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Seminar in Medieval and Renaissance Music - Reconstructing medieval instruments: Why bother?

Laurence Libin (Curator of Musical Instruments emeritus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

When

Thursday, 7 March - 5:00pm to 7:00pm

Where

Who

Too little is known about medieval instruments and their playing techniques to justify claims that any reconstruction is “authentic” in terms of design and musical qualities. Reliable evidence is lacking; iconography, written descriptions, modern “folk” practices, and the few surviving exemplars furnish only vague clues to how medieval instruments were made and played, though some types, bells for example, may be better understood than others. Each type of instrument presents unique problems, and solutions adopted in one locale may not have been widely or lastingly applied; yet we have no choice but to generalize. Even if, by chance, a new replica should sound exactly like an original did when it was new, how could we know this? As with performers’ interpretations of medieval notation, instrument makers can at best aim to arrive somewhere within a broad, defensible field of possibilities largely defined by consensus rather than fact. In the face of such uncertainty, why do musicians and makers bother? 

In discussion with Jeremy Montagu, a pioneer of England’s post-War early music movement, we will explore the sources, motivations, and opportunities for reconstructing various types of medieval instruments. Examples will be shown.