Exactly 20 years ago (in 1994), after several years of research, experimentation and concerts, we recorded our first CD devoted to La Lira d’Espéria, performed on my three early instruments – the Rebec, the Tenor Fiddle and the Rabab (Rabel morisco) – with the indispensable percussion of Pedro Estevan. The idea was to announce the music and instruments featured in the recording using the evocative ancient names of Lyra and Hesperia. It was an obvious choice, as the whole recording was devoted to the medieval repertory for bowed instruments and consisted of music from the various Christian, Jewish and Arabo-Andalusian cultures that existed in ancient Iberia and Italica.
Hesperia is the name the Ancient Greeks gave to the two westernmost peninsulas in the Mediterranean: the Italic and the Iberian peninsulas. According to Diodorus, this is also the probable location of the Hesperides (or Atlantis), with their famous gardens where golden apples (oranges?) with magical properties grew.
The Lyra was one of the first musical instruments to be described in the Greek myths and also, together with the cithara, one of those most frequently mentioned by Virgil (70-19 BC.). According to Greek tradition, Apollo invented the lyra, while Orpheus invented the cithara. There were two types of lyra in ancient times: the first, most commonly found in Antiquity, which resembled a small harp and was played by plucking its strings, and the more modern type, played with a bow, which is closer to the present-day Greek lyre.
It is in Iberian Hesperia that we find the earliest traces of bowed instruments. According to a highly probable hypothesis, the technique of bowing appears to have been introduced around the 8th century and gradually developed in Europe thanks to musicians who travelled here from the Arabo-Islamic countries in the East. Let us not forget the high level of Arab and Byzantine culture in the 8th and 10th centuries and the importance of artistic exchanges that were often associated with conflicts between East and West. It is not surprising that the earliest representations of bowed instruments in Europe are to be found in the 10th century Mozarabic manuscripts of Hispanic origin of the Beatus de Liébana (920-930), as well as various Catalan manuscripts such as the Bible of the abbey of Santa Maria de Ripoll.
These developments gave rise to the vielle, or medieval fiddle, the viola d’arc (in Catalan), the vihuela de arco (in Spanish), the fiddle (in English) and the Fidel (in German), the favourite instrument of the Troubadours and Minstrels but also of the nobility, who prized their skill at playing the fiddle only second to their prowess in the martial arts. Evidence of this assertion is provided by numerous texts and images of the period, such as the seals of Bertrand II Count of Forcalquier, Provence (1168), which on one side portray the count armed and mounted on his horse, while on the reverse side he is depicted playing a vielle. This explains the use of the term “noble minstrel”, in contrast to the professional minstrel, to designate an activity that had nothing to do with financial gain, but was purely for pleasure and formed part of the exercitia liberalia (liberal exercises). Thus, more than any other, the vielle or fiddle, together with the harp, was an indispensable instrument both at court and among the nobility.
Judging from the iconographic sources, the shape of the instruments, the type of bow and strings used, it is clear that the concept of ideal sound in those times must have been very different from that of the present day. Only the sounds and techniques of certain modern-day folk instruments such as those played in Greece (Crete), Macedonia, Morocco, India, etc., can give us a rough idea of this ancient music: in dance and folk music, an archaic and sometimes primitive sound, but one full of life and expressiveness, while lyrical, poetic or courtly music sought a more modulated refined sound, as evoked by the Spanish cleric and poet Arcipreste de Hita in his Libro de Buen Amor, dating from around 1330.
La vihuela de arco fas dulces devailadas,
Adormiendo a las vezes muy alto a las vegadas,
Bozes dulces, sabrosas, claras e bien punteadas,
A las gentes alegra, todas las tiene pagadas.
(The bowed vielle with its cadences sweet,
Sometimes rousing and sometimes lulling us to sleep,
With sweet, delightful, clear and well-tuned notes,
Makes all who hear it joyful and content.)
Normandy, 25th August 2014
Translated by Jacqueline Minett