You might not have heard of this infamous Renaissance instrument, but the shawm is a relative to the oboe, the bassoon, and, in that it was an instrument meant for the great outdoors, to the bagpipe. It’s a member of the woodwind family and it looks like a recorder with an oboe reed.
The shawm was popular in Europe from the 12th century until the 17th century. It’s essentially a primitive oboe, with a conically bored wooden body, a double reed, and finger holes. Some have belled bottoms, some are curved. All are very loud.
The instrument and its music were considered symbolic of the pastoral mood for quite a while. In 1388, King John of Saragossa, when writing to his brother Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, said that he was fond of the shawm, along with the cornamusse, bombarde, harp, andportative organ. So there’s evidence of it being played in royal circles, not only out in the fields.
Shawms came to the rest of Europe through Italy, and the oldest known mention is from 12th century Saracen Sicily. The reed was nearly completely inside the player’s mouth (like the Egyptian aulos), which made it impossible to control the tone or color with the lips. There was no personal expression in the playing because of this limitation, and the instrument sounded with all the power and astringent vigor of the age. The shawm’s loud and clear tones made it suitable for playing with trumpets and percussion in consorts. In other words, it was loud, nasal, and not meant to be in the background.
The shawm is probably descended from the Asian zuma, and from similar instruments brought to Europe from the Near East during the time of the Crusades. It’s possible that the name comes from the Arabic salamiya, a traditional oboe from Egypt.
The shawm is represented in Norman drawings from about the 12th century. In England, it was used in connection with the night watches established by Henry III, and was called the waygte, or wayte pipe. Images of shawms from the 14th century look physically the same as the surviving instruments from the 16th and 17th century, so it’s not likely to have changed much for its whole period of popularity.
The shawm can still be heard in many countries, usually played by street musicians or military bands (and historically informed groups playing early music on period instruments). In the 12th century, the Crusaders would have found the military bands familiar, because they often faced huge bands of Saracen shawms and nakers (like a small kettle drum), used, like the bagpipe, as a psychological weapon.
The instrument was quickly adopted by Europeans for both dancing and military purposes. The standard outdoor dance band in the 15th century consisted of a slide trumpet playing popular melodies while two shawms improvised countermelodies over it.
By the 16th century, the shawm had evolved only slightly. The harsh tonality of the medieval shawm had modulated somewhat because of narrowing the bore and reducing the size of the finger holes. This extended the range, enabling a performer to play a second octave. Larger sizes were built, down to great bass, two octaves below the soprano. The larger sizes were unwieldy and impractical, making them rare. The great bass, in particular, could only be played with a performer standing on a small platform.
Smaller shawms, chiefly the soprano, alto, and sometimes the tenor, were often coupled with the Renaissance trombone or sackbut (biography to come), and the majestic sound of this ensemble was much in demand. The shawm became standard equipment in town bands, called a wait (or waygte or wayte), who heralded the beginning of municipal functions and signaled the time of day. Shawms became so closely associated with the town waits, (the Stadpfeifer in German, and piffari in Italian) that it was also known as the wait pipe.
The shawm was too loud for indoor use, and crumhorn and sordun were preferred in those roles for indoor bands. Those instruments were also double reeds, but they were fitted with a capsule that completely enclosed the reed, quieting the sound but continuing to limit the dynamic range.
The 16th century interest in building instruments led to a full-range of sizes, but the shawm consort proved to be a short-lived experiment. The extreme length of the pipe on the bass instruments meant that few were built and few played. Inventers found a way to bend the bore back upon itself, creating a more manageable instrument. The new instrument was often referred to as the dulcian, and was called a curtal in England, fagot or fagotto in Germany and Italy, the bajon in Spain. The dulcian became very popular as a general-purpose bass instrument where shawms were considered inappropriate (such as anyplace indoors). This attractively bent up instrument is the ancestor of the modern bassoon.
The charumera or charumeru is a double-reeded instrument in traditional Japanese music, thought to descend either from shawms brought there by Portuguese Christian missionaries, or by Iberian traders in the 16th century. They could also have come from a Chinese instrument, although that too, is thought to have come from Portuguese missionaries or traders. The shawm is sometimes used in kabuki theater performances.
Known by the Spanish as the chirimia, the shawm remains an important instrument among Mayan people in Highland Guatemala. Accompanied by a drum, the chirimia is used in processions and certain ritual dances, such as Baile de la Conquista (Dance of the Conquest) that is still played today.
The shawm inspired the 17th century hautbois, an invention of French musician Jacque-Martin Hotteterre (1674-1763). (There’s more about this fine fellow in my blog about the flute.) He is thought to have invented a new instrument that borrowed several features from the shawm, like its double reed and conical bore, but was otherwise unique. Around 1760, the hautbois began replacing the shawm in military bands, concert music, and opera. By 1800, the shawm was gone from concert life, although in 1830, shawms could still be heard in German town bands at municipal functions. The Germans and the Dutch continued to manufacture an ornate version, called the Deutsche Schalmey, long after the introduction of the hautbois.
A specimen of shawm was made by Johann Christoph Denner (1655-1707) of Nurenberg, who later invented the clarinet. His version didn’t catch on.
The shawm was the leading double-reed instrument until the 18th century when the Baroque taste for more expressive playing made it somewhat obsolete, as it offered no dynamics. And so it was that the powerful little shawm evolved into the more refined and delicate oboe (biography to come).
The original shawm was a double-reeded instrument (which means that two flat reeds are bound together like a tight duck’s bill) with seven finger holes, no keys, and a long, flared bell. Modern instruments have a conical bore. The body of the shawm is turned from a single piece of wood and ends in a flared bell.
Compared to the oboe, the shawm has a wide bore, which makes its tone loud and shrill. It has a cup-shaped connection between the mouthpiece and the instrument itself. Originally, shawms were keyless and the reed was set on a metal disk.
One curious feature is that the lowest finger hole is doubled, appearing both on the right and left side of the instrument, as some performers played with the right hand above the left and others with the left above the right (like the cornetto). The unused hole was stopped with wax. The bombard (the bass version) also has this feature, but its lowest hole, because of the difficulty reaching it with a finger, is occasionally covered by a key that is protected by a little perforated barrel called the fontanelle. The key was outfitted with a double touch piece, one for the right hand, and one for the left. Later shawms, except the smallest, had at least one key, allowing a larger range.
The double reed is made from the same cane, Arundo donar, used for modern oboes and bassoons. It was inserted directly into a socket at the top of the instrument, or in the larger types, at the end of a metal tube called the bocal. A small cylindrical piece of wood with a hole in the middle, called the pirouette, was placed over the reed and acted as support for the lips and embouchure. Only a portion of the reed protruded past the pirouette, allowing limited contact with the reed itself. The shawm had acquired a funnel-shaped pirouette mouthpiece by the 14th century, used mostly for military, ceremonial, and dance music.
The reed vibrates freely, completely inside the player’s mouth, unlike an oboe reed, which is held firmly between the lips. Because the reed is loose within the cavity of the mouth, there’s no way to play louder or softer, or offer much in the way of artistic expression.
The reed’s hidden nature, combined with the conical bore and flared bell, give the instrument a piercing sound, like the progeny of a trumpet and a goose. It’s ill-suited to indoor playing because it was very loud, and in a consort, is definitely outside-in-the-yard material.
There were only two sizes of shawm by the end of the Middle Ages, but by the beginning of the 17th century, there were seven sizes. The largest ones were so long that fingers couldn’t reach the lower finger holes and as many as five long-levered keys were added. Their mechanisms were protected by a perforated wooden barrel (the fontanelle). The keys had two wings, so the player could access them with either hand.
The alto shawm was tuned to F, with a range of nine notes. It was called the basselt nicolo. This instrument was described by Michael Praetorius as having one key, but was depicted by him as a four-keyed instrument. That was a reed-cap shawm, related to the hautbois de Poitou and the Rauschpfeife.
The bombarde, the bass instrument from the time of Konrad of Megenberg (1309-1374), is pitched a fifth lower than a shawm and has that special key for the pinky finger hidden under a wooden barrel. This instrument was also described by Michael Praetorius.
The shawm, unlike many other Medieval instruments that are otherwise lost to us, has continued to evolve. Where once it was a clumsy and heavy instrument, now it’s made in two sizes: a small, slender soprano instrument with a belled end and seven finger-holes; and an alto instrument (the pommer or bombard) pitched a fifth lower.
In Asian countries, shawm technique includes circular breathing, allowing continuous playing without pausing for air. You can find this technique among didgeridoo players, oboists, and occasionally clarinets, too.
In Latin, the name is calamus, meaning “reed” or “stalk.” It’s possible that the name comes from the Arabic salamiya, a traditional oboe from Egypt. The Romance languages all have similar names for the shawm. In Italian, it’s the ciaramella, in Old French it’s chalemie, in Spanish, it’s the chirimia. The French went on to make a hautbois , and the Italians made a piffari. Shalmei is essentially the same as the Old French name, chalemie, and both are thought to have come from the Hirtenschalmei, or shepherd’s shawm in German.
The larger members of the family were the bombard, and in English in the 14th century, which was later corrupted to Bombhardt and finally in the 17th century to Pommer in German.
In German, it’s called the Schalmer or Schalmei, and the Stadpfeifer. The Germans and the Dutch continued to manufacture an ornate version, called Deutsche Schalmey.
The name shawm appears in English in the 14th century. There were three original forms: shallemele (or shamulle or shamble), schalmys (or shalemeyes or chalemyes, which are plural forms), and schalmuse (or schalmesse), all from the Old French chalemei, chalemie, and chalemeaux (plural for chaleme). Another instrument, called the chalumeau shares this same etymology
Many folk shawms have different names, like the Castilian, Aragonese, and Leonese dulzaina (or chirimia), and Catalan xirimia, docaina, or gralla, and the Navareese gaita in Spain. In Portugal, there’s a charamela, and in Italian, there’s a ciaramella (or cialamello or cennamella).
The taepyeongso is a Korean version and the gyaling is a Tibetan version.
More modern instruments are often referred to as the dulcian, which was called a curtal in England, fagot or fagotto in Germany and Italy, and bajon in Spain. It became very popular as a general-purpose bass instrument where shawms were considered inappropriate (like in church). The dulcian is the ancestor of the modern bassoon.
Early plural forms were made from singular in most languages. The later reduction in the 15th and 16th centuries to a single syllable in forms such as shalme, shaume, shawme, and finally, in the 16th century, shawm, were probably due to the confusion about plurals.
Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377) wrote “Hoquetus David,” which had two upper parts that would have been played by shawm and schalmuse, and the trumpet would have been played for the third and lowest part.
Other composers include Englishmen Thomas Weelkes (c1575-1623), William Byrd (c1540-1623) and English composer born in Italy Augustin Bassano (fl. c 1603).
I didn’t find any historical references for people who played the shawm, but there are plenty of good recordings available today. These feature creative folks like David Munrow and The Early Music Consort of London, Piffaro, a renaissance band, and my local favorites, The Whole Noyse.
“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1949.
“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.
“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.
“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.
“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1940.
“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.