minstrel: Medieval fiddling

Vanessa Layne dagoura at MIT.EDU
Tue Nov 7 20:53:04 PST 2000

Hi all --

Long time no see.  Sorry I missed Harper's Retreat, Leucum; thanks for
the plug. :)

Vilfred Josefsen asks:

> I am interested in the history of the violin (specifically fiddle
> music).  I have found that the fiddle changed form many times over the
> years, not just in shape but in number of strings, drone strings,
> frets/non-fretted, etc.  ?? Is the viol d'gambe a predecessor of the
> violin?  It is a fretted instrument, isn't it?

Perhaps an actual string player will tackle this.  In the meanwhile:

The medieval predecessor of the violin is the vielle.  It looks kinda
like a violin, can be played like a violin, and sounds like a violin.

It is a very venerable instrument, dating back at least to the 12th
century.  It is strongly associated with trobador, trouvere, and
minnesinger repertoires.  There is evidence that the Estampies Real
and the famous Brit. Add. 29987 Istampittas were intended for
vielle. (see McGee, _MID_)  There is some evidence that players of
the vielle during the 12th century were held in higher esteem than
players of other instruments (see Page, _The Owl & the Nightingale_).

It is fretted, IIRC.  It can be played on the shoulder (or breast,
according to a lot of iconography) like a violin, or in the lap like a
viola da gamba.

The viola da gamba is a fretted instrument.  It is deeper chested than
a violin or vielle.

The vielles I have seen have 5 strings.  The viellor I spoke with last
Sunday (the Boston Camerata rocks) said she tunes to two pitches a
fifth apart (e.g. all strings are D or A), including two string to the
same pitch.  The issue of the flatness of the bridge is hotly debated
(see Wishart's essay in _Companion to Med. & Ren. Music_), but many
are built with very shallow arches, so triple stops (for drones) are
very easy.

Vielle bows arch the other way (concave, not convex).

Also note that there is an instrument called the rebec, which is
pretty fiddle-like, but not a fiddle.

By the time you get to the end of the 16th century, you have pretty
violin-like violins.  There's mention of using violin for playing
dance music.  Note the OED says of the term "kit":

   kit kit, sb.2 Now rare. Origin obscure.
     NOTE: Perh. repr. the initial part of Gr. kiqara cithara, or some
     derivative form of that word.
   A small fiddle, formerly much used by dancing masters.
     * 1519 Interl. Four Elem. in Hazl. Dodsley I. 48 This dance would do
       mich better yet, If we had a kit or taberet.
     * 1562 Phaer Aeneid ix. Cc iv b, His pastime chief was harpe and kit.

> I am especially interested in the "period-ness" of Irish/Scottish jigs
> and reels.  Especially in the "jig" or "reel" music format itself, not
> specific tunes at this point.  

Short answer: looks like no dice.  Medium answer: there was a big
discussion of this over on the sca dance list, some time about 6 mo
ago.  A lot of rocks were turned over, and no one has managed to come
up with any substantial evidence.

Long answer: 'pends on what you mean by "music format".  If, by "jig",
you mean only "fast 6/8", sure: check out the Praetorius courantos.
But if you mean "souds like a jig", you may be out of luck.  Same with
reels, only not courantos. :)

What you'll find in late period music is that (if you're familiar with
Irish/Scottish music) it will sound to you more like what O'Neill
terms "Ayres" than the dance forms.  Even the period dance music.

> Additionally, I have been told that the "Cape Breton" style of fiddling
> which is growing in popularity is, in fact, not a new style at all but
> is instead the ancient Scottish fiddling technique that was nearly lost
> forever to Scotland when all of their fiddlers emigrated here to North
> America.

Yes, CB style fiddling preserves a style of Scottish fiddling that was
all but lost in Scotland.  But Ancient...?

Note that there were a lot of stylistic changes in the 17th century in
popular music.  There were a lot of innovations.  The English killed
every harper they could find.  The Baroque happened.  

So, basically, we can't assume much.  Unless we have direct evidence,
we sort of have to presume material, style, etc is only 300-some-odd
yrs old at most.

> Secondarily I find myself interested in
> Scandanavian folk music, and what they were playing there pre-1600.

Piae Cantiones, 1589~.  Finnish, IIRC.  Don't know about other
Scandanavian sources.

-- Tibicen

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