Music in the Daily Life of Vermeer: The Shawm (2)

Forms of the shawm

Many different configurations of the shawm exist. One special form, probably originated from the early sixteenth century, is the windcap shawm, known in Germany and the Low Countries as Rauschpfeife or "russ pfeiff" (Dutch: rietpyp, rytpyp). The name is thought to be derived from the Old German "rusche" meaning "reed" or "cane." In Praetorius' drawing (see right) we find a small detachable windcap fitted over the reed of the normal treble shawm.

The instrument has a conical bore without a bell. The double-reed resides inside the windcap. This design produces a loud, screaming sound, full of overtones. Therefore, it is also called Schreyerpfeife or Schryari by Praetorius (from German: "schreien" = "to scream"). The player blows into a slot at the top of the windcap in order to produce sound. The instrument has eight medium-sized fingerholes whereby the eighth hole is fingered with the left thumb. The larger sizes have a little-finger-key with a fontanelle for the lowest note as well as upward extension keys operated by the index finger for the upper range.

rauschpfeifen Five players of rauschpfeifen from Hans Burgkmair's Triumphal procession for Maximilian I (woodcut 1512–19, publ. 1526). These players look very similar to the shawm players, but the instruments here are shorter in size and show the typical windcaps of the rauschpfeifen in which the players are actually blowing.

In the sixteenth century the word "rauschpfeife" was sometimes used to denote woodwind instruments in general. A purchase order for musical instruments placed by the Nuremberg town council in 1538 mentioned "a large Bommart and associated Rauschpfeiffen," but the delivery included recorders, cornetts, shawms and other instruments, but none specifically termed "rauschpfeifen."

Appart from the five shawm-players in Hans Burgkmair's woodcuts for the Triumph of Maximilian I (see above part 1) there are also five players of "Rauschpfeiffen," as they are referred to in the accompanying contemporary text.

Another form, the "Hirtenschalmei" (shepherd's shawm) is often mentioned in medieval French literature and poetry and appeared frequently in paintings usually played by shepherds or rustic figures.

Similar to the rauschpfeife, the tone of the hirtenschalmei is produced by a capped double-reed and sounds rich and buzzy. The main bore is cylindrical and ends in a large flared bell.

Claude Lorrain, Costal Landscape Italian Coastal Landscape
Claude Lorrain
Oil on canvas, 97 x 131 cm. Staatliche Museen, Berlin

A shepherd couple is placed in the foreground. The woman is seated on a rock and is listening to the shepherd playing a shawm.

The only surviving instrument of this kind was unexpectedly discovered during salvage operations in 1980 on King Henry VIII's famous warship, the "Mary Rose," which had sunk in the English Channel in 1545. This instrument may also have been a "dulzaina," described by Tinctoris as a rather low volume reed instrument of limited range, suitable for indoor music. Reconstructions of the hirtenschalmei are made after the "Mary Rose" instrument, in soprano, alto and tenor size.1

Parallel to the gradual development of the oboe (see expert-box) during the second half of the seventeenth century, a distinct type appeared described by contemporary sources as "Deutsche Schalmey." This instrument is a curious combination of the shawm and the new French oboe which had preceded general adoption of oboes by German military regiments, hence its name. It was also well-known in the Netherlands as "Duitse schalmei" (or "velt-Schelmey," as it was called by seventeenth-century instrument makers in Amsterdam). Recent interpretation denote the Deutsche Schalmey as a survival of the earliest form of the prototypical oboe developed in France by Hotteterre, which seemed to have found a musical niche in the German-speaking area, especially in military Hautboisten-Banden beginning in the 1640s. Evidently, the Schalmey and oboe co-existed rather competed. This instrument was slender and graceful in build and was made of two sections, with thinner walls, a narrow and often roughly turned bore, and smaller finger-holes. Two sizes, treble and tenor, were made, each provided with a fontanelle, although only in the tenor did this cover a key. The tone was sweeter and the playing-technique demanded a less specialized embouchure than the oboe. The instruments could either have a pirouette, or be blown without one, like the oboe.

At the beginning of the 18th century the Schalmey disappeared, probably because it was "difficult to blow, and struck the ear unpleasantly in the higher register" as a contemporary notice mentions. However, it remained in use in rural areas for some time longer.

Vanitas Still Life, Edwart Collier Vanitas Still Life
Edwart Collier
Oil on canvas, 104 x 109 cm.
Private collection

The lower part of a shawm with an accurately depicted fontanelle and the flared bell features like a highlight between the two dark globes in the background.

Although very popular in its time, the shawm doesn't appear as often in Dutch painting as the fiddle, bagpipe or hurdy-gurdy, perhaps because it was used mainly by municipal pipers who had not been as an attracive motif as the popular rustic, music making scenes. Shawms (at least their lower parts with the picturesque fontanelle) are found in Vanitas-still lifes or in scenes of the Classical mythology where they may refer to the divine meaning of their ancient predecessors, the Greek aulos (see The Bagpipe).The Greek poet Pindar tells us in his twelfth Pythian Ode about the invention of the "shawm" (i.e. aulos) by the goddess Athena, which became a divine instrument. Ancient depictions of the Nine Muses, the divine companions of the god Apollon, show the muse Euterpe with a single or double-pipe.

Sophokles (Ant. 65) tells us, that the muses love the "shawm" (aulos), and Euripides calls it the "servant of the muses" (Elek. 717).2 Painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries took up these highly regarded ancient references in their mythological scenes to the delight of the potent upper class who favored sophisticated inconographical references.

Regarding the every-day scenes, it is again Jan Steen who depicted shawm-players several times. One particular rendition figures prominently in the foreground of his humorous De Dansles, where a girl is playing a shawm while the other children are trying to get a kitten to dance (see Bruce Haynes: Lully and the rise of the oboe as seen in works of art). In Steen's well-known Village Wedding (1653) there are two shawm-players (the left-hand player probably holds a sopranino), leaning out of the right side of the window they blow full strength on their instruments heralding the bride's arrival. Perhaps these players are members of the municipal pipers since the larger instrument is decorated with a banner, probably with the town's arms on it.

detail of Cesar Van Everdingen's Four Muses

The still life in the foreground of Caesar van Everdingen's Four Muses (above) shows eleven lifelike musical instruments, arranged in an artful composition. Among them are two shawms: the one arising with its lower part somewhat unrealistic between a vielle and a bass viol, with a portative organ at the side; the other one, made of dark wood and elaborately carved, appears, half covered from the vielle, at the lower left side. other instruments are a harp, a recorder, a tenor viol, a tambourine, a trombone and a trumpet (behind the portative organ).

Although by 1700 most provincial waits were replacing their shawms with the new oboes and bassoons, shawms remained in use in some places longer than elsewhere, particularly north of the Alps. They still featured in the Stadtpfeiferei to the end of the 18th century. Goethe noted the "Schalmei" and "Pommer" in his Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811–1833), in an account of a procession of the Nuremberg Stadtpfeifer on its way to the Pfeifergericht, an annual confirmation of trading privileges. Two instruments, used in this procession and made by members of the renowned Denner-family of woodwind instruments makers (see The Dulcian), have survived and are housed in the Frankfurt Historisches Museum.

New interest concerning the historical evidence of the shawm as the predecessor of the oboe came with the early music movement in the 1970s and led some makers and players to become authoritative specialists.

Bruce Haynes: Lully and the rise of the oboe as seen in works of art

As the first composer to make regular use of the oboe in his opera-ballets from 1657 onwards, Jean-Baptiste Lully has been credited with the role of 'godfather' to the newly developed instrument. Lully's elevation caused the downfall of all the old instruments except the shawm, thanks to Filidor and Hautteterre [Martin, d. 1712], who spoiled so much wood and played so much music that they finally succeeded in rendering it usable in orchestras.

Writing about 1692-95, James Talbot left extensive notes on three oboe-type instruments that were in current usage in his day: the 'English Hautbois [literally: 'high wood'] or "Waits treble" (= the shawm), the "Schalmeye" (= Deutsche Schalmey) and the "French Hautbois treble." This implies the development of a new conception of the shawm around 1660. A number of English sources indicate the arrival of the new French oboe in the 1670s, and the "Hautboistenbande" is recorded for the first time in Germany in 1680. The oboe had thus achieved a separate identity from the shawm in France just after the middle of the seventeenth century. Though the shawm had been used in consorts or bands, the idea of combining it with strings was apparently new. This new function must gradually have influenced the physical form of the instrument, but the transformation from shawm to true oboe did not take place overnight.

First period: the evolving shawm (c. 1620-c. 1660)

The two highest sizes of shawm as they had developed just before Lully's time differ so greatly in basic construction that there are those who consider them as belonging to separate families. Praetorius appropriately distinguishes them by calling the treble instrument a "Schalmey" and the alto a "Pommer." But it is from the treble shawm that the bore of the new oboe (and, incidentally, the taille de hautbois in French) derived.

A number of criteria for differentiating the oboe from Praetorius's shawm have been put forward: the lack of a pirouette, the presence of chromatic scale, a smaller bore and a range beyond an octave and a sixth. But there is clear evidence that in the years following Praetorius the shawm shows a process of mutation toward all these supposed oboe characteristics. The pirouette was already absent from Mersenne's two depictions of a treble shawm (1636), and from Steen. Mersenne credits all sizes of the shawm with a two octave range and any good modern player of the later seventeenth-century models of higher shawms similar to that depicted by Steen can run right up two octaves chromatically.

oboe with two keys Classical oboe with two keys,
made of boxwood and ivory
(where the pieces are joined together).
London c. 1780.

Second period: the protomorphic oboe (c. 1660-c.1680)

At a relatively specific point at the end of the seventeenth century, an oboe-type instrument emerged with structural details that remained relatively stable through the critical succeeding generations. It is probably safe to call this instrument a true baroque oboe. It differs from the oboe-like instruments that precede it in having all the following morphological characteristics:

1. Profile: swellings at specific places along the bore; the shawm lacks these.

2. The instrument is divided (as the swellings imply) into three joints; the shawm is in one (later
sometime two) pieces with a straight or slightly conical exterior.

3. A key exists for the note IIIb (E flat) as well as I (C).

4. Tone-holes are smaller than on the shawm.

5. The oboe has only two vent-holes below the tone-holes, placed at the same point along the bore; the
Praetorius treble shawm has five.

6. Nearly half the length of the shawm lies below the finger-holes; on the oboe the hole (therefore hand)
position lies lower along the bore, and the length below it is relatively foreshortened.

7. There is a bell lip (contraction rim) at the bottom; this is missing on the shawm.

Since the word "hautbois" is used in French for both the shawm and oboe, the terminology provides no clue as to what instrument (or instruments) Lully actually knew and used. There is nothing in Lully's parts that would exclude playing them on Mersenne's treble shawm or some form of transitional oboe/shawm. The limited tonalities were no challenge to the shawm."

From: Bruce Haynes, "Lully and the rise of the oboe as seen in works of art". Early Music XVI (August 1988) 324-338.

.by Adelheid Rech.

drawings of shawms
Detail from Praetorius' drawings of shawms (here the 'discant Schalmey') with an additional windcap.
soprano rauschpfeife
A sopranino (above) and a soprano rauschpfeife
double reed inside
The windcap, removed from the rauschpfeife, revealing the double reed inside.
alto hirtenschalmei
An alto hirtenschalmei.
Reconstructions of  Deutsche Schalmeyen
Reconstructions of 'Deutsche Schalmeyen'
in the usual tenor and soprano size.
De Dansle, Jan Steen
De Dansle
Jan Steen
Oil on panel, 68.5 x 59 cm.
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
The Village Wedding, Jan Steen
The Village Wedding
Jan Steen
Museum Bojmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
Two kinds of shawms from  Marin Mersenne's Harmonie universelle
Two kinds of shawms from Marin Mersenne's Harmonie universelle (1636). Left: a windcap instrument (see also in the main section);
right: a 'Dessus du Hautbois' (treble shawm).
De Dansles, jAN sTEEN
De Dansles (detail)
Jan Steen
Oil on panel, 68.5 x 59 cm.
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Structure and playing technique of the shawm

A soprano, alto and tenor shawm. The alto and tenor have the fontanelle, the tenor a crooked mouthpiece instead of the pirouette.

Shawms were made of various hardwoods, often maple. They have a conical bore expanding into a bell and are usually made of one piece, except the larger instruments which consist of several sections fitted together. These instruments have seven finger-holes at the front. At the larger instruments the sound is let through the lowest hole which is closed by a key protected by a slide-on wooden barrel, the fontanelle, perforated by small holes, arranged in ornamental patterns. Below the lowest finger-hole there are several vent-holes to correct the effect of the acoustically overlong bell section, which assures tonal stability. Shawms were usually played with a pirouette (English: "fliew") apart from the lower ones.

The double reed, made of the species Arundo donax, was placed on a staple, which in turn was fitted into the pirouette in order to leave the upper part of the reed clear. The lower part of the staple was wound with thread and fitted into the neck of the shawm. The reeds were probably shorter and somewhat broader than those used today for the modern double-reed instruments (oboe, bassoon), although with a wider opening.

The player's lips could rest against the top of the pirouette, supporting the embouchure against fatigue and allowing the reed to vibrate freely inside the mouth. The reed could be controlled directly by the lips allowing variable sound production. There are some depictions of a musical ensemble in which one shawm player is resting from the strain placed on the lips in performance.

The lowest tone of the various sizes of shawms from the Renaissance era are f1 for the sopranino, c1 for the soprano, f0 for the alto, c0 for the tenor and F for the bass. The great bass pommer had the lowest tone C. The fingering on the larger instruments is problematic because of the large distance of the fingerholes. The lowest tones of the larger instruments are handled with a key (or up to 4 keys at the bass instruments).
Shawms overblow at first times into the octave, at second times into the twelfth, but usually they are overblown only once.

Shawms and Pommers, together with cornetts, dulcians/curtals and trombones will always remain the regular instruments of many Renaissance wind ensembles like the Piffaro.

Shawn resources:

  • Grove Music Online:
  • entry "Shawm": Anthony C. Baynes / Martin Kirnbauer
    entry "Rauschpfeife": Barra R. Boydell
    entry "Wind-cap [reed-cap] instruments": Barra R. Boydell
  • Anthony Baines, Woodwind Instruments and their History. London 1957.
  • Bruce Haynes: "Lully and the rise of the oboe as seen in works of art," in: Early Music XVI, 1
    (February 1988) 324-38.

The shawm on the web:

  1. To the musical instruments found on the "Mary Rose" see Frances Palmer, "Musical instruments from the Mary Rose. A report on work in progress". Early Music 11, 1 (January 1983) 53-60.
  2. See Max Wegener, Das Musikleben der Griechen. Berlin 1949. 11ff. and Martin L. West, Ancient Greek Music. Oxford 1994. 81ff., esp. 85.
    To the practice of ancient Greek music see the very informative website Ancient Greek Music with various sound-examples on reconstructed instruments (aulos and cithara).
Diagram of the top of a shawm Diagram of the top of a shawm:

a) the staple, its lower part wound with thread
b) the pirouette
c) the reed, fitted into the pirouette
on the staple.
Adimari Cassone Wedding
Detail from the Adimari Cassone Wedding
attrib. to Giovanni di Ser Giovanni, called 'lo Scheggia'
(14061486; younger brother of Masaccio). Galleria dell'Accademia Florence

The music ensemble consists of a trombone and three shawms. The third player from the left-side (looking to the viewer) is pausing to relieve his embouchure.