Crumhorns, Sackbuts and…Oliphants?

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Oliphant, 12th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan. Image:
Oliphant, 12th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan. Image:

As a lover of early (pre-renaissance) music, I’ve heard my share of medieval instruments like the vielle, rebec, sackbut and crumhorn. Add to that list the oliphant, which I learned about more recently. It is not to be confused with the modern-day large pachyderm (though the name is an ancient variant of elephant) nor the lumbering creature from the Lord of the Rings. And it is certainly not welcomed by U.S. Customs, since an oliphant is made of ivory carved from a whole elephant’s tusk. The natural shape of the tusk aided in producing a resonant sound.

I recall that a couple of years ago a group of musicians were denied entry into the U.S. because their violin and cello bows were quite old and had ivory in them.  And remember that at one time all pianos had ivory keys, hence the term “tickling the ivories.” Pianists liked ivory keys because they wicked the perspiration off the players fingers. Companies like Yamaha eventually were able to create plastic keys that offered the same benefit.

Anyway, I read about the oliphant in a review of a 2015 book about this hunting horn/instrument called The Medieval Oliphant, co-authored by a Columbia University art history professor, Avinoam Shalem, along with Maria Glaser. The oliphants depicted in this German-language book show carvings of fruit, birds, wolves, camels, warriors and hunters, as well as carved verses in Latin. One of the extant oliphants dates to 1098. These were expensive and exquisite objects. (For those who don’t read German but want to learn more, Prof. Shalem also published The Oliphant: Islamic Objects in Historical Context.)

Playing the rebec in Santillana del Mar (Cantabria, Spain). Photo by Raul Saez (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

As I’ve previously written, medieval (early) music interests me because it doesn’t follow the standard Western European diatonic scale of whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole half  steps that came with the Renaissance and the Circle of Fifths. Early music often sounds mystical, with an exotic modal style that is striking to hear. Examples include the music of Hildegard of Bingen, Peter Abelard (think Heloise & Abelard), the Marian Canticles, Guillaume Dufay, Guillaume de Machaut, the early group Hesperion XX and XXI. There’s also the fascinating Arabic-Andalusian music that flourished in Spain from the 9th to the 15th century. Much of that particular music carried the DNA of the middle east and north Africa. It was an amazing mix of cultures before the Christian reconquista of 1492 expelled the Jews and the Moors from Spain.

And so I say, long live crumhorns, sackbuts, vielles, and oliphants!

For a taste of the early music sound, here is one of the early and great CDs of Arabic-Andalusian music, performed by the Atrium Musicae de Madrid, directed by Gregorio Paniagua.

And the gorgeous music of medieval Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, from the album A Feather on the Breath of God:

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