An introduction to music research
An introduction to music research

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An introduction to music research

Appendix 2 Painting instruments in the Renaissance

Helen Coffey

Archival records provide details of the wind bands which were employed in many cities and courts in western Europe from the mid-fourteenth century. Payment lists confirm that these ensembles typically numbered between two and five members, and generally consisted of two or three reed instruments (shawm, bombard) together with a brass instrument. Although payment lists provide valuable information about these ensembles, scholars have turned to iconography (such as the image presented here), to gain further insights into the performances and instruments of these musicians.

Figure 1 [Barthélemy d’Eyck], La Teseida. Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, Ms 2617, f.39r. Photo: © Bridgeman Education.

This picture of c.1470, believed to be by the Flemish painter Barthélemy d’Eyck, is one of sixteen miniatures that illustrate a French translation of Boccaccio’s epic poem of the legend of the Ancient Greek hero Theseus. This particular miniature depicts Theseus’s triumphal procession through Athens. Despite the subject of the miniature, the artist obviously drew on his everyday experiences in his work: we therefore see the reed and brass instruments of the civic and court wind bands at that time, as well as the ensembles’ customary practice of performing without reference to written music.

Scholars have used images such as this to determine the form of the brass instrument used in these ensembles, as archival references can be ambiguous in their descriptions. Many fifteenth-century images show trumpeters playing on s-shaped or folded trumpets (as here) in which the players appear to be moving a slide, placed after the mouthpiece. The instrumentalist’s left hand seems to hold the mouthpiece near the lips while the right hand supports the main body of the instrument, pulling and pushing the instrument towards him and thus enabling performances in more than one harmonic series. The evidence for the development of the slide trumpet (the precursor to the trombone) during the early fifteenth century is mainly based on images such as this – there is little mention of this instrument in archival records before the end of the century. Scholars such as Keith Polk (1989) have used these pictures to demonstrate the instrument’s popularity during this period, even after the trombone gained prominence in later years.

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