The reed instrument which was undoubtedly heard more than any other in the Renaissance was the shawm—at least that is the English name for it—Praetorius calls the treble instrument the Schalmey, and the French called it the Hautboys, a word that may be familiar from Shakespeare and that also gave rise to the modern word “oboe,”of which instrument the shawm is an ancestor. As with the oboe or bassoon, the shawm player held the reed between the lips, putting the mouth up against the pirouette—the reed-holder.

Bombarde & treble shawm. Spanish (early 17th century) Brussels, Musée Instrumental, nos. 2323 & 2326.


Shawms. Plate XI (detail) from Syntagma Musicum II, De Organographia, by Michael Praetorius (1618-19).

Shawm. L’Homme armé‚ (anonymous) performed by the Boston Shawm and Sackbut Ensemble. Ménéstrels hauts et bas (1985), trk 1a.

Very often, the shawm was combined with the sackbut in a shawm band, with one common arrangement being treble shawm, bombarde, and sackbut. Larger combinations in the later 16th century often found the curtal being used as a convenient substitute for the unwieldy bass shawm on the bottom of the ensemble.

Shawm band. Fresco (detail, ca.1503). Pinturichio. Fresco over the door to the Piccolomini Library within Siena Cathedral.


Wind band with shawms, cornett, sackbuts, and curtal. Procession in Brussels (detail, 1615). Dennis van Alsloot. Madrid, Prado.

Shawms & sackbut. Return of the Pipers. The Philadelphia Renaissance Wind Band [Piffaro], Joan Kimball & Robert Wiemken, directors. Newport Classic NPD 85567 (1994). Trk 3 Ein frolich wesenn.


For the larger shawms, Praetorius uses the term Pommer, a corruption of the French word bombarde, meaning a “cannon.” The sound is rather an assault on the ears, too, which made it the favored instrument for large gatherings, both indoors and out. Like the recorders, largers shawms feature a fontanelle — a “pepper shaker” cover for the key mechanism that served both to protect the key and hide its asymmetry. The key itself is often referred to as a “swallow-tail,” and its shape allowed the instrument to be played with the left or the right hand down, there being no standard method as there is today.



Shawms & curtal. Los Ministriles: Spanish Renaissance Wind Music. Piffaro, Joan Kimball & Robert Wiemken, directors. Archiv 453 441-2 (1997). Trk 11 Puesque me tienes, Miguel (excerpt).

Basset shawm. Salt dish decoration. (detail, early 17th century). Jean Limousin. Cleveland Museum of Art, 72.171.


Bombarde fontanelle (detail). Spanish (early 17th century) Brussels, Musée Instrumental, no. 2323.