Forging Art and Science: The Rise of Brass Instruments in Medieval Art Music as a Result of Advancing Metallurgy

'Busaun' (trombone) and various trumpets by different names, from Virdung's music treatise, 1511Forging Art and Science: The Rise of Brass Instruments in Medieval Art Music as a Result of Advancing Metallurgy

By J. Gregory Miller

Published Online (2009)

Introduction: While sciences and the liberal arts often are seen at odds with each other, be it a “right brain” or “left brain” mentality, all too often studies in each field overlap, though sometimes not in the most obvious of methods. While at first it may seem that a Medieval blacksmith might have little to do with a Medieval musician, there can be drawn connections between the two seemingly unrelated fields of study. Often a Medieval blacksmith is stereotyped as a purveyor of death-dealing instruments of war, and the stereotyped Medieval musician contemplates the greatness of humanity. While admittedly both metallurgy and music can been seen as a form of art, were they directly impacting each other during the Middle Ages?

It is curious to see at the onset of the Middle Ages metal instruments were rare; however, within 450 years, the Renaissance exhibited some particularly glorious pieces to the brass instrument repertoire. Even still, metallurgy exhibited huge advances in methods and practice during the Middle Ages, advancing from ‘hole in the ground’ furnaces to advanced iron-smelting blast furnaces. With the rise of both the technological prowess of metalworking and the rise of metal instruments, it would seem prudent to ask: Did the advances in metallurgy during the Middle Ages have an impact on the proliferation and use of metal (brass) instruments in Western Art music?

The impact of metallurgy and brass instruments during the Middle Ages has not been extensively reviewed, seemingly as a result of the low number of iconographic sources and treatises on fabrication methodology.By examining the developments in metallurgy and mining, one can discover an additional aspect with regards to the development of the brass instruments. Unlike musical instruments such as stringed instruments, woodwinds, percussion, and the human voice, brass instruments require more advanced technology for the following reasons: 1. the principal material (various alloys of bronze and brass) is not naturally occurring; 2. metal is exponentially tougher to fashion than wood and cannot be done effectively by hand at room temperatures; and 3. the raw material (ores) can only be accessed from an exhaustive, expensive, and extremely labor-intensive mining process. For example, while a tree shaped as a lute may not exist in nature, the technology of the period, such as chisels and hammers, allowed easy manipulation of materials such as wood. Unlike wood instruments, brass instruments must be crafted through mining the raw materials then manipulating ores for the base material. The mining and refining processes exhibited great advances during the medieval period.

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