Early instruments – Renaissance and Baroque

Posted on October 19, 2013


Perhaps the most popular instrument of the Renaissance and Baroque era, the origins of the lute is way back somewhere in the depths of ancient history, when stringed instruments with a neck similar to the lute’s were used in Egypt and Greece. Musicians in countries, such as Persia, Armenia, China, Turkey and Bulgar had their own traditional lutes. During the Renaissance the lutes developed from an accompaniment instrument into a solo instrument suitable for polyphonic music. This involved an increase in the numbers of strings, from 4-5 up to 19-20. Some of the bass strings were installed outside the fretboard, so they were played openly, along with the higher pitched melody lines played on the other strings.
As there are hardly any lutes that have survived the centuries, it is a difficult and somewhat speculative task to build a modern replica of the Renaissance instrument. Paintings dated back to this era have been valuable sources of information. Lute has increased again in popularity in the twentieth-century, many virtuoso lutists existing at present, after it virtually disappeared from the musical frontline after 1750. Another Renaissance instrument similar to the lute is the theorbo (and the very similar chitarrone), which has an extended pitch range produced by longer (bass) strings attached to a long neck.
The most prominent masters and innovators of lute and theorbo music were the virtuoso player and composer Johannes Hieronymus Kapsberger and Alessandro Piccinini both of them lived in the early seventeenth century Italy (Kapsberger in Venice and Rome, Picinini in Bologna). Their main compositional genre was the toccata, which is a form of music emphasising the virtuosity of the player.

A beautiful collection of Kapsberger’s lute and chitarrone pieces.

It is a stringed instrument, with violin like strings mounted on a soundboard. The strings are played via a rosined wheel (turned by the player with a crank), which serves a role similar to the bow of the violin. A small keyboard produces the melodic sounds by moving wedged shaped pieces of wood, which apply pressure to the strings at different lengths. There are also drone strings mounted on the instrument, to o produce constant harmonic background notes, making it similar to the bagpipe. It was poplar up to the twentieth century in Eastern European countries, like Ukraine, Hungary and Poland, where the hurdy-gurdy was mainly played by the poorest, most marginalised inhabitants of a town or a village, often blind musicians, the instrument being also called the ‘beggar’s lyre’. However, in the Rococo era it was raised into the favour of the upper social classes.


The shawm is the European member of a large family of musical instrument widely used in several continents. Examples of these instruments include the chirimia played by the Mayan people in Highland Guatemala, the Chinese suona, the Persian sunray, the Arabic zamr, the Indian sahanai and the Javanese saruni. Due to its piercing sound it has been generally preferred for outdoor performances. The sham was a regular member of popular and military bands, although a softer sound was achieved in the 16th century by reducing its bore and the size of the holes, which found its way to aristocratic courts market squares. In the medieval shawn the reed was difficult to control by the lips, which was resolved in the Renaissance period by the use of broader reeds. A small cylinder plased around the base of the reed called pirouette provided support for the lips.
The shawm is a double reed instrument with a conical bore, which was further developed into the oboe. In the 16th century it was manufactured in different sizes, the smaller soprano, alto and tenor variants were easy to handle and to play, but the larger ones were often impractical. The efforts to create a low tone double reed instrument led to the development bassoons, where the bore was folded back.

Viol (viola da gamba)

Viol is the name of a series of bowed, 6-stringed instruments with frets, a flat back, sloped shoulders and C-shaped sound holes. The origins of these instruments are uncertain, but they became popular in the second half of the fifteenth century in Spain and Italy. Some sources recognise the Spanish vihuela, a 6 stringed, plucked instrument as the predecessor of the viol. The viol was manufactured in different sizes, such as treble (resembling the violin), tenor and bass instruments (approximately the size of the modern cello). These instruments became very popular as accompaniment and later as solo instruments in other countries as well, such as England, Germany and France.
The viols were popular both among amateur and professional players, inspiring composers like William Byrd, Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Georg Phillipp Telemann and Christopher Gibbons, among many others.

It is a double reed instrument of an unusual, curved shape, with the reeds mounted inside a long windcap. The origin or the function of the curve is unclear, it is possible that it served solely a decorative purpose, but perhaps it also makes it easier for the player to modulate the intonation, directing the sound back towards them. The player’s lips do not come in contact with the reed, so they cannot be manipulated directly, which results in a quasi-constant intensity of the sound, characteristic to Renaissance music. It is a rather loud instrument, with a humming, buzzing, resonant sound.

Susato – Crumhorn Trio, featuring crumhorns of different sizes – Soprano (Leonardo Cerante) – Tenor (Adriano Moreira) and Bass (Eduardo Antonello)

Posted in: Part 5