What do a night watchman and a professional musician have in common? The first professional wind musicians were night watchmen.
Many modern wind instruments can find their ancestors being played from towers to keep the city safe at night and entertain citizens by day.
Protective walls surrounded every European town of any significance until the 18th century. Many cities had hundreds of towers.
Some of the towers shown in this picture of Paris are church spires or towers on some equivalent of city hall (which made excellent watch towers). Some were built as parts of the wall.
The walls and towers protected the towns from invading armies, robber barons, and fires. No one could enter the city except through gates that were open only during the day. Day and night, watchmen patrolled the walls and surveyed the landscape from towers.
Watchmen could communicate with each other with hand signals or flags during the day, but not at night. They began to use loud instruments like trumpets, horns, and shawms for that purpose six to eight centuries ago. At first, none of those instruments had any real musical purpose. They simply provided a good way of communication between people who could not see each other.
Horns at that time were the literal horn of an animal. Seaside towns could also use conch shells. Trumpets were hammered from brass tubing. Wooden shawms had raucous reeds. All of these instruments provided a suitably loud noise. They were capable of playing only a few notes, but the watchmen derived different signals from various combinations of notes.
Trumpets had a special significance. The nobility used them for military signals. Until brass workers rediscovered the old Roman technique of bending a tube, trumpets were straight instruments four to six feet long.
They must have looked as imposing as they sounded with a nobleman’s banners hanging from them. Eventually towns received permission to use trumpets to call public attention to important decrees and announcements.
From signaling instrument to musical instrument
Watch duty was the medieval equivalent of air traffic controllers. Both jobs entail hours of sheer boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Shawms could play more notes than trumpets or horns, so shawmists could at least play tunes to while away the time. Trumpet and horn players could at least join them by playing simple drones.
Some of them must have been good at it. In 1310, watchmen in Bruges provided entertainment for a banquet. By 1350, one author complained, “In modern times the shawms and loud trumpets generally banish the sober fiddles from the feasts, and the young girls dance eagerly to the loud noise, like hinds shaking their buttocks womanishly and rudely.”
By 1400, standards of shawm playing increased greatly. The instrument had become even more valuable as a musical instrument than as a signaling instrument. Other people besides night watchmen began to play it. Towns soon had to forbid anyone but the watchmen from playing shawms at night, except perhaps at weddings.
The limitations of trumpets and horn prevented them from similar transformation into musical instruments, but technology in general advanced greatly in the 14th century. Regarding trumpets, craftsmen rediscovered how to bend metal tubes. Some time later they discovered how to make a rudimentary slide by inserting one tube inside another. The trombone was born. The result didn’t look much like the modern trombone, but it could play a complete scale. And therefore it could play countermelodies with shawms.
Early wind bands
The night watchmen had become the town band by about 1400. They were the only musicians in town (besides the priests at important churches) with a steady paying gig.
They still had guard duty, so their job required both good eyesight and good musical ability. That combination proved common enough that towns had to begin holding auditions to select the three or four best people for their payroll.
Wind bands began to shed guard duty over the next couple of centuries. They also began to grow. In 1400, the typical town band comprised three players. A few larger towns hired four. By 1600 most bands had at least six paid musicians, each with an unpaid apprentice. Bands of eight or more paid players were not uncommon.
Just as the trombone replaced the trumpet by the early 15th century, a newer wooden instrument called the cornett supplanted the shawm in most of Europe. This instrument is not related to the modern cornet. It had finger holes like a shawm or recorder, but a cup shaped mouthpiece like that of the trumpet replaced the reed.
Wind bands were ubiquitous in English, Spanish, Italian, and German towns. Apparently French towns did not adopt them, but shawm bands persisted at the French court, entrusted with only the most mundane musical tasks.
The end of a tradition
Eventually these bands became old fashioned and fell out of favor. In the 1670s the French court refined its shawms into modern oboes and replaced trombones with bassoons. The new band had a much more artistic role than the old one.
The English court abruptly replaced its traditional band with a French-style oboe-bassoon band in 1685. Trombones disappeared from English towns soon after. Except for the Holy Roman Empire, other European courts followed suit by the end of the century.
Some towns likewise either stopped supporting traditional bands or modernized them from the late 17th century through the 18th century. Other towns, however, maintained their traditional bands throughout the 18th century. Although nominally still cornett and trombone bands, their members were eventually expected to be proficient on other instruments.
Bologna upgraded its band to the French model only in 1779. Napoleon abolished all traditional bands, including Bologna’s and the pope’s, when he invaded Italy. New bands quickly replaced them, but they were no longer on the town payroll.
Leipzig and some other towns in German Saxony maintained their bands until legislation abolished them in 1862. Among other things, these bands provided the nucleus of church orchestras. They also held a monopoly on music for weddings and other festive private occasions that remained unchallenged until the middle of the 19th century.
After Napoleon’s defeat, nearly every European nation reorganized its military bands. The new bands were much larger, much more orchestral, and used modern instruments. American bands owe much of their character to a melding of different European practices.
The abolition of German town bands marked the end of a tradition that stretched back more than 500 years. Their influence lasted a while longer. Nearly everyone in Germany who played wind instruments professionally throughout the 19th century were trained by musicians of the ancient tradition
David M. Guion. A History of the Trombone (Scarecrow Press, 2010).
Christopher Page. “German Musicians and Their Instruments: A 14th-Century Account by Konrad of Megenberg,” Early Music 10 (1982): pp. 194-95.
Medieval Paris. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Borso’s wind band. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.
Walther frontispiece. Trombone history: 18th-century / Will Kimball