Artists who take up musical instruments of the Medieval and Renaissance periods are likely to find themselves, willy-nilly, involved in esoteric musicological studies as well.
How does one become a proficient practitioner of the vielle, for instance, when the only extant pedagogical information comes from Medieval paintings of angels and more humble mortals playing this instrument? How should the music itself be performed when these same paintings make it clear that, often, groups of musicians were involved, but only one line was usually written down? The last 25 years have seen many such questions addressed and some of them answered.
A capsule overview of the development of music for stringed instruments through the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods was offered at the Smithsonian's Hall of Musical Instruments on Saturday by Tina Chancey, who plays all shapes and sizes of bowed instruments, and lutenist Ronn McFarlane.
Working chronologically from roughly 1400 to 1750, the two introduced both the music and the instruments with helpful comments. There were dances, laments and carols from Medieval England and France, played unadorned in the modest proportions suited to the period. From the Renaissance the duo played variations on popular tunes and English dances, and McFarlane gave a nice demonstration of the lute's versatility with a short bit of Italian polyphony. And finally, with its implied drone and modal flavor, the delightful Irish fiddle tune that highlighted the Baroque set, came around full circle and gave clear evidence of its Medieval roots.
The performances were both scholarly and entertaining, a pair of virtues that seem, increasingly, to be compatible.