Instruments | Shawm | Renaissance | Classical
In use from the late Middle Ages to the seventeenth century, the shawm was a wooden instrument, often made out of boxwood, with a conical bore opening out from top to bottom. At the top, a cut and scraped reed was fitted over a small brass tube called a ‘staple’. The hollow reed was housed in a mouthpiece or ‘pirouette’, which was placed against the performer’s lips and produced a sound not unlike blowing on a blade of grass. As the reed was entire and hollow (rather than a single piece of cane vibrating against a solid mouthpiece) the shawm is classed within the woodwind category as double reed.
Shawms came in families of different-sized instruments, of which the larger were called ‘bombards’ (the name Pommer was used in Germany for alto, tenor and bass shawms). Hautbois (‘loud wooden instrument’) was the French term, for shawms were famously loud. Adopted into English, this was corrupted to ‘oboe’ and applied to the shawm’s indirect Baroque offspring. In the medieval and Renaissance periods, the shawm was particularly popular in outdoor dance bands and was also used for military purposes.
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