Friday, June 17, 2016
When my recent post on the medieval carvings at Adderbury provoked some interest, I found myself being rather apologetic about the lack of precision in some of those vigorous, if rustic, sculptures. One carving of a person playing a stringed instrument, probably a rebec, showed the musician holding it in a rather odd way. But how do you hold a rebec, anyway? As with skinning a cat, there's more than one way, apparently.
Questions such as these sent me rummaging in my archives for other images of medieval musicians – or musicians portrayed in a medieval style. Then I remembered Christopher Whall's windows in the wonderful Arts and Crafts church at Brockhampton-by-Ross, one of which shows angel musicians. I'm not going to apologise (again!) for the somewhat moppet-like faces of these young angels (the most recent Pevsner volume for Herefordshire calls them 'somewhat sentimental'). There's too much else to like – the beautiful drawing and rich colours for a start. And then the way one suddenly realises, having studied the details for a minute, that these angel musicians are perched in the branches of trees.
So I offer you a string player and an angel blowing at a woodwind instrument. I'll try not to get tied into too many knots trying to decipher what the instruments are. The stringed one has the indented waist and sideways-protruding pegs of the viol family; the wind instrument to me has the look of a shawm (an ancestor of the oboe). I expect Whall took them from earlier depictions of instruments in medieval art – from other stained glass windows or from carvings. I think they're worth celebrating for themselves.
For readers who have not heard a shawm, and would like to know what it sounds like, there's a recording of a shawm here.