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The shawm was a medieval and Renaissance musical instrument of the woodwind family made in Europe from the 12th century (at the latest) until the 17th century. It was likely of ancient origin and was imported to Europe from the Islamic East at some point between the 9th and 12th centuries. Its name is linguistically related to the Arabic zamr, the Turkish zūrnā, the Persian surnāy, the Chinese suona, the Javanese saruni, and the Hindu sahanai or sanayi. It is the predecessor of the modern oboe. The body of the shawm was usually turned from a single piece of wood, and terminated in a flared bell somewhat like that of a trumpet. Beginning in the 16th century, shawms were made in several sizes, from sopranino to great bass, and four and five-part music could be played by a consort consisting entirely of shawms.
All later shawms (excepting the smallest) had at least one key allowing a downward extension of the compass; the keywork was typically covered by a perforated wooden cover called the fontanelle. The bassoon-like double reed, made from the same Arundo donax cane used for oboes and bassoons, was inserted directly into a socket at the top of the instrument, or in the larger types, on the end of a metal tube called the bocal. The pirouette, a small cylindrical piece of wood with a hole in the middle resembling a thimble, was placed over the reed—this acted as a support for the lips and embouchure.
Since only a short portion of the reed protruded past the pirouette, the player had only limited contact with the reed, and therefore limited control of dynamics. The shawm’s conical bore and flaring bell, combined with the style of playing dictated by the use of a pirouette, gave the instrument a piercing, trumpet-like sound well-suited for out-of-doors performance.
In English the name only first appears in the 14th century. There were originally three main variant forms, (1) schallemele (shamulle or shamble), (2) s(c)halmys (shalemeyes or chalemyes, all plural forms in Middle English), and (3) sc(h)almuse (or schalmesse), each derived from a corresponding variant in Old French: chalemel, chalemie, and chalemeaux (the plural of chalemel), each in turn derived from the Latin calamus ("reed"), or its Vulgar Latin diminutive form, calamellus. (The name of a somewhat different reed instrument, the chalumeau, also shares this etymology.) The early plural forms were often mistaken for a singular, and new plurals were formed from them. The later reduction in the 15th and 16th centuries to a single syllable in forms such as schalme, shaume, shawme, and finally (in the 16th century) "shawm", was probably due to this confusion of plural and singular forms.
In German the shawm is called Schalmei (or for the larger members of the family Bombard—also in English in the 14th century—later corrupted to Bombhardt and finally in the 17th century to Pommer); the first word is substantially identical to the Old French name for the same instrument, chalemie, and is believed to derive from the Latin calamus (itself from Greek κάλαμος), meaning "reed or stalk". However, it is also possible that the name comes from the Arabic salamiya (سلامية), a traditional oboe from Egypt, as the European shawm seems to have been developed from similar instruments brought to Europe from the Near East during the time of the Crusades. This is borne out by the very similar names of many folk shawms used as traditional instruments in various European nations: in Spain, many traditional shawms with different names can be found, such as the Castilian, Aragonese, and Leonese dulzaina (sometimes called chirimía, a term that derives from the same Old French word as shawm); the Valencian and Catalan shawms (xirimia, dolçaina, or gralla) or the Navarrese gaita. In Portugal there is an instrument called charamela; and the name of the Italian shawm is ciaramella (or: cialamello, cennamella).
Instruments resembling the medieval shawm can still be heard in many countries today, played by street musicians or military bands. The latter use would have been familiar to crusaders, who often had to face massed bands of Saracen shawms and nakers, used as a psychological weapon. It must have had a profound effect, as the shawm was quickly adopted by Europeans, for dancing as well as for military purposes. The standard outdoor dance band in the fifteenth century consisted of a slide trumpet playing popular melodies, while two shawms improvised countermelodies over it. In many Asian countries, shawm technique includes circular breathing allowing continuous playing without pauses for air.
By the early 16th century, the shawm had undergone considerable development. The harsh tonality of the medieval shawm had been modulated somewhat by a narrowing of the bore and a reduction in the size of the fingerholes. This also extended the range, enabling the performer to play the notes in the second octave. Larger sizes of shawm were built, down to the great bass, two octaves below the soprano. However, the larger sizes were unwieldy and impractical, making them somewhat rare; the great bass, for example, could only be played with the performer standing on a small platform.
The smaller sizes of shawm, chiefly the soprano, alto and sometimes the tenor, were more often coupled with the Renaissance trombone, or sackbut, and the majestic sound of this ensemble was much in demand by civic authorities. The shawm became standard equipment for town bands, or waits, who were required to herald the start of municipal functions and signal the major times of day. The shawm became so closely associated with the town waits (die Stadtpfeifer in German and I piffari in Italian) that it was also known as the wait-pipe.
The shawm was reserved almost exclusively for outdoor performance—for softer, indoor music, other instruments such as the crumhorn and sordun were preferred. These were double reed instruments fitted with a capsule that completely enclosed the reed, which softened the sound but still did not allow for any variation in dynamics.
The 16th century proclivity for building instruments in a full range of sizes was naturally extended to the shawm, but the shawm consort proved to be a short-lived experiment. The extreme length of pipe of the bass instruments meant that few were built and played; instead, an ingenious solution was devised whereby the bore was in effect “folded back” upon itself, creating a much more manageable instrument. The new instrument is often referred to as the dulcian, and was called curtal in England, fagott or fagotto in Germany and Italy, and bajón in Spain, and it became very popular as a general-purpose bass instrument, even in refined settings where shawms were considered inappropriate. The dulcian is the forerunner of the modern bassoon.
Known by the Spanish term chirimia, the shawm remains an important ritual instrument among Maya peoples of Highland Guatemala. Accompanied by a drum, the chirimia is frequently used in processions and in certain ritual dances, such as the Dance of the Conquest (Baile de la Conquista) and this is still played today.
A particular alto shawm in F, with a range of nine notes, was called a bassett nicolo, not to be confused with the single-reed basset horn. This instrument, described by Praetorius as having one key but depicted by him in the Theatrum Instrumentarum as a four-keyed instrument, was a reed-cap swawm, related to the hautbois de Poitou and the Rauschpfeife.
The shawm inspired the later 17th century hautbois, an invention of the French musician Martin Hotteterre (d.1712). He is credited with devising essentially a brand-new instrument, one which borrowed several features from the shawm, chiefly its double reed and conical bore, but departed from it significantly in other respects, the most important departure being the fact the player places his lips directly on the reed with no intervening pirouette. Around 1670, the new French hautbois began replacing the shawm in military bands, concert music and opera; by 1700, the shawm had all but disappeared from concert life, although as late as 1830 shawms could still be heard in German town bands performing their municipal functions (Baines, 1991). Curiously, the Germans and Dutch continued to manufacture an ornate version of the shawm, called deutsche Schalmey, well after the introduction of the French hautbois. Several examples of this instrument survive in European collections, although its exact musical use is unclear.
The charumera (チャルメラ), or charumeru (チャルメル), is a double-reed instrument in traditional Japanese music descended either from shawms brought to Japan by Portuguese Christian missionaries, or possibly Iberian traders in the 16th century. It is sometimes used in kabuki theatre performances.