This page begins to discuss the music that was written for court drone instruments in France between c.1730 and c.1780.
A visitor may be surprised to learn that quite a lot of music written for the vielle and musette is still in publication. However, disappointingly, you will not find it listed under the names of those instruments but rather (most usually) as recorder sonatas, duets etc. with occasionally, and without irony, a derogatory preface referring to the 'obsolete' instruments hurdy-gurdy and musette.
The music that is available to us probably should be divided into that described as being for Vielle, Musette, etc. and that described as being for Musette, Vielle, etc. In other words, we must reluctantly admit, that only some fairly small amount of music was written and intended principally with the Vielle in mind whilst a much larger body of music was written and intended principally for the Musette. In either case their drone cousins appear second.
The instruments differ in the following ways:
- The Vielle has a range that descends to the note G while the Musette can reach F# or even F below that .
- The Vielle has a rhythmic effect called the coup de poignet (stroke of the wrist) that the Musette has not.
- The Vielle has an easy ability to phrase by means of small breaks or aspirations.
How these differences might affect our approach to performance is one of many that I hope to consider with this website. It is also of interest that the Musette was unarguably the more popular instrument at the time and had a longer 'lifetime' than the Vielle.
Like so many people before me I also play the Northumbrian Smallpipes and this instrument is thought to derive from the Musette de cour. The NS however has what is called a closed chanter giving it superb phrasing abilities because the melody is silent UNLESS the player releases a note: this makes 'playing' rests very easy.
I hope in the fullness of time to acquire and learn to play a Musette in order to have a more complete study of this style of music.
In the main the music is mainly divided between sonatas (vielle, bass & harpsichord continuo) and duets for various pairings of instruments. Some of the sonata movements can be effectively played as Vielle solos but apart from that there are not a great number of true baroque music solos available.
Problems of balance between instruments is a major concern to the Viellist, even when playing with another Vielle, as when the coup de poignet is operating certain technical factors severely restrict the dynamic variation available at any given tempo. The matter is discussed in a number of places in the primary sources. I personally would argue that where the Vielle is the solo instrument it should stand out a little 'in the mix'. This is not so easy to achieve when the instrument is the Harpsichord as they too have a limited dynamic range; the sound when they pluck their strings tends either to mask the coup de poignet or the other way round.
I strongly believe that part of the remedy for this is to realise the figured basses more sparingly than has often been done in the past: perhaps generally abandoning the rule of always playing three-note-chords in the right hand in order to allow the relatively delicate melody of the vielle to be heard; to use the accompaniment to help create dynamic contrast where the music is marked 'p' or 'doux'; and to allow the listener more of an awareness of the underlying drone, which effect is the glory of both the vielle and the musette.