and thirteenth-century creators.

The Latin term musica was one of the disciplines of the Quadrivium. (The others were arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.) Musica dealt with number and proportion, including the mathematical proportions of sounding notes. It has something to do with our modern terminology, but is not equivalent to it. Furthermore, it most likely was beyond the field of vision of a medieval practitioner. It does not deal with the practical needs and usages of a creator of song, or of a minstrel, singer, or fiddle player, and it seems not to have been part of the vocabulary of these people. The practical and conceptual terms I have gleaned from old Occitan usage are cantar, for the act of singing; canso, for the product of the creator of a work; and son, for—well, for what?

This is the critical nexus of Pierre’s teaching. The son of a troubadour canso indicates the series of pitches associated with each strophe. In this sense, we approach our modern term, music. But in Pierre’s analysis of troubadour thought, the son is more than the series of pitches. It is also the formal scheme chosen by the creator/poet that, once set, becomes the mold for each strophe of the canso. Both the performer and his circle of listeners are aware of the “front” and the “back” of each bipartite strophe, of the number of lines in each of the two parts, of the number of syllables in each line, and of the rhymes that make the strophes cohere. These elements—together with the pitches, and of equal importance with the pitches—constitute the “sound” of a song. The pleasure for the performer, and for the audience, lies in great measure in articulating this “sound,” in the delectation of its repetition from strophe to strophe, even as the “words” (and the thoughts and feelings behind them) evolve constantly.

Learning to think about the troubadours’ works in this way creates a much richer context both for study and for performance than the more modern words-and-music approach. For one thing, it brings all of us—literary students, scholars, lovers of poetry, performers and their audiences—into closer relation with major repertoire. It makes it easier for us to retrace the creative processes of significant medieval creators. It challenges performers to create a much denser and organic bond with their material, and a much more subtle, language-based manner of delivery.

Heeding Pierre’s precepts, we performers perhaps are less likely to just “sing a tune” or to impose artificial or exotic vocal or instrumental “effects” upon the material. We’re also more likely to help the powerful imaginations of these medieval men and women once again come to the fore.

Thank you, Pierre. You remain our Virgil in the near-far world of the troubadours.

Joel Cohen, Anne Azéma, and Shira Kammen worked together with the late Pierre Bec for nine seasons at the Boston Camerata’s medieval song workshop in Coaraze, France. Bec also collaborated closely as philologist and language coach for the three Erato/Warner Classics recordings by Cohen’s Camerata Mediterranea.



The “sound” or “son” of a troubadour song was a complex matrix, incorporating what we think of nowadays as music, but also including the formal and verbal structure of the poem to which pitches were sung. One might say, to sum things up, that the troubadour concept of “sound” requires us to expand our modern concept of what “music” is: series of pitches, of course, but also strophic structure, poetic meter, and rhyme. The combination or union of all these elements were the “sound” of a song/canso; moreover, a beautiful or clever “sound” could be contemplated as something extraordinary and admirable in its own right.

It could also be stolen. Or, at any rate, re-used.

In fact, re-use of some other troubadour’s “sound” by a colleague or rival was a relatively common happening. When Marcabru, in his famous crusader’s song, Pax in nomine domini, wants to stress the utter originality of his work, he states boldly in the second and third lines of the opening strophe: “Marcabru made [both] the words and the sound. Listen to what I say!” No borrower or recycler was the curmudgeonly son of Marcabruna! (And let’s now say farewell, by the way, to the clichéd notion that the medieval creator was a humble artisan, striving for anonymity).

As the best earlier songs of the troubadours became classics, forming a standard repertoire that was widely known and admired by successive generations, the “sounds” of these older songs would be re-employed, with only the old structure maintained, as new content (the “mots,” or words) would be inserted or, if you will, poured back, like new wine into an old bottle. Typically, the prior words and feelings would have had to do with the pleasures and pains of love, while the new text would be in a very different mode: political, polemical, or satirical. The troubadours had a name for this exercise: they would call the new song a sirventes, a servant of the original, “master” piece. And they went at the task of creating new songs from old with gusto.

We can illustrate this practice of recycling a “sound” and creating a servant-song by comparing the opening strophes of two pieces. The first, an ironic love lament by the great Bernard de Ventadorn, laments the fact that the author’s Fair Lady appear to have another, secret lover or suitor:

Era.m cosselhatz, senhor,
vos c’avetz saber e sen:
una domna.m det s’amor,
c’ai amada lonjamen;
mas eras sai de vertat
qu’ilh a autr’amic privat,
ni anc de nul companho
companha tan greus no.m fo.

(Now give me counsel, Lords, you who are wise and intelligent. A lady, whom I long loved, gave me her love. But now I know for sure that she has another lover in secret, and never the company of another companion was so hard to bear.)

Now contemplate what the great satirist/moralist Peire Cardenal has done with Ventadorn’s “sound” in his near-violent attack on greed and corruption in the Church (rhymes italicized for comparison with the model):

Tartarassa ni voutor
No sent tan leu carn puden
Quom clerc e prezicador
Senton ont es lo manen.
Mantenen son sei privat,
E quant malautia-l bat,
Fan li far donassio
Tel que-l paren no-i an pro.

(Neither buzzard nor vulture can more quickly smell rotting flesh than the clerks and preachers perceive where the rich man is. They become his intimates, and when he falls sick, they obtain the bequest, such that the family gets nothing.)

As we easily see, this servant-song employs, line by line, syllable by syllable, rhyme by rhyme, and, presumably note by note (we have the tune for Ventadorn, but not for Cardenal; then after all, why would a scribe even bother for the new piece, since everyone presumably knew Bernard’s tune already?). Cardenal empties out the lovesick words/motz of the original and replaces them with his harsh and hard-hitting images. The listener probably received a jolt, and that jolt was almost certainly intended!

In these servant songs, but in the original lyrics as well, we are challenged to hear on many levels, formal, emotional and “musical.” It’s a complex and beautiful game, an enterprise still able, centuries later, to bring exhilaration and joy to both performers and listeners.

Media Review – Midi Libre

midi libreAt the summit of medieval lyrical art, the European heritage days of September 18th and 19th were an opportunity, for more than two hundred people, to plunge into the history of religion and love in the Middle Ages, thanks to four exceptional presentations by Camerata Mediterranea. The itinerary, led by Joel Cohen and Anne Azéma, went forth from Spain into the heart of the Middle East: from devotion to the Virgin, in the Koran in the Gospels, right up to the brazen audacity of medieval women singing out their passionate desires.

The abbey church and the auditorium provided the acoustical setting for these unforgettable vocal and instrumental performances.

Meeting place for lovers of the Occitan language, supported by the Regional Council, the Regional Department of Cultural Affairs (DRAV) and the municipality, the musical and humanistic project of the Camerata Mediterranea will continue, this year, in the indescribable emotion flowing from the voices and instruments of this group, in residence in Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert.