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25 Things You (Probably) Didn't Know about Vermeer: Tricks, Troubles and Triumphs of a Great Dutch Master
Jonathan Janson
2021 | PDF | $6.95

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Music in the Daily Life of Vermeer: The Shawm (1)

by Adelheid Rech

Scalmuse, shalm, shalmie, schalmuse
(from Latin: calamus: 'reed,' 'stalk')Dutch: schalmei
German: Schalmei
Italian: cialamella, piffaro
French: chalemelle
Latin: celimela, gingrina, tibi

Classification and Etymology

The term "shawm" has developed more than one meaning. At first it is the name of the instrument and the family of instruments this section deals with. Since Hornbostel and Sachs (1914) it has been used as a generic term denoting both single- and double-reed aerophones, but for the sake of precision it is generally applied to double-reed instruments only, including those specimen from the Near East, Asia or India as well. Furthermore, it lends its name to a soft-toned organ reed stop, mainly in 16', 8' or 4' pitch imitating early double-reed instruments, like chalumeau (the French form of the shawm), piffaro (Italian) or Schalmei (German).

The history of the shawm

wooden pirouette of a shawm The wooden pirouette of a shawm, with the double-reed inserted.

The shawm was a medieval and Renaissance musical instrument of the woodwind family from the late thirteenth century until the seventeenth century. It is considered the predecessor of the modern oboe. It sound is quite piercing which is why it was mostly used in outdoor ceremonial events where powerful sonorities were needed. By the early sixteenth century, the shawm developed considerably. Its initial harsh tone was mellowed by almost doubling its length. A full consort of shawms provided a truly majestic sound making it adapted for court and royal events even though some of the larger shawms were too cumbersome to be used in processions.

The shawm (as a double reed instrument) has roughly the same ancient ancestors as the bagpipe: the Greek aulos resp. the Roman tibia, derived from the early double-pipes from the Near East. The principal advantage in its structure may be seen in the mounting of the double-reed on the narrow end of a staple (a conical brass tube), while the body of the instrument usually continues the bore-expansion of the staple, ending in a flared bell, similar to that of the trumpet. Virtually nothing is known about the origin and early history of this idea. We may generally assume that a close predecessor of the shawm was the Middle Eastern zurna (or surna), which, according to Mohammedan tradition, was invented in Baghdad in the time of Harun-al-Rashid. It was also made of wood but with a wide disc of metal, bone or mother-of-pearl loosely mounted on the staple against which the player puts his lips allowing the reed to vibrate freely inside the mouth.

The zurna was chiefly a ceremonial and military instrument, played in bands with trumpets and drums. The overpowering noise of these bands had been employed by the Saracens as a psychological weapon. Most likely, the shawm eventually found its way to Europe during the Crusades (eleventh-thirteenth century) but with some remodeling of the top-end into a turned wooden pirouette instead to gain a better lip-control over the reed (see "structure and playing technique").

The first shawms illustrated in manuscripts were usually small and similar in appearance of their oriental counterparts. Early examples appear in the Cantigas de Santa Maria of Alfonsio X" El Sabio" (fig. 1) as well as from the splendidly illuminated Codex Manesse (fig. 2), the most comprehensive source of medieval love songs ("Minnesang") in Middle High German, produced c. 1304–1340 in Zürich at the request of the Manesse family. The early use of the shawm in court and civic music accompanied by drum and trumpet1 reflects an Oriental practice perhaps adopted during extensive trading contacts or from the times of the Crusades.

Illustration to Cantiga 330fig. 1 A woman sings, marking the rhythm with some sort of castanets while a man (perhaps even a king) accompanies her on a shawm. On closer observation the pirouette for resting the player's lips is visible. Illustration to Cantiga 330.
poet and musician Heinrich von Meissenfig. 2 The master poet and musician Heinrich von Meissen (c. 1250/60–1318), called by himself "Vrouwenlob" ("Women's praise," referring to the Virgin Mary), as he is depicted in the Codex Manesse. The woman behind the one in the foreground (playing the medieval fiddle) is lifting a shawm. The pirouette is visible quite well.
A reconstruction of a medium-sized zurna.
A reconstruction of a medium-sized zurna. It is played by free blowing whereby the reed is completely placed in the player's oral cavity. The typical wide disc allows the player to rest his lips thus to relieve his embouchure (i.e. the facial muscles and shaping of the lips).
reconstruction of a Medieval shawm
A reconstruction of a Medieval shawm, made of blackwood. Its shrill, piercing sound made it suitable for outdoor performance, especially by military bands.


The Alta and the Town Waits

The Procession of the Religious Orders of the Town of Antwerpfig. 3 The Procession of the Religious Orders of the Town of Antwerp (detail)
Denijs Alsloot
Museo del Prado, Madrid

The band consists of (from left to right): curtal, tenor shawm, cornett, alto shawm, tenor shawm, trombone.

Wind instruments were normally used with great freedom. From about 1300 onwards, during the blossom of the troubadours, the noisier instruments began to be segregated from those which matched more closely the sound of the human voice and string instruments. This distinction became binding with the greater emphasis on concerted music during the 14th and fifteenth century, perhaps due to the late thirteenth-century interest in Oriental music which distinguished between loud and soft instruments and music (see expert box below). The French alta or haute musique (i.e. "loud music") was used from about the 14th up to the sixteenth century for the groups of shawms, trumpets, trombones, bagpipes and various drums (fig. 3, 4 & 5) as opposed to the basse musique ("soft music") which included recorders, viols, harps, psalteries etc. for indoor performance and the accompaniment of singing.

One of the first mentions of an Alta Capella or Bläser-Alta comes from the court of Burgundy in around 1430, where Johannes Tinctoris explicitly praised their beautiful sound. The French court band, later called "Les Douze Grands Hautbois de l"Ecurie," instituted under Louis XIII, is documented as having two shawms and two cornetts for the treble parts, four alto shawms for the haute-contre and taille parts, two trombones for the basse-taille and two bass shawms on the basse. The "prestigious noise" of the alta, as it was commonly referred to, must have been played an important part in the court ensemble of Emperor Charles V. In this context "loud" denoted not only the volume but something impressive and spectacular, highly adapted to celebrating the power, fame and splendor of the court. "Es trumett, bließ, pfiff und sang, das einer sein aigen wort nit höret" ("They trumpeted, blew, whistled and sang so that you could hardly hear yourself speak"; quotation from: Sabine Zak, "Musik aus Ehr und Zier," Neuss 1979, pp. 19f.) – so the notice of a contemporary witness about the court musicians of Charles V.

From the fifteenth century until the beginning of the 19th century, every British town and city of any note had a band of so-called Waites.2 Contrary to common minstrels—normally itinerant players whose capabilities greatly varied—the Waits were trained musicians who served a period of apprenticeship. They were accorded official status with arms to wear and received a regular salary. There was no rule to the number of individual musicians in a Wait, but from four to six were usual, depending on the size and importance of the municipality (London, for instance, had nine Waits).

Originally, members of the Waits were night watchmen or wakemen (hence their name) to "pipe watch" in palaces, castles, camps and walled towns at stated hours in case of alarm. They also signaled the principal times of the day. Another mansion was to wake certain persons at appointed hours by playing under their window. But soon they were required to herald the various processions (both secular and religious) and visits of high-ranking personalities.

Stadtpfeifer of Nurembergfig. 4 An earlier example: the Stadtpfeifer of Nuremberg playing from their "Pfeiferstuhl." Painting by Georg Eberlein after Albrecht Dürer's mural in the Nuremberg Town Hall. c. 1500. This band consists of a cornett, two trombones, two shawms (alto and tenor), a flute and a side-drum.
Triumphal procession for Maximilian I fig. 5 Five shawm-players from Hans Burgkmair's Triumphal procession for Maximilian I * woodcut 1512–19, publ. 1526

As part of Maximilian's large project of monumental woodcut assemblages named The Triumphal Arch, Large Triumphal Carriage and Triumphal Procession for Maximilian I, executed according to the designs and under supervision by Albrecht Dürer. (To this project and its extensive restoration, click here).* Maximilian I of Habsburg (1459–1519), Holy Roman Emperor 1493–1519,
was the grandfather of Charles V.

Waits generally favored wind instruments since they were best suited for the open air music. The preferred instrument was the shawm or "hoyboy" (from the French "hautbois"), called then "wayte-pipe" or simply "wayte." Furthermore, trumpets, cornetts and afterward the curtal (dulcian) were the common instruments of the Waits. Their summed playing provided an exceptionally rich blend of tonalities. Besides the English and Scottish Waits (see The Bagpipe), the German "Stadtpfeifer" gained great fame in its time.3 In the Netherlands we find the "stadspijpers." Brussels and Antwerp competed with one another to demonstrate their prosperity by maintaining fully equipped official town bands.

Loud and Soft Music: Its Oriental and European Practice

Loud Music (Oriental)
"Anybody who has heard the old-style concerted music of the East must have noticed its broadest twofold division: artistic indoor music (soft), and ceremonial band music (loud). The outdoor band, heard at public and private functions of many descriptions, has its own instruments of which the chief is the shawm. With it are drums, and sometimes cymbals. The trumpet, the band's third type of component, is heard less now than formerly, but we must nevertheless notice its role; for in the East a trumpeter is a one-note man, and bass at that. Traditionally he is employed in pairs to sound a note that is roughly either one or two octaves below the key-note of the shawms. On this note, the trumpeters, with their long medieval trumpets, burst in intermittently with hoarse interruptions through which the shawmists unconcernedly play on. Describing the performance as he heard it long ago at Kirmanshah, Binder wrote: 'Every evening at sundown five or six musicians mount a small bandstand overlooking the terraces. The music begins with the small drum solo, soon joined by the big drum. Then these give place to melody on a surna, calm at first, then wildly abandoned. Finally all the instruments play together, the long trumpets adding their bellowing sounds to the devilish concert. The music stops; the trumpets give three last moans; a cannon shot, the sun is set, and the regimental bugles sound the governor's fanfare.' In the band of a Tibetan monastery, or of a Mohammedan chief in West Africa, shawm and trumpets are combined in just the same way.

Loud Music (Europe)
The European band of the early fourteenth century, just after the last Crusade, took over the basic Oriental constitution outlined above. Thus the town band of Pisa in 1324 had one shawmist, one nakerer*) and two pairs of trumpeters. For a larger band, a bagpiper or a pipe-and taborer*), being readily available, might be added. These were military bands in the full modern sense, performing at state functions, cavalcades, tournaments and in battle. It is unlikely that their music was written down, so how 'Oriental' it may have first sounded is unknown.

In Europe, by the Renaissance, another use had been found for the band: 'When people wish to dance, or to stage a grand celebration, the loud (haut) instruments are played, for their great noise pleases the dancers better; they include trumpets, tabors, nakers, cymbals, bagpipes, shawms and cornetts.' So runs the late fourteenth-century French poem Les Echecs amoureux. Then, as today, a loud band was preferred for formal dancing, and the medieval band forthwith began to be seriously Westernized. The early shawm was generally an instrument of about the bottom of the treble stave now became the chief melodist, and longer still and a fifth lower was built a tenor shawm, bombarde. The bombarde gave out the long notes of the tenor part to the beat of the dance. This formed the framework of the music. It is not known quite what the trumpet did before it became a trombone and played a regular contratenor part, but the shawmist executed what can only be described as a hot chorus over the notes of the bombarde.

Soft Music (Oriental)
The soft or indoor music of the East is heard especially at receptions and dinner parties given by officials and wealthy people; also, in some places, in theatres and cafés. It is based upon stringed instruments, typically an orchestra of from two to five assorted strings. If a wind instrument is among them, which is frequently the case and is often obligatory, it is a member of the flute class: in the Far East, the flute itself; in the Near East, the vertical flute nay. Occasionally the flute is replaced by some soft-toned reed instrument, as for example the drone parallel double-pipe arghul, which has been heard in this role at a Syrian wedding reception. Its burbling contralto makes an interesting change from the high warbling of the usual nay and it blends just as well with the strings.

Soft Music (Europe)
The poem Les Echecs amoureux continues: 'But when less noise is required one plays tabor-pipes, flutes and douçaines, which are soft and sweet, and other such soft (bas) instruments.' So here, as in many similar passages in poems and documents of the time, we may discover which instruments were used in chamber music, as when performing the ballades and chansons of Landino, Dunstable or Dufay. The bas instruments are closely analogous to those used in the soft music in the East. 'Other soft instruments' includes the strings and the portative organ. 'Flutes' includes recorder and flute. 'Douçaine' is the name of the soft reed instrument that went with them, but its identification presents us with a stiff puzzle today."

from: Anthony Baines, Woodwind Instruments and their History, London, 1956. 231–234.

* For short explanations to further instruments used for traditional music see the table at the end of the study.

The development of the shawm-family

From about 1400 onwards treble shawms had been extended in length for the lower pitches, called"bombarde," "bumbard" or "pumhart."4 These instruments had at least one but often up to four keys to close the lowest hole. The keywork was protected by a slide-on wooden barrel perforated with rosettes, called fontanelle. One of the first illustrations of such a kind of shawm can be observed in the painting Mary, Queen of Heavens (fig. 6) by the Master of the Legend of St Lucy. This led to the development of a true shawm-family (fig. 7). While Sebastian Virdung (Musica getutscht, 1511), Martin Agricola (Musica instrumentalis deudsch, 1529) and Johannes Tinctoris (De inventione et usu musicae, iii, c. 1483) mention only two resp. three sizes ("Schalmey," "Bombardt," "contratenor" [= bass bombard]) we find drawing and description of six members in Michael Praetorius' Syntagma Musicum II (1619).

Mary, Queen of Heavens, Master of the Legend of St Lucyfig. 6 Mary, Queen of Heavens
Master of the Legend of St Lucy
c. 1485–1500
Oil on panel, 199 x 162 cm.
National Gallery of Art, Washington

The encyclopedic combination of "soft" and "loud" music here is unique in fifteenth-century painting.
Mary, Queen of Heavens Mary, Queen of Heavens (detail)

The shawm the angel is playing shows a key under the fontanelle, the wooden barrel perforated with small holes.

Names and approximate sizes of shawms according to M. Praetorius

German term (Praetorius) modern terminology approximate length
gar klein
Discant Schalmeye
high treble 50 cm.
Discant Schalmeye treble
65 cm.
Alt Pommer alto 75 cm
(1 key)
Tenor- or Basset
tenor 130 cm
(1 key)
Bass Pommer bass 180 cm
(4 keys)
great bass 290 cm
(4 keys)
Shawms in various sizesfig. 7 Shawms in various sizes. The bass pommers have crooked mouthpieces instead of the pirouette. The fontanelle for the protection of the key(s) is visible at the tenor and bass pommers.

Due to the enormous length of the great bass pommer (nearly 3 meters!) it could only be played if the bell was rested on the ground or the player was raised onto a platform. Nonethless, they were appreciated for their rich, warm tone.

Shawms were built at intervals of a fifth from each other, which could lead to intonation problems in ensemble playing but normally only two or three members of the family were played together at one time. The gar klein Discant Schalmeye is mentioned only by Praetorius, presumably because of the problems caused by its short length and its impractical disposition of a fifth above the treble.

Click here for period shawm music:

(requires Real Player)

The first part of Pavane La Battaille from Tielman Susato's
Deerde musyck boexken Dansereye (1551), played on cornetts, sackbuts, serpent, rauschpfeife, shawms, curtal, organ, regal, timpani and side drums as an example for a large alta group, expressly employed for great festive occasions.

Performed by New London Consort, directed by Philip Pickett.

The esteem held for the lower shawms is evident in a great number of orders of shawm sets in which the "grosse Pumharts," "dobbele bombaerde," "twee bassetten," or "a Base Shalme" were emphasized.. "Indeed of all musical sounds that from day to day smote the ears of a sixteenth-century town resident, the deafening skirl of the shawm band in palace courtyard or market square must have been the most familiar, save perhaps only for the throbbing of a lute through somebody's open window." (A. Baines). Later the cumbersome great bass pommer/bombard was replaced by the "Double Curtall," the early bassoon (see The Dulcian/Curtal).

How to play the shawm (Second book)

(56 pages with play along CD)
by Aline Hopchet (Blokfluit, barokhobo, historische dubbelrieten, Flûte à bec, hautbois baroque, anches doubles médiévales et renaissance)


  1. Documented for instance in 1252 in Siena with an ensemble of three trumpets, cialamella and drum.
  2. For details to the history of the Waits in England see Lyndsay G. Langwill, "The Waits. A Short Historical Study," in: Hinrichson's Music Book vol. VII (1952) 170–183. See also the extensive The Waits Website.
  3. Especially those of Leipzig and Nuremberg (to the Stadtpfeifer see Donald L. Smithers, "Municipal Trumpeters and the Stadtpfeifer," in The Trumpet).
  4. From Latin "bombu\s": "drone, buzz."

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