by: Laura A. Walker

When I began to explore Medieval Music on the World Wide Web, I came across a very unique group. This group, called Altramar, is a musical group, existing currently. The four members, David, Jann, Chris and Angie, research medieval culture , incorporating their findings into poetry, song, and dramatics. Through their music and drama, Altrama

... "shares historical repertory in the context of human experience, evoking the vibrant tapestry of medieval culture. Their process of collaborative partnership, combined with a committment to scholarship and expression, results in a compelling performance style".

The name "Altramar" was a mystery to me. I read what this name means. I learned:

" 'Altramar' in the Oceitan Language of the troubadors, was the given to the Near Eastern Lands that lay 'over the sea'; the lands where Crusade and trade resulted in the rich cultural interchange of East and West".

Learning about the Altramar's instruments uses helped me get a grasp on some of what the group is all about. The instruments from the Medieval time are very difficult to find since very few originals exist. Therefore, a friend of Altramar, Timothy G. Johnson crafts their instruments. Johnson researches the instruments and works with pictures of the originals to best create copies of them. Johnson also works occasionally with sculptures of the instruments as well as paintings as get a better ideas about these instruments and when and where they were used most.

The 'gitten' seems to be a combination of the medieval fiddle and guitar. Johnson found that the 'gitten' is not resembled after the present day acoustical guitar that we are most familiar with, rather a medieval or guitar of early origin.

Altramar also uses an instrument by the name of an 'ud'. This instrument is similiar to and Arabian Lute. I was a bit confused about the exact definition of a lute, so I looked it up also; in a standard college dictionary. I discovered a lute is related to guitars, but with a body the shape of a half pear. The fretted neck is often bent, in a sharp angle. Therefore, the 'ud' is an Arabian Lute , but knowledge of European Technique is necessary to adequately play this instrument.

Next, is an instrument many people may be familiar with; the 'harp'. As with all of these instruments, the harp Altramar uses is not what we could see being played with a symphony today. Altramar's harp is similar to the harps of the Twelth Century. This harp is small and triangle-shaped. In order to play this harp, the musician holds it in her/his lap.

Johnson also creates the 'vielle', an ancestor of both the violin and the "viola da gamba" families. When thinking about many of the instruments, I found myself making comparisions to present day versions. One of the most dramatic differences I discovered was that the 'vielle' has optional frets, unlike the always, non-fretted, present day violin. Aside from these differences, the 'vielle' could have a curved of flat bridge. I suppose this was determined by the producer of the instrument. I did not find information stating whether or not Altramar preferred curved or flat bridges.

Lastly, the 'rebec' is a small fiddle-like instrument with less strings on it then a present-day fiddle. This instrument has only two or three strings, where as the common fiddle that I am familiar with has four strings. Evidentally, the unique sound of the 'rebec' is attributed to its "one-piece, gourd-shaped body".

I found a few program summaries of Altramar Concerts. I am not certain who wrote these reviews; whether it was a local newspaper reviewer in the area of the concert location, or perhaps it was one of the members of Altramar. In any case, one summary I read is titled: "The Eternal Hero: Legend, Grace, and Glory". This summary briefly describes what this performance included. I think the first few printed words are good at giving one a feeling about the program. This quote creates a wonderful picture in the mind of a reader:

Tales of fallen heroes...fallen warriors, religious martyrs, mythical characters. Through the centuries and across many cultures, singers wove these tales.

In the particular concert, it seems Altramar entertains their audience by telling tales of medieval music; how the people of that time wove music into their lives. Altramar begins in a history lesson of sorts, but the ledgends unfold in a story-like manner to the audience. As people of the medieval times would do, ledgends were told by mouth. As everyone knows, the oral tradition lends itself to the tales, or stories becoming a little different with each person who hears and tells them, very similiar to our folk lores.

Altramar recreates this as they perform their concert. The ledgends and tales of this oral tradition continue, decorated with music and song; now placed in the concert hall setting. I encountered many quotes in all of the summaries about Altramar's concerts; I enjoyed many of them because of the simplicity and comprehension they offered. Hence, this next quote about how oral tradition of music and medieval life 'come together' at an Altramar concert: "Here we present them both, side by side, drawing on the worlds of historical performance and traditional musics, bringing you on a journey from fireside to fireside, on a medieval night".

The second Altramar concert review I encountered, "Iberian Garden: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim spirit," seemed to focus more in the historical aspect of their concerts. The program include information about the Iberian Peninsula. I looked into finding more information our about this area, but due to limited time, did not have much chance. I know there are a few World Wide Webs that may offer insight about the Iberian Pennisula area.

The Pennisula was, evidentally, an area where people of all backgrounds, origins and faiths co-existed peacefully. From the Altramar summary: it was the Golden Age of Hebrew; a time of fruitful living. Their lives were supplemented by art and music. The actual program presented these ideas, and most of all, the feeling of living peacefully in a time such as this one.

I believe a person could research Altramar for years, and never know everything, since it seems each program is quite unique in itself. I wish I could have had more time to look into the group, perhaps even obtain a copy of their music.

Altramar seems to convey Medieval Life accurately through their research and concentration on details. Altramar is one of several such Medieval music groups. I feel Altramar is a terrific learning oppurtunity for anyone wishing to learn more about the Medieval Time.


(*note: All information for this paper was obtained through the above website and its links. The information about instruments (for example) can be accessed through the Altramar links. Any other specific topics can also be accessed through it as well. I hope this gives you enough information if you wish to explore more.*)

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