Anyone who experiences Philadelphia’s world-famous Renaissance band Piffaro in concert at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on March 17 will come face to face with a breathtaking array of musical instruments from centuries past played with expertise in an atmosphere of relaxed conviviality.
Unlike the more rigidly constrained performers who came to dominate classical music in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Renaissance musicians embellished and improvised on dance tunes of their day in ways that Piffaro’s co-director, Bob Wiemken, compares to the spontaneous creativity of jazz musicians. Though the players have sheet music on stands before them, they are at liberty to honor that inherited freedom by artfully deviating from the score.
Piffaro specializes in double reed instruments: the curved crumhorn, the shawm, and the dulcian, sweet-voiced forerunner of the modern bassoon. My personal favorite is the rackett, which the Germans called the Wurstfagott, or sausage bassoon. This stubby instrument, which looks like a polished piece of kindling studded with little holes, has a softly raspy but surprisingly deep tone. That’s because the bore, or channel that the wind passes through, is quite long and coiled up nine times within it. The effect is somewhat bizarre, because we are accustomed to hearing bass clef sounds emanating from jumbo-sized instruments. As Wiemken demonstrates, you can carry a rackett in your pocket.
Piffaro’s famously diverse collection of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century instruments also includes the tabor drum, a harp suggesting classical antiquity, the lute–cousin to the Arabian oud–and the Renaissance guitar, which could easily be mistaken for a ukulele.
Founding member and artistic co-director Joan Kimball coordinates the organization’s extensive educational outreach efforts. In a video online at the Google Cultural Institute, she demonstrates the gentle-voiced doucaine–a precursor to the oboe–describing how the instrument only existed in the form of written descriptions until the late 1980s when a fairly well-preserved specimen was salvaged from the wreckage of Henry VIII’s sunken warship, the Mary Rose.
Kimball is also a respected medieval and Renaissance bagpipe enthusiast. Contrary to popular belief, bagpipes are not specific to Scotland and Ireland, for pipers have been heard throughout Europe for many centuries. In Italy, the word piffaro is traditionally used to describe both the pipes and the piper. Piffaro often lives up to its name by ending performances with the purling and keening of bagpipes.