Organistrum keyboard  from Portico de la Gloria, Santiago de Compostela.

Organistrum keyboard from Portico de la Gloria, Santiago de Compostela.

Symphonia / Organistrum


in Santiago de Compostela cathedral.

(Inquiry into a troubling problem of interpretation.

Analysis of possible solutions.)


In former articles, I both wrote about different aspects of this problem and discussed practical means to build an acceptable replica of the instrument. My aim is to deal not only with organological and technical subjects but to examine musical ideas connected to them, the way Music was considered both as an art and as part of the mathematical knowledge of Nature, since Pythagoras to the Middle Ages and further.


Several researchers have already carefully studied the few witnesses related to this instrument. I am not going to repeat the whole list, I just want to offer a short survey here.

We can find many features common to all specimens: the soundbox, consisting, as usual, of two oval/circular parts plus the neck, three strings are stretched along this body, then a keyboard showing 6 to 8 keys within the half of the diapason, sound holes are often in a D shape. The keyboard mechanism is depicted only once, in an 18th-century copy (Gerbert) of a 13th c. deperditum  manuscript: 8 revolving keys and the list of the notes, from C to c (including Bb and B) are clearly visible.  This drawing tells us clearly that one of the strings, (maybe all the three strings) was in C and that the three strings were touched by each key at the same time following a diatonic scale.

The six letters on the right compose the word magada (latin but having greek origins) written at the right place, around the wheel and the bridge. (In musical treatises, i.e. the manuscript containing the most famous Ad organum faciendum in Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, XI c., magada is the name given to the bridges of the monochord)


Another well known 13th-century manuscript entitled “Quomodo organistrum construatur” illustrates the method to divide the monochord into the eight stops of a diatonic scale starting from Ut, but we don't find a description of the instrument nor information about its use. Scholars guess it was played mainly for sacred music along the 12th century. Christopher Page, the only one who faced the problem of the name: Symhonia / Organistrum, has several doubts about and no definite answers.


We know that almost all depictions and witnesses belong to the 12th century, but the year and the decade are mainly unknown. Since it is impossible to follow an exact chronology we cannot pretend to outline the evolution of this instrument. To study carefully the observable features is the only serious way to face the subject.

In Ahedo de  Butron (Burgos) sculpture, one of the musicians might be turning a crank with his right hand, while with his left-hand forefinger he is actually touching the second string of five; the second musician is touching the third string with his right-hand forefinger and with the other hand is turning the corresponding tuning peg. 


Hortus deliciarum


There is no evidence of a keyboard  in Hortus deliciarum manuscript. In Ahedo, since there is no trace of both crank and wheel, possibly the two musicians are either just tuning a long size Viella or tuning an Organistrum with no keyboard:

Soria Ahedo de Butron

In Soria sculpture (Spain) we observe only one string (?), no bridge, no wheel, no keys. The musicians look as they were actually turning a wheel and pulling the keys, but the damages suffered by this sculpture do preclude a clear observation of details. On the contrary, the similarly shaped instrument in Boscherville capital (France) presents crank, tailpiece, wheel, and keys.

Bosh Boscherville

What was this wheel intended to do, but to produce a continuous sound? This is the first observation with musical relevance in our description. Now, suppose we have built a long size Viella, about twice the size of a usual one, with a wheel in it: one of the two musicians can stop the strings all along the neck with his fingers, but he is not at ease cause his fingers interfere accidentally with the other strings. This is why a system of keys might have been suggested. In some depictions they appear, 6 to 8 within half of the diapason. They look like flat bars passing beneath the strings (Boscherville and Vercelli) or we can see the top of them protruding from the lid that hides the inner mechanism. That these keyboards were designed for a diatonic scale is out of doubt. The question is: were the bars equipped with tangents in order to operate on one string only or more than one?

According to Gerbert’s drawing, all  keys are acting on the three strings simultaneously in order to play a simple melody on the  three strings tuned at the same pitch. No other useful information is offered by the drawing : no indication of drones, no alternative tunings.

Eventually, if we want to extend the c scale, we should tune the lateral strings in c, the middle one  in c'. Then, by lifting the middle string and then the two laterals, (this task carried out by the man in charge of turning the wheel) we can obtain two full octaves.



As we assume that the instrument served to sacred music only, no use of drones have to be admitted, according to western tradition (although many scholars nowadays, influenced by byzantine fashion, perform  gregorian chants also adding drones) 



During the XII century benedictine monks were developing a new technique in polyphonic singing:  

the vox organalis was no longer in parallelum, dismitting the teaching of Musica enchiriadis and Micrologus,  and became freer. 

What was the new instrument role in that new music fashion?

To play the tenor part in organum melismaticum or floridum  for instance, as a ground reference for the upper voice.

A similar role (and similar limits as well) would pertain to the romanesque pipe organ (see J.Ferrando's article in: L'instrumentarium du Moyen Age. Paris, L'Harmattan,2015). 

The geographic area includes Spain and France mainly, then England, Germany, and Italy



At the top of the Gate of Glory in Santiago de Compostela cathedral magister Mateus sculpted a wheel instrument in the middle of the range of the 24 Elders of Apocalypse all around the Lamb. This gate is dated precisely the year 1188. This specimen differs from all others we have examined

  1. In its general shape
  2. In quantity and quality of decorations
  3. Having 11 keys within the octave.

The soundbox consists of two perfect circles connected through lobes and a rectangular box containing the keys. The string length is equal to the circumference of circles. Four triangular sound holes with little holes at the edges are cut in the first circle. A large quadripartite rosette with vegetable decoration is carved in the second circle. An interlace decoration made of 11 knots and 12 spaces is cut all along the rectangular keyboard lid.

Some of these features are unique among all depictions of the instrument. In other articles, I examined these characteristics in the light of musical theory, astronomy, and cosmology of the time. In the present paper I would like to focus on the interpretation of the keyboard with 11 keys within the octave, describing a possible reconstruction of it.

Many important scholars believe that this number indicates a chromatic division of the keyboard. Although they are aware of the fact that no chromatic scale was in use in the 12th-century music, they accept as a piece of absolute evidence that this abnormal chromatic keyboard was used for transposition. This is absurd because no full transposition of any melodic line spanning one octave at least can be made within a single octave! 

My idea is that this setting of keys could be only apparently chromatic and might serve a diatonic scale, this way: two lateral bass strings (a), middle treble string (a') whose nut lies a semitone behind the other two. This pattern works only with this tuning, enlarging Gerbert diatonic scale two tones under the c and reaching the g' of the second octave, including all useful notes of tenor parts in XII century organum melismaticum.

Please look at the next picture: notice the first octave blue (no flat here), the second octave red (chance on 8th bar only between e first octave and f second octave obtained by turning 90° the cilindric bar)



Please, watch the video:


About the hypothesis of a chromatic keyboard read more on: 





- Guido D'Arezzo Micrologus, XVIII, 1-18  

"...symphoniae, id est aptae vocum copulationes dicuntur, cum symphonia et de omni cantu dicatur." trad.: "...symphoniae are good sound combinations, but this name indicates all songs"


Then, in Regulae rhythmicae the same author writes:

"Quinque habet ipsa tonos, duo semitonia;

Habet in se diapente et diatessaron;

maxima symphoniarum et vocum est unitas"


"(the diapason) contains 5 tones and 2 semitones/the fifth and the fourth/is the highest unity of symphoniae, or sounds"


SYMPHONIA expresses the highest medieval idea of music, while Organistrum looks like a deformation of the name Organ, and this could be reasonable too.

Anyway, as suggested  by Christopher Page, articles in GSJ 1982, 83, based on phylological studies, the name Organistrum  could indicate as well  the later "one-man Lyre", a diatonic, melodic instruments with drones, sort of early hurdygurdy used for secular music.



This report gives rise to more doubts than certainties.

Santiago instrument appears to be the more complicated version of a wheel instrument documented for few decades during the 12th century, whose main relevance was due primarily to the continuous sound produced by the wheel, secondarily to the keyboard mechanism. 

We know nothing about the wheel and we assume it was a wooden one with rosin on it. Then we don't know whether the performer used to lift any of the strings from the wheel occasionally or not.

We ignore both the tuning and the keyboard mechanism in detail. It is possible that different solutions have been adopted here and there in different moments and places, including a simpler version with no keyboard at all.

At the beginning of  the XIII century the instrument disappeared.  Wheel instruments survived into smaller forms, playable by one performer, being equipped with a more practical  keyboard, to serve secular music.



A new video:



Chartres 12th century psaltery (English/French/Italian text)

Chartres 12th century psaltery (English/French/Italian text)


On 2017, April 20th I was asked by "Instrumentarium de Chartres" to go to Chartres to study one of the Psalteries sculpted in the so called Portail Royal (1144).


In front of the Cathedral I found a van equipped with an elevator, in order to reach the sculpture to study it easily.

There I discovered that the instrument has 10 courses of strings instead of the  9 previously  declared.

I could measure and observe all the details of this object, then I was asked by "Instrumentarium de Chartres" to build a copy of the Psaltery to be held in the Cathedral permanent exhibition of medieval instruments and to be played occasionally by professional musicians.

My instrument is carved in two blocks of poplar and beech. The two halves glued together, poplar at the top, beech at the bottom

The  iron pegs  are fixed in the right side of the back. Two straight bridges in Beech are glued over the top.


The top has been left free from varnish.


Dopo una lunga fase di studio e di sperimentazione si è compiuto il lavoro di ricostruzione di uno dei due salteri scolpiti nel Portale Reale della cattedrale di Chartres.

LE CORDE adottate sono in budello per le seguenti ragioni.

  1. I salteri precedenti il secolo XII, per lo più di forma rettangolare, fanno pensare a una filiazione dalla Kithara greca per tramite di quella romana e quindi a un’incordatura scalare in minugia;
  2. I ponticelli dei due salteri del portale reale presentano entrambi angoli alla base di 72°, non lontani dunque dall’angolo retto, quindi più vicini ai salteri antichi rispetto al successivo e molto più elaborato salterio a “muso di porco”, probabilmente incordato in metallo;
  3. Esaminando il salterio della “Musica”, molto simile a quello del vegliardo da me riprodotto, l’allaccio delle corde al ponticello sinistro fa pensare a un sistema simile a quello del Liuto e quindi indicare corde in budello.


0.55  Re - Do4, 0.60  Si - La,  0.65  Sol ,  0.75  Fa,  0.80  Mi, 0.85  Re, 0.95  Do3,  

1.00  Si2.


ideale per suonare questi strumenti è la stessa che si vede rappresentata nei due casi esaminati: appoggiato sul lato minore e suonando le corde in posizione verticale con un plettro.



Le travail de reconstitution d’un des deux psaltérions du Portail Royal de la cathédrale de Chartres c’est achevé après une longue phase d’étude et d’expérimentation durée à peu près deux ans.

On a décidé d’utiliser des CORDES de boyau, pour les raisons suivantes.

  1. Les psaltérions avant le XII siècle, de forme rectangulaire, rappellent la Kithara grecque et romaine, donc avec les cordes de boyau  de plusieurs diamètres différentes ;
  2. Les chevalets des deux psaltérions du portail royal ont les angles à la base de 72°, pas loin donc de l’angle droit et sont plus proches aux psaltérions anciennes que à ceux du siècle suivant « a muso di porco », à la forme beaucoup plus élaborée et avec cordes en métal;
  3. En observant le psaltérion « de la Musique » du portail, très semblable à celui du Vieillard que j’ai reconstitué, on voit que les cordes sont attachées au chevalet de la même façon d’un Luth, ce que nous fait penser à cordes de boyau.


0.55  Re - Do4, 0.60  S i- La,  0.65  Sol ,  0.75  Fa,  0.80  Mi, 0.85  Re, 0.95  Do3

1.00  Si2.


idéale pour jouer de cet instrument est la même qu’on voit dans les sculptures: l’instrument est appuyé sur la cote mineure et joué par un médiateur avec les cordes en verticale.



The instrument is now kept in the exhibition of instruments of Instrumentarium de Chartres, "sous le parvis de la Cathédrale".




 Saint Trophime Cathedral door gate, Arles, was build  about 1170. In the inner part of the arch we see Jesus and symbols of the four Evangelists.  All around them two rows of identical angels with open arms are sculpted, while at the top three different angels play horns or Oliphants. The angels  at both sides are ordered in two rows of nine, 18 on the right and 18 on the left. They represent the nine angelic choirs, every choir counting four individuals. The three angels at the top are dancing and blowing into their horns, the outer instruments decorated with seven simple lines, the one in the middle, half broken, without decorations. The two lateral angels  are lying backwards in a very uncomfortable position with their legs widely open, while the central one is standing steadily on both feet.

The frame on which all angels lay is made of six ledges. The outer one, thicker than the others, is the extrados of the arch. There are 5 ledges left. The angels of the inner row lay their heads on the second ledge, covering the first and the third with their wings and arms. The angels of the outer row lay their heads in the space between the fourth and the fifth ledge. Musicians feet and wings reach first and fifth ledges.

Since this set of 5 ledges recalls us a pentagram, we are tempted to look for musical notes: angels heads could be considered as such. If we suppose that the first horn on the left is a key of C, the angels in the middle have their heads on G and A and B, all angels on the first or inner row indicate D (except two on E), those of the second row indicate B. So we have the following sequences: D-E, one tone, D-G, a fourth, D-A, a fifth, E-G, minor third and G-B, major third, D-B, the hexachord. The feet of the lateral musicians mark the octave span from C to c.

 Then we should observe that angels ordered in rows are all identical but three:

  1. the fourth of the outer row on the right, keeping his right wing considerably bent towards hims
  2. the second angel of the inner row on the right is bending his head to the left side, while all the others keep their head straight in the center;
  3. the first one of inner row on the left bends his head to the right, while all the others keep their head straight in the center.

We can consider these irregularities as a way  to show  basic musical ratios.

Starting from the right and moving to left on the outer row we count 5 angels, then we meet the angel with a bent wing and we count 4 angels, arriving to the 3 musicians. Thus we have three main ratios: 5/4,  4/3 and 5/3, that are the major third, the fourth, the major sixth or hexachord.

Then starting from the first irregular angel on the left and proceeding to the right on the inner row we count this angel plus the 3 musicians plus 2 angels including the irregular one on the right. Their sum is 6. Thus we have 3/2 and 6/5, the fifth and the minor third.

From the center, left to right again, we find 9 angels versus 8 angels on the inner right row, that gives 9/8, the Tone.

This way we have found the same intervals indicated by the heads of the angels on the pentagram.

Finally, we divide the total of 39 angels into two groups as equal as possible:  20 and 19. 20/19 is one of the ratios used by Boethius to indicate the semitone (De institutione musice, lib.4, XIII).

We can match these data with the list of musical consonances exposed in Guido d’Arezzo’s  Micrologus (IV, 12-13): “tonum, semitonium, ditonum, semiditonum, diatessaron et diapente”.




Nel 2012 iniziai a studiare la possibilità di ricostruire una Viella - un antenato medievale del nostro Violino - basandomi su iconografia siciliana. Ricordavo di aver notato alcune raffigurazioni di strumenti musicali durante una visita alla cattedrale di Nicosia (EN), così, anche approfittando del desiderio di due registi acesi, Daniele Greco e Mauro Maugeri, di girare un documentario sulla mia attività di liutaio, mi recai con loro sul luogo, dove potemmo verificare che i miei ricordi erano esatti. Sul capitello del primo pilastrino sul lato sinistro del portale centrale della cattedrale dedicata a S.Nicola si vedono scolpiti due musici. Uno di essi, acefalo e molto rovinato, imbraccia una Citola, strumento a corde pizzicate simile a una piccola chitarra, di cui si intuisce ormai solo un vago contorno, e l’altro, alla sua sinistra, pure acefalo, suona una Viella ancora perfettamente visibile. I miei due ottimi amici, entusiasti quanto me per la scoperta, decisero di incoraggiarmi e di aiutarmi a continuare le mie ricerche documentandole con fotografie e video professionali. Proseguimmo così alla volta di Messina e di Palermo, dove potemmo raccogliere altre testimonianze sulle Vielle: due sculture nelle rispettive cattedrali delle due città e un dipinto sul soffitto ligneo del palazzo dello Steri. Mentre i registi iniziavano a confezionare un vero e proprio documentario con le riprese effettuate, che vide la luce l’anno successivo col titolo di “SUONI D’OC”, io mi diedi da fare per iniziare lo studio e la ricostruzione della mia Viella.

Iniziai ad esaminare attentamente tutte le testimonianze trovate: tre del periodo compreso fra 1350 e 1380 e una, quella di Messina, del secolo successivo. Alla fine mi resi conto che la testimonianza più attendibile era proprio la prima da cui ero partito, ossia la piccola scultura della Cattedrale di Nicosia. Vi si vedono perfettamente raffigurati tutti gli elementi decisivi: il contorno “a otto” della cassa, i fori di risonanza, la cordiera, il ponticello, il manico e le corde. Unica pecca, la mancanza del cavigliere, andato distrutto nel tempo. Decisi che per questo particolare sarei ricorso al modello visibile nelle pitture dello Steri, coeve al portico di Nicosia, anche se la Viella colà raffigurata era ovale e non “a otto”. Superato questo scoglio dovetti stabilire le dimensioni da dare allo strumento e ricorsi al solito calcolo delle proporzioni tra esso e il corpo del suonatore. Arrivai a definire un oggetto del tutto simile a un Violino attuale per lunghezza e per diapason, ma con la cassa un po’ più larga e profonda. A questo punto bisognava scegliere il legno, anzi i legni e mi decisi per una bella tavola di Abete bianco spessa 4 cm. da cui intagliare il blocco Manico/Tavola armonica/Fasce laterali e una tavoletta da 1 cm. di Cipresso per il fondo. Qui urge una sosta per spiegare una particolarità che contraddistingue l’arte liutaria medievale da quella attuale. Nel Medioevo si usava scolpire lo strumento da un unico pezzo di legno quasi per intero. Negli strumenti a fondo curvo si usava scavare in un unico blocco la cassa e il manico, aggiungendo poi la tavola armonica. Negli strumenti a fondo piatto o lievemente incurvato si poteva procedere anche al contrario, scavando in un solo pezzo manico e tavola armonica e applicando poi il fondo. Entrambi i procedimenti sono accertati in sede storica, ma su tipi diversi di strumenti. Io propendo per applicare il secondo procedimento ogniqualvolta sia possibile e anche questa Viella è stata fatta così. Diversamente, nella liuteria classica e moderna, il Violino viene assemblato incollando le varie parti lavorate separatamente: tavola e fondo scavati, manico con cavigliere e riccio, fasce piegate a caldo ciascuna in tre pezzi giuntati con rinforzi interni in Abete. Così dopo un po’ di giorni di intenso lavoro ottenni la mia ricostruzione della “Viella di Nicosia”, non ancora verniciata ma pronta per comparire nelle ultime scene del documentario. Montai le corde in budello: doppio cantino, altre due corde a distanza di quinta e ottava dalla prima e infine una corda fuori dalla tastiera come si vede chiaramente nella scultura. Questo particolare è interessante: la corda esterna serviva per accompagnare l’esecuzione con un pizzicato o, suonata con l’arco, fungeva da bordone, visto che, per il suo spessore, difficilmente poteva essere tastata. Altra particolarità: lo strumento è sprovvisto di “anima”, quel cilindretto di legno che, in tutti gli strumenti ad arco dal 1500 ad oggi collega internamente la tavola col fondo, raddoppiando quasi l’intensità delle vibrazioni, poiché per i secoli del medioevo non è in alcun modo documentata. Il suono dunque risulta più diffuso e smorzato, adattissimo per accompagnare il canto, cosa molto apprezzata all’epoca dai Trovatori. Lo strumento era pronto ma senza vernice appariva rustico e non finito, però il suono era già bello. Nel corso del Duecento e del Trecento la verniciatura e la colorazione dei legni in liuteria non erano ancora pratiche affermate, spesso una mano di olio di mandorle veniva considerata sufficiente. Mi incoraggiai a suonare la Viella per la scena finale del documentario e così si concluse la prima parte del lavoro. L’anno seguente il film partecipò a diverse rassegne e ricevette un riconoscimento europeo in Slovenia. Io portai lo strumento in Francia al festival TROBAREA di musica medievale a Grasse (Nizza) e alle Journées de musiques anciennes di Venves, Parigi, dove lo strumento fu apprezzato e si dimostrò all’altezza dei suoi simili d’oltralpe, anzi brillò per il suo suono vivace e limpido. A un certo punto mi decisi a dare alla Viella una colorazione noce scuro e tre mani di gommalacca a spirito, con cui oggi si mostra al pubblico. Abbiamo avuto la gioia di presentare il documentario a Nicosia in una riunione pubblica presso il Municipio e ho suonato con la Viella alcuni brani tratti dal Laudario di Cortona proprio sotto la scultura del portale in un momento pieno di emozione e di suggestione. Oggi il nostro strumento si può vedere e ascoltare presso la Casa della Musica e della Liuteria di Randazzo, ( aperta tutti i giorni dalle 11 alle 17. Per prenotare le visite tel.349 4001357. Contatti: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Oppure direttamente guarda il VIDEO:

Organistrum de Compostela. An astronomical approach

Organistrum de Compostela. An astronomical approach


An astronomical approach

published in:

Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, vol. 18, n° 4 (2018), pp.345-352.


1 : Gate of Glory:

Gate of Glory extrados in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is crowded by statues bearing different kinds of stringed instruments. At the very top of the gate two of them are playing a beautifully carved and decorated instrument, the so calledOrganistrum.

2 : The top instrument:

This curious object has been largely studied and several reconstructions have been proposed and carried out by scholars and luthiers during the past 40 years, nevertheless some aspects are still uncertain, such as its symbolic significance and its peculiar musical role.

3 :: Symphonia::

Let’s start considering its special location.The statues of the extrados represent the 24 elders of Apocalypse. They can be symbols of Time (24), Music (musical instruments) and Divine symphony (they are heavenly creatures) too.

4 :: Two Performers::

The two performers at the top are very close to Christ’s head, position as usual occupied by angels. If we compare them to the other musicians we observe they look to be the only two actually playing and they are playing the most complex instrument of all. The idea that it could be given a deeper symbolic significance is strengthened by closer observation of its features. A revolving object, the wheel, creates the sound from strings stretched over a sound box made of two equal circles, to which an unusual keyboard is added, equipped with 11 keys, so that the octave is divided into 12 parts.

All this is strange enough and absolutely unique, in XII century atleast !, and we need referring to any kind of theological, philosophical, mathematical and musical theory of the age to give a reasonable interpretation of it. Medieval Latin Platonism, for example, mainly related to Chartres cathedral school, well connected with Paris and Santiago, brings to us interesting suggestions.

5 :: Ordering the Heavens::

Platonists thought that at the beginning of creation, making the World Soul, Demiurgos was dealing with three abstract elements: Being, Sameness and Difference. Establishing the right proportions among sameness and difference, he gave the World Soul the shape of two circles one inside the other and put them into the material World, thus creating both the Sphere of fixed stars and the plane of planetary orbits. Circular motions of planets and stars were thus connected in perfect harmony, like the strings of a well tuned Lyre or the pipes of a well cut Pan flute[1].This set-up is reflected in our instrument.

6 :: Symphonia Coelistis::

A circular sound box, theCircle of Sameness, contains the wheel , that represents planetary motion: the Circle of Difference. This is the origin: the invisible World Soul. Thenanother circle is added, the visible world, Cosmos, with its charming beauty. At lastwe find the keyboard, with 11 keys dividing the octave in parts, the symbol of human mind, which divides and measures in order to understand Natural phenomena. Therefore, the widespread philosophical principle “Veritas est adaequatio intellectus et rei “ (translation: truth is an adjustement between intellect and things) is well represented here, as we can observe that the vibrating string-length (rectilinear thought) is equal to the circumference of each circle of the sound box (Nature and abstract world).

Further suggestions come fromthe analysis of instrument decorations.

  1. A long line of DOTS runs all around the outline of the instrument. They are symbols of the stars. From left to right: first circle, the idea of the stars in the abstract world; second circle, the visible stars; keyboard, our knowledge of the stars (straightened).
  2. The large ROSETTE in the middle represents the Visible World, a circular figure divided in four equal sections by two perpendicular axes. Each section is occupied by a five lobes leaf and twigs (these leaves are similar to those sculpted all around the 24 Elders). The division in four sections may refer to the four elements of material world.

7 :: Diagram of the Seasons

This figure recalls diagrams of the seasons frequently drawn in glosses of IX-XII century astronomical manuscripts or even more elaborated drawings.The main goal of any scholar was to calculate accurately the length of each season in order to obtain an exact and affordable calendar to establish with great accuracy both the dates of Christian feasts and the right hours for prayer in monasteries[2].

8 :: IX-XII centuries decoration patterns ::

Finally, KEYBOARD LID decoration, unique among all other decorations sculpted in the Gate, shows a rare pattern, which had been popular in some areas around the Alps and in Ireland between IX and XI centuries, rather neglected in the XII[3].

9 :: Keyboard ::

Each knot of the interlace corresponds precisely to one key of the 11keys protruding out of the rectangular box. This division in fact is the most puzzling feature of all, as nobody could justify the introduction of a chromatic scale in XII century, when only strict diatonism was allowed. But we discovered that, curiously enough, both the unusual decoration and the division of the octave in 12 semitones can be referred to diagrams of planetary latitudes, related to musical scales as well, in astronomical manuscripts of the age.

10 :: Planetary latitudes diagrams ::

Such diagrams were intended to represent planetary latitudes across the zodiacal band, divided vertically in 12 degrees. As usual the horizontal line of these grids was divided in 30 parts, but since XI century we often find 12 in order to signify the 12 zodiacal signs. The Sun and Saturn were given a serpentine path within the two middle degrees of the zodiac, Jupiter had three degrees, Mars four, Mercury eight, the Moon covered the zodiacal band with its 12 degrees of latitude. Venus was assigned a latitude of 14 degrees, one degree beyond the zodiac on each side.

11 :: Planetary latitudes diagrams ::


Then, in a manuscript by Abbo de Fleury (c 940-1004) we find a horizontal column list of the Plinian intervals between planetary orbits attached to planetary latitudes grid[4]. Whether 14 semitones can be counted in total, the musical octave spanning from Moon to tha Stars is divided into 12 semitones (semitone being the unit of measurement of the scale, clearly enough).Thus, our XII century chromatic scale shouldn’t be considered as a scandal any longer! Besides, experimenting with our special keyboard with keys ranging about two full chromatic octaves demonstrates that this arrangement fits quite well XII century two voices polyphonic music.

12 :: The name

For these reasons we feel the name of Symphonia or Symphonia magna or Symphonia caelestis would be more appropriate for this instrument than the usual, uncertain and rather mocking name of Organistrum.

Its representationin Santiago could have been an exclusive message for a restricted group of scholars capable of understanding the cosmological and musical implications of a non-traditional object that had been invented of course by monks  trained in the liberal arts of Quadrivium.


[1]Bruce S. Eastwood.Ordering the Heavens. Roman astronomy and cosmology in the Carolingian renaissance. Brill, 2007   Reasoning about circular and rectilinear motions in: Guglielmo di Conches, Glosae super Platonem. See: Martello Concetto,Platone a Chartres. Palermo, Officina di studi Medievali, 2011, p.86.

[2]Stephen C. McCluskey.Astronomies and cultures in early medieval Europe.Cambridge University Press, 1998, p 97-113.

[3]Giulia Marrucchi e Riccardo Belcari, La grande storia dell’arte. Il Medioevo. Firenze, E-ducationS.p.A., 2005, p 146-7

[4]Bruce S. Eastwood.,Astronomy in Christian latin Europe c.500-c.1150.

in JHA, xxviii (1997) Science History Publications Ltd. p 250-3

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Vielle ovale de Graville

Vielle ovale de Graville

Reconstitution d’une vièle ovale d’après une sculpture du 12ème siècle de l’Abbaye de Graville au Havre, Normandie.

La sculpture :
La petite sculpture (30x35x20cm) en pierre blanche, abîmée à gauche, a été retrouvée, après la guerre, dans les ruines de la tour centrale. On ne connaît pas sa position initiale et on pense qu'elle est de la fin du 11ème siècle.Toute la composition et même l'instrument sont inspirés par la forme ovale.La figure entière est inscrite dans un ovale, la tête, les yeux, la bouche ovale, l'instrument a une caisse ovale, l'une des ouïes est une demi-lune et l'autre a une forme presque ovale.La figure est très bien modelée, les traits fins, gracieux, on dirait qu'elle a quelque chose de féminin et de lunaire.
La reconstitution de l'instrument
Les bois :J'ai choisi deux qualités de bois qu'on pourrait aisément retrouver en Normandie au11ème siècle: sapin et hêtre.Sapin (très vieux et avec des taches pour rappeler la surface de la lune) pour le corps de l'instrument: table d'harmonie, éclisses, manche et chevilles. Hêtre pour le fond.
Un instrument creux :
Puisque les instruments au Moyen Âge n'avaient pas d'âme, la résonnance est premièrement due à la table d'harmonie, le fond ayant pour fonction de refléter le son.J'ai donc creusé l'instrument dans du sapin à partir de la table d'harmonie car c’est la partie la plus importante de la vièle, d’une épaisseur d’environ trois millimètres, sans aucun barrage.Le manche est creusé dans la même planche, même s’il est un peu plus haut que la table.Les flancs son concaves. Le fond en hêtre est creusé, arrondi à l'intérieur comme à l'extérieur, l'épaisseur est d’à peu près trois millimètres.
Les ouïes :
Dans la sculpture, on voit que les deux ouïes ne sont pas symétriques, l’une en forme de demi-lune, l'autre presque rectangulaire, creusée plus bas sur l'autre moitié de la table. On pourrait penser que l'auteur a voulu faire ce perçage bizarre pour une raison de perspective, mais j'ai pensé qu'il a reproduit un instrument réel, fait de cette façon.Y-a-t-il d’autres exemples de cette asymétrie sur les vièles médiévales ? NON.Mais il y a d'autres instruments de musique avec des perçages asymétriques, certaines harpes, des psaltérions et des monocordes.
Quelle pourrait être la motivation de cette asymétrie ?Donner au musicien une ouïe (plus petite) plus proche de son oreille ou, proposition presque hérétique, pour placer une âme au-dessous du chevalet ...Après réflexion, j'ai décidé de faire les deux ouïes exactement comme elles sont représentées sur la sculpture.
La touche, le cheviller, le cordier :
La touche est un petit morceau de buis de 2mm d'épaisseur, collé sur le manche.Le cheviller est hexagonal, comme dans les vièles de Boscherville. Le cordier est en buis.
Le vernis :
Je n’ai employé aucun vernis. On sait qu’à l'époque il n'y avait pas de gomme-laque, aussi, pour protéger le bois, j'ai employé de l'huile d'amande pure.
Les cordes :
Les cordes sont en boyau de mouton. J'ai choisi de faire un accord complexe avec deux chœurs et un bourdon. Les chœurs sont accordés à l'unisson ou en quintes.

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