Music in the Daily Life of Vermeer: The Midwinterhoorn

In the twilight of the days surrounding the 21st December (the winter solstice or midwinter) a casual visitor wandering in the area of Twente just might catch the melancholic, haunting sound of one of the most mysterious of traditional instruments, the midwinterhoorn. The enduring tradition of playing this unique wooden instrument in the period between the first Sunday in Advent1 and Epiphany (Driekoningen, 6th January) is still cultivated in this eastern part of the province Overijssel, bordered by the rivers Regge and Dinkel,2 as well as in the neighboring Achterhoek (province Gelderland) and some adjacent German locations.

The midwinterhoorn is rarely discussed today and since it was never as popular as the fiddle, bagpipe or shawm, it is more typically a subject for ethnomusicologists. Nevertheless, the midwinterhoorn played a considerable role in the lives of country folk of times past and thanks to the folklore movements in the 1950s, it has enjoyed a revival.

The distribution of the midwinterhoorn in the area of Twente, (or Twenthe, province Overijssel) and adjacent German locations, c. 1800.

the area of area--midwinterhoorn

from: Everhard Jans, "Het Midwinterhoornblazen." Enschede 1977. 42.

.by Adelheid Rech.

The history and function of the midwinterhoorn

The horn is one of the oldest known musical instruments of mankind. First made of animal horn (ram, goat, bull, ox) it had been employed by the "primitive" peoples of the pre-historic times both for signaling and performing ancient rites.

The blowing the shofar, the principal horn of the Jews, is frequently mentioned in the Bible (Ancient Testament) and the Talmud. It served to announce special days like New Year's Day, New Moon etc. and together with the trumpet it was used to signal the start of a war. Wooden horns were already known from ancient Mesopotamia in the time c. 2700 B.C.3

Ossenhoorn-players Ossenhoorn-players in Markelo (Overijssel).

For the ancient peoples living in the northern most part of the hemisphere, the winter was most difficult time of the year. Its gelid winters with seemingly endless darkness shrouded deep anxieties, the dread of evil spirits and the deepest dread of all: that the sun might never return. In response, the population devised rites and mystical practices to alleviate the uncertainties of the natural world. In the Germanic pagan Joelfeest or Yule, celebrated for twelve days around the winter solstice (c. 21st December), the Batavians blew on cow horns to spur the god Odin (or Wodan) in his "Wild Hunt" to fight against the huge wolf Fenrir who chases the sun in a large chariot. The horn helped to frighten the wolf away so that the sun could once again return. The inhabitants of the Twente-area, in particular, blew the ossenhoorn ("ox horn"), a forerunner of the midwinterhoorn.

blowing the midwinterhoorn A today's farmer is blowing the midwinterhoorn on his field.

People in the early times also believed that on midwinter night their ancestors arose from "Mother Earth." However, midwinter was also a symbol of procreation. Being the darkest day of the year, the following days gradually became longer bearing hope for the return of the light. As days grew longer, new live began to flourish once again. Thus, peasants played the midwinterhoorn in their fields in order to dispel evil spirits and please the gods of fertility who let their fruits grow in the lap of "Mother Earth."

Both the construction of the midwinterhoorn and time in which it was played relates to ancient myths and fertility rites. The wood from which it is made relates to the "fruit" of "Mother Earth") as well as water, the other source of all live.

Once the two sections of the "wet horn" (see below) were put together, the instrument was submerged into a well so that the bulrush inserted between the two halves would swell up and make it airtight.

Curiously, the midwinterhoorn, and especially the "wet horn," is often blown over a well, which enhances the sound of the horn and demonstrates the natural relationship between water and wood. When the horn freezes in winter, it produces a particularly brilliant sound that encouraged peasants to awake the spirits of fertility so that they might produce more abundant harvests. Moreover, one has to consider that the Twente-area is in great part composed of marshy soil and venen (bogs). Consequentially water and soil had a particularly deep impact on survival.

farmer playing his midwinterhoorn A farmer in the Twente-area
is playing his midwinterhoorn
over a well.

Midwinter was also the time for bidding farewell to the "dying" old year and awaiting its rebirth into the new year—a true "holy time." It is not by chance that the Early Church determined the 25th December (shortly after midwinter) as Christmas Day, the feast of the birth of Jesus Christ as the redeemer of all mankind, who will bring a new, eternal light into the dark world. The aim of the Church was partly to induce the Romans and other pagans to convert to Christianity without forsaking their own winter celebrations when their gods and goddesses had their "birthdays" on the exact same day, in particular the god "Sol Invictus" ("the Unconquered Sun").

During midwinter people spent most of the time in their homes. It was a period which has always been full of rites, celebrations and festivities, whether pagan or Christian. Christmas celebrations took place from c. mid-fourth century onwards4. Since Northern Europe was the last part to Christianize, its pagan celebrations had a major influence on the celebration of Christmas4, already evident in the number 12 (the period of the Germanic Yule relates to the Twelve Holy Days after Christmas Day). This period had always been the principal time for the playing of the midwinterhoorn, or, in early times, its forerunner, the ossenhoorn.

Eve though the midwinterhoorn is mainly blown in the four weeks of Advent to announce the coming of Jesus Christ, Christmas Day and New Year's Day to welcome the new year, its playing still may possess secret pagan meaning which mingled with Christian customs.

Last but not least, the midwinterhoorn was used to signal danger, whether from fire, water or enemies. During the Eighty Years' War was a constant threat in the area of Twente since it was a Catholic enclave in a Protestant country. Its sound warned those attending the Holy Mass of Protestant incursions.

It was particularly useful for the people who inhabited the marshy lands to call for help as the next farm was often some kilometers away. The loneliness of those dark times was not always easy to bear and so peasants blew their horn at regular intervals to "ask" if the neighbor is still alive or hear if there is someone else in the vicinity.

quartet of midwinterhoorn players A quartet of midwinterhoorn players from the village Saasveld during a senior contest. However, it has to be considered that the midwinterhoorn is by all means a solo-instrument as each one is singular in its shape and sound, so that a real harmonic tuning between the instruments is impossible.

With the improved drainage and the modern means of communication in the middle of the 18th century the use this type of signaling gradually died out, though players still blew to each other as a kind of playful question-and-answering. The midwinterhoorn as a signaling device was revived during World War II in Holland when local farmers used it to warn of approaching military patrols coming from the nearby German border.

In the 1950s, local enthusiasts in the area of Twente began to revive the traditional custom of playing the midwinterhoorn from the first Sunday in Advent until Epiphany and contests between the villages decree the best player. But as tradition dictates, no midwinterhoorn-player would ever play his instrument before or after these exact dates, not even for practicing.

The construction and playing technique of the midwinterhoorn

Making a midwinterhoorn requires considerable experience and craftsmanship. Most of the local players have made their horns themselves. Today, some craftsmen make midwinterhoorns for tourists or nostalgic, expatriate Dutch citizens.

From a trunk of birch to a midwinterhoorn From a trunk of birch to a midwinterhoorn. In the middle the horn before its splitting, followed by the two halves up to the finished instrument.

First, the craftsman has to find a branch from a native tree, usually birch, alder, willow or poplar, with a suitable form for his purpose. It must have a length of c. 1,20–1,80 m. and a diameter from c. 3-5 cm. at the narrow end (where the mouthpiece will be placed) and up to c. 15 cm. at the broader, curved end in order to accommodate the "bell." Since no branch is equal to another, no horn, or the sound it makes, is identical. The branch is cut to its proper length and roughly smoothed with an ax or draw-knife. The horn's length is vitally important since it determines the number of tones: the longer the horn, the easier it is to play and reach higher tones. Once it has been given its desired shape, shaped branch is lowered into a water well or, nowadays, into a bath-tub and allowed to soak for some time. Afterwards, it is split longitudinally and the two halves are carefully hollowed out and smoothed. At the narrow end where the mouthpiece is located, a hole is drilled ("Hap" or "Spool").

The two halves are then reunited with one of two methods. The traditional one requires putting bulrush between the halves and entwining them tightly with bast or blackberry shoots. The horn is again submerged in a well. When the bulrush absorbs moisture and swells, the horn becomes airtight and ready for use. In winter, when it freezes, the horn produces a particularly bright sound due to the increased smoothness of its inner surface. They have to be poured with water to get airtight short before playing.
Horns made according to this technique are called natte hoorns ("wet horns").

A horn made the modern technique of using glue instead of the traditional materials are called a droog horn ("dry horn"). Dry horns must always be kept dry.

midwinterhoorn mouthpiece The typical shape of the mouthpiece (hap) with its
slanting cut.

The mouthpiece ("Hap") greatly influences the performance of the horn. It is usually made of elderberry with a diameter of about 2,5'' to fit into the hole at the narrow end of the horn. The core is removed and the mouthpiece is fitted into the horn. Every player makes his own mouthpiece which must be replaced from time to time.

Playing the midwinterhoorn requires strong lungs to create sufficient air pressure. Furthermore, the player must possess well-developed lip tension (embouchure) since the horn's playing-technique is comparable to that of a trumpet. As Midwinterhoorns have no finger holes it is only possible to play a natural harmonic series of notes, usually 5 to 7, some players even achieve an 8th.

farmer playing the midwinterhoorn A farmer playing the midwinterhoorn in the misty twilight of a winter's day at the edge of a snowy field.

Nevertheless, it is possible to play short, simple melodies, which recall hunting signals and each village has its own kind of melody. In the village Ootmarsum in the Twente-area, for example, they play the so-called "oalde roap" (the "ancient call").

Those who have ever listened the sound of the midwinterhoorn in the twilight of a foggy day, will never forget the mystical atmosphere it evokes.

the midwinterhoorn on the web:

midwinterhoorn resources:

  • Everhard Jans, "Het Midwinterhoorn blazen." Enschede 1977.
  • Wim Thijsse, "De Midwinterhoorn en zijn functie." Mens en Melodie XXXV (Januari 1980). 24–32.
  • Jeremy Montagu, "The Construction of the Midwinterhoorn." The Galpin Society Journal 28 (April 1975) 71–80.

the lur on the web:

  1. (end of November/beginning December)
  2. The county Bentheim and the Münsterland.
  3. see Wim Thijsse, "De Midwinterhoorn en zijn functie." Mens en Melodie XXXV (Januari 1980). 29.
  4. Later included the four weeks of Advent as a period of preparation for the Nativity of Jesus and the Twelve Holy Days (26th December–6th January.
  5. The loud blowing relates also to one of the origins of the feast's name, from joelen (johlen in German) = yelling. In several countries, even in the Scandinavian ones, Christmas is still called "Jul." And some of our customs for Christmas, like the Christmas tree and the Advent wreath, have their origins in this old Germanic pagan feast, as people in northern Europe left offerings to the gods under a tree during the Reginheim: holidays, while the Advent wreath is the Christian symbol of the pagan "sun- or Easter-wheel," a burning wheel packed with straw rolling from a hill to symbolize the sun and believing that the light and the warmth of the fire would cleanse the young seeds. See also "Het Joelfeest."
oalde roap
The "oalde roap" from Ootmarsum