The Medieval Review 10.10.11

McGee, Timothy J. Instruments and their Music in the Middle Ages. Music in Medieval Europe. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009. Pp. xxv, 529. $250 hb ISBN 978-0-7546-2762-3. .

Reviewed by:

Gretchen Peters
University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire

Instruments and their Music in the Middle Ages, edited by Timothy McGee, is a compilation of twenty-eight essays which have been central to the research on medieval musical instruments over the last fifty years. This recent contribution to Ashgate's series, Music in Medieval Europe, offers the reader much needed help in navigating this complex area of research for which numerous questions and problems have yet to be resolved. (For me, this collection aids in the identification of musical instruments while researching music in medieval archival records of French cities, which has been a recurring challenge.) The essays are organized into six categories: the classification of musical instruments, keyboards, plucked strings, bowed strings, winds, and finally, the repertory. The value of this collection lies in McGee's selection of complementary essays that not only offer information on the construction of multiple instruments, but also on their social context.

The introduction by McGee, who has long been immersed in these complex issues, provides brief summaries of the construction and use of principal instruments and their repertory, along with an explanation of the challenges in research. Evident in the introduction, McGee recognizes the need for background knowledge when reading these specialized essays. The index for these essays is also valuable, helping the reader to compare perspectives and evidence pertaining to a specific instrument.

Each group of essays offers a variety of perspectives. For example, each of the essays from the opening group on the "Classification and Lists of Instruments" draws from distinct types of evidence. Edmund Bowles' essay on Haut and Bas groupings of instruments draws from multiple sources, including poems and archival evidence cutting across broad geography and time. Christopher Page draws upon a single fourteenth-century treatise by Konrad Megenberg on the education and concerns of a prince. Joscelyn Godwin provides iconographic analysis of sculpture on churches, as well as a consideration of Machaut's poem Le Rem├Ęde de Fortune. Anthony Baines draws from the well-known treatise on musical instruments by Tinctoris, and Richard Rastall utilizes household account books, especially those of English royalty. Offering a multi-angled geographic perspective, in the section on bowed string instruments, Howard Brown addresses the fiddle in Italy, Mary Remnant in England, and Keith Polk in Germany.

While the titles of many of these studies suggest a focus on the construction of a particular instrument, much broader questions are entertained by these scholars. For example, while the diversity in design and tuning are addressed in the essays on bowed instruments, so are much larger social and musical questions. From iconographic evidence from fourteenth-century Italy, Howard Brown, in his article "The Trecento Fiddle and its Bridges," draws conclusions concerning the social standing of musicians and instruments, as well as connects the instrument to repertoires of music, particularly secular polyphony.

Through the compilation of related essays, this collection also allows the reader to make sense of the often controversial and contradictory scholarship concerning the history of an instrument. For example, the section on the slide trumpet contains six essays that try to establish the history of this enigmatic instrument based primarily upon iconographic evidence, which has proven to be problematic. As McGee points out in his introduction, the very existence of the instrument continues to be called into question.

In the Preface to the series, Music in Medieval Europe, general editor, Thomas Kelly, indicates that the intention is to represent the "best current scholarship," which is incongruous with this collection; while over half of the articles date from the 1970's or earlier, including one from the 1940's, only three date from the 1990's, with none of the articles dating from this century. In general, I am not suggesting that more current articles should have been selected in place of these, but why these articles are still considered among the "best current scholarship" deserves discussion in the introduction. The surge in interest in the performance of medieval music in the 1960's undoubtedly prompted much of this scholarship. Well over half of the authors in this volume are or were actively involved in the performance of early music during their career, and as musician- scholars, they have sought practical questions concerning this repertoire. The general concerns reflected in more recent scholarship addressing medieval instrumental culture, if it is not the construction and repertory of musical instruments, warrant consideration in the introduction. More than one article by seven of the authors appear in the collection, including four by Edmund Bowles and three by Christopher Page, and this choice to not include a broader cross-section of scholars has yielded a more narrow impression of work being conducted on medieval musical instruments.

Two of the oldest articles in the collection in particular challenge the purpose of the series: Edmond Bowles' "Musical Instruments at the Medieval Banquet" (1958) and "Musical Instruments in Civic Processions during the Middle Ages" (1958). The seminal nature of the article by Bowles entitled, "Haut and Bas: The Grouping of Musical Instruments in the Middle Ages," dating from 1954, justifies its inclusion, though the choice to include these other two articles in the final section on "Repertory" is less evident. I have returned to these two articles recently in my work, and I had forgotten how rich and diverse his references were to medieval instrumental practices. And yet while the articles are valuable, they do not represent current scholarship in their style and approach, as Bowles draws on numerous sources and touches on numerous locations. In contrast to the trend for more narrowly defined musicological studies, these articles reflect the value of past scholarship in which a generalized view of a topic is projected. The article by Lloyd Hibberd from 1946, entitled "On 'Instrumental Style' in Early Melody," evaluates the basic concept of "instrumental," responding to Arnold Schering's distinction at the beginning of the twentieth century between instrumental and vocal music. If these ideas still warrant inclusion on a volume on current research on medieval instrumental music, a more extensive evaluation of current trends in scholarship needs to be offered.