The Shawm and Curtal
Shawms & Curtal
Consort of Shawms and a Curtal

The shawm is a long, straight wooden instrument with a bell, played with a double reed similar to a small bassoon reed. Like many European instruments, the shawm started life as an Arabic instrument. Instruments very much like the medieval shawm can still be heard in many countries today, played by street musicians or sometimes by military bands. The latter use would be familiar to crusaders, who often had to face massed bands of saracen shawms and nakers, used as a psychological weapon. It must have had a profound effect, as the shawm was quickly adopted by Europeans, for dancing as well as for military purposes. The standard outdoor dance band in the fifteenth century consisted of a slide trumpet playing popular melodies, while two shawms improvised countermelodies over it - rather like jazz.

By the early sixteenth century, the shawm had undergone considerable development. Its initially harsh tone was mellowed by almost doubling its length, the extra tubing acting to modify the harmonics. Its grand, majestic sound, particularly when played in consorts of several sizes, was much in demand by civic authorities, and the shawm was standard equipment for the town bands, or waits. These were originally night-watchmen, paid to keep watch on the walls at night, and equipped with shawms (cheaper than trumpets) to warn of danger, sound the all-clear, and so on. The skills they developed on the shawm, however, and the resulting demand for their services for both civic and private functions, meant that by the sixteenth century their actual role was as town musicians, and an apprentice wishing to be employed as a town wait required proficiency on at least ten instruments

The shawm band occupied its processional/dance/military niche until the mid-seventeenth century. Fashions then changed, and over a few decades, the soprano shawm lost its power and grandeur, acquired a narrower bore, a more introspective tone, some fancy turning and a couple of keys, and appeared in the salons of the eighteenth century as the new oboe.

Meanwhile, back in the early sixteenth century, it was quite obvious that a full consort of shawms, although it provided a truly magnificent sound, was logistically flawed, especially for processions. The soprano shawm was about two feet long, and the lower instruments increased in proportion, the bass being a monster which had to be played with the edge of its bell resting on the floor. The only way it could be played on the march was to employ a boy to carry the bell.

Some ingenious German chap devised a way of drilling two bores down a single piece of wood and joining them at the bottom, effectively producing a folded bass shawm which was half the original length, and much easier to manage. The new instrument was called either a curtal or a dulcian in England, and it became very popular as a general purpose bass instrument, even in refined settings where the higher shawms were considered inappropriate. In the late seventeenth century, at the same time that the shawm turned into the oboe, the curtal underwent the same treatment and ended up as the bassoon.

Devotees of the grand and glorious shawm band will be delighted to know that Diabolus now has the players to field a full band of waits. Click here for information.

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