Music in the early middle ages was largely monophonic. When several instruments played together, they probably took turns, or played in unison or in octaves. As polyphony developed, so did the idea of a musical ensemble, and instruments were chosen because they blended well. The earliest instruments made a crude and rough noise, suitable only for exterior and military use. In order to play together indoors, softer instruments developed, and this is the form of most indoor performances of early music.
Among the wind instruments, there were two types of ensembles, loud
(haut) and soft (bas), the French terms referring to the volume, rather than the
pitch as they do today. The basic loud instrument was the shawm (even today,
people characterize them as loud), and the group also included dulcians,
sackbuts, tabor pipes, and trumpets. The most common instruments were:
Cornett: The cornetto or zink was made of wood, but modelled on an older, more primitive tube made of an actual goat's horn. The cornetto has finger holes, somewhat similar to a recorder, but plays with a cup mouthpiece smaller than that of a modern French horn. Its sound blends well with the human voice.
Sackbut: The Sackbut (various spellings) was made of tubes of brass, with a cup-shaped brass mouthpiece. Part of the tube could slide inside another part, the amount inside controlled by the player to produce different ranges of notes. Alto, 19 tenor and bass sackbuts cover all the different ranges of male singers except the boys.
Dulcian or Curtal: This is a renaissance-era musical instrument and predecessor of the bassoon, with a double-back bore cut from a single piece of wood and built in sizes from treble to double bass (sometimes called the double curtal in England and the Choristfagott in Germany). The curtal was developed in the 16th century, probably in Italy, to be used with choirs as a bass that would be less clamorous than the brasses of the time.
Loud instruments were seldom played indoors except in large halls, whereas soft instruments, such as recorders, crumhorns, and racketts, were ordinarily played indoors. Cornettos, flutes and serpents could play with either loud or soft ensembles.
For richer performances of choral works, soft instruments doubled (played the same notes as) each singing voice. For the soprano part, the main instrument was the cornett, which could play high and quietly. Later, brass trumpets were used, but more stridently, for louder choral music only. Recorders may enjoy playing all the parts, but are usually not audible among larger groups of other instruments.
In the Renaissance, valves hadn't been invented, and instruments with cup mouthpieces weren't necessarily made of brass. The most familiar instrument was the sackbut, ancestor of the trombone and most familiar double of the alto choral range. The tenor range was doubled by a sackbut of normal size called a tenor sackbut, and the bass range by a bass sackbut or dulcian/curtal, occasionally too by a bass viol. The bass and all the other ranges would be supported with an organ in all inside performances in church, or in private halls on a smaller, portative organ.
For further information there is a fine website at Lipscomb University, www.lipscomb.edu, and another at Cucamonga Renaissance Band, www.tapiasgold.com
- Edward James