“Shepard Playing a Shawm” (detail), oil on canvas by Jan Baptist Wolfaerts (1646), the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

press to zoom

“Shepard Playing a Shawm” (detail), oil on canvas by Jan Baptist Wolfaerts (1646), the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

press to zoom
1/1

ESSAY, July 2020

Early memories of early music

It’s a cool July morning, the sun isn’t shining much, and I have a sudden urge to hear some early music. I find myself thinking back, wistfully, to the records my father played on weekends when I was a child. His tastes were varied, from the tango to the waltz, but some of the most visceral sounds that have stayed with me, three decades after his death, are medieval and Renaissance music. I associate it now, in my mind, with my father’s gray-green amplifier, a mysterious metal box of glass tubes that slowly heated up and glowed, sending signals to tall KLH speakers whose fabric covers gave off a pleasant, straw-like odor.            
 
There’s one instrument in particular on those recordings that brought me joy. I haven’t thought about it in years. I can hear it in my head—we’re all familiar with it—but I’m far from an early music savant, and I can’t identify it. It’s a reed wind instrument that lets out a sort of squawk, the sound a happy duck might make. It conjures up dances and revelry, accompanied by a drum and strings, and transports me back to my youth, when I wondered what the Middle Ages were like. Were they as fun as Errol Flynn made them seem in "The Adventures of Robin Hood,” even on our small black-and-white TV screen? I search the Internet, which didn’t exist during my father’s lifetime, and quickly find the instrument: it’s the shawm. 
 
A precursor of the oboe, the wooden shawm originated in the Middle East and was brought to Europe during the Crusades. I had no idea. In the Western world, we so often hear of arts and sciences that sprouted in Europe and were then disseminated to the surrounding world. How mind-expanding it was to learn as a child that algebra, for instance, traveled to Europe from the Islamic world, and not the other way around. I had the same feeling when reading that chess, a game made up of a cast of medieval players, actually goes back to India by way of the Muslim world.
 
There’s something else I wasn’t aware of until just now: the Early Music Instrument Database. Established by the College of Arts and Sciences at Case Western University, it’s a wonderful resource to get lost in. Go to one of the site’s many listings for an instrument, and you can listen to tracks of it, performed by contemporary musicians. Accompanying the music are centuries-old paintings that feature the instrument. The inspired pairing of art forms makes the paintings come alive. So that’s what the musical angel in that 15th century Flemish work sounds like. It’s a revelation, too, reuniting me with that instrument that I was fond of so long ago. There you are, shawm. It’s good to hear you again.