bout the Shawm

Shawms, or shalmey, were one of the major double reed instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. They are regarded as the predecessor of the oboe, and were in fact called hautbois, meaning loud woodwind, in France during the sixteenth century. Shawms have a pirouette at the base of the reed, like racketts. The pirouette is used to support the front of the lips and thus helps reduce fatigue when playing. The bore of the shawm is narrow, but widens towards the bell. In this regard the bore expands more rapidly than in the oboe. The Shawm is also differentiated from the oboe by its bell, which looks something like the one on a clarinet. Shawms had six fingerholes and an open key that was covered by a fontinelle.

Shawms were first depicted in manuscripts from the late thirteenth century. At this point the instruments were small, being slightly more than a foot in length. By the Renaissance shawms were made in a wide variety of sizes. The larger instruments were known as bombardes in French, and as pommern in German. The Syntagma Musicum by Michael Praetorius describes seven different sizes of shawms:

These range in length from 21 inches to 100 inches.

Double reed instruments date back to biblical times. The Hebrews had a double reed instrument called the halil. It was made from cane and had a roughly cylindrical bore. Some instruments were covered or lined with metal, but the bare cane instrument was preferred for its softer timbre. The double reed instrument of ancient Greece was the aulos. It too was originally made from cane, but later instruments were also made from metal. Some instruments feature two or more pipes were are played simultaneously. Another feature of the aulos was a harness which was placed around the head while playing. It is assumed that the harness helped support the lips while playing.

There is a depiction of a double reed instruments with an expanding conical bore on Jewish coins that date from 100 A.D. This is the earliest evidence of a reed instrument with a conical bore. There are examples of such instruments in the cultures from the Middle East. In Persian the instrument is called the surnaya, while in Arabic it is called the Mizmar. In Africa conical double reed instruments took on a variety of names. In Egypt they are called sibs, and in Algeria and Morocco they are called gaita. While in Tripoli and Tunisia they are called zuqra.

Double reed instruments were transmitted from Persia to India, where the name surna was adapted to sanayi. From India the instrument was transmitted to China where it was called the sona. It is not clear when the instrument reached Japan. One of their double reeds is called the charumera, which is derived from the Spanish term for oboe which was charamela. This suggests that the instrument was transmitted by Jesuit missionaries during the sixteenth century.

These double reed instruments were transmitted to Western Europe prior to the tenth century. At that time we find an illustration of such an instrument in Isidore of Seville's Etymologiarum.

In the Middle Ages double reed instruments were classified as loud or soft. The loud instruments were called piffero in Italy and caramillo in Spain. They generally had a wide bell. The soft instruments were called dulzaina. Shawms fall into the former category.

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