Instruments from the Portico of Glory

Here is a Camino moment – one of those special encounters I had on the Camino. When I reached Santiago, I toured the Cathedral and was amazed by the carvings on the Portico of Glory – carved by Medieval French sculptor Master Matteo in the 11th century.

Pórtico de la Gloria

Portico of Glory. Photo credit: By José Antonio Gil Martínez from Vigo, Spain – Pórtico de la Gloria Uploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, wikimedia – 26175646

The Portico of Glory depicts, among other things, a large group of musicians, caught as though in the act of tuning up before performing. Some are in conversation with the person next to them, some are tuning-up, and as a result, it is a surprisingly relaxed and naturalistic carving. I could easily imagine a group of musicians chatting before the start of a gig.

The portico also depicts the instruments in some detail – the instruments are well observed and there’s enough information to enable reproductions of each of the instruments. When I visited the museum, I found some of the instruments on display, and was able to photograph them.

The instruments bring to life medieval Galician-Celtic music, as well as music from the Codex Calixtinus. And there is a group performing regularly with these reproduction instruments.

One of the most interesting is the Organistrum – a kind of medieval hurdy-gurdy. This is a keyed, 3-stringed instrument which is ‘bowed’ by turning a rosined wheel that bears against the strings. The instrument is constructed with a figure eight soundbox, and is played by two people, one to turn the handle for bowing; the other to operate the keys.


The sound-box is elaborately carved with stylised fleur de lys and dot motifs.


And the key box is designed so that as each key is lifted, it forms a chord across the three strings.


A rhythm can be established by alternately speeding and slowing the turn of the handle which turns the bow wheel. The instrument provides a steady chordal drone to fill out the music – just like a hurdy-gurdy.

The next instrument was a fidula obal – an oval-shaped fiddle – in many ways this instrument is the distant forebear of my pochette, or travel fiddle.

Fidula obal

In this case, it has three strings secured by three tuning pins at the top of the neck and at the ornately carved tailpiece at the base. The strings run over a slightly curved bridge, enabling the bow to sound one, two or even all three strings.

Fidula obal

My pochette fiddle, modelled on one I saw some years ago in London’s Victoria and Albert  Museum, would not have seemed too out of place among the medieval instruments. Here is my instrument being played along with a couple of other instruments at a folk festival.

Which reminds me that I really must learn some Galician Celtic tunes 🙂

A further instrument is the Fidula Ocho – or figure eight fiddle. This one has a larger soundboard area, and a waist, not unlike a modern violin. So, this instrument could be viewed as one of the violin’s ancient ancestors. This fidula would probably have been louder than the Obal and was possibly a lead instrument carrying the melody.

Fidula Ocho

All these instruments were accurately recreated from the 11th-century stonework of Master Matteo. The Foundation of Pedro Barrié de la Maza commissioned expert luthiers, art historians and musicologists to form a multidisciplinary team to produce the most faithful re-creations possible. There is a video in Spanish describing the process of bringing these instruments back to life.

As you can see from the video there were more instruments than I was able to photograph, such as the harp and bowed psaltery and a frame drum – still played in Galicia today, an instrument strongly resembling the Irish Bodhran.

The Organistrum was for me the most fascinating instrument, due to its mechanical complexity. It appeared to be a cross between a hurdy-gurdy and a Swedish Nyckelharpa. I must admit it is tempting to see if I could build at least one of the Fidula instruments!

Here is the Organistrum being played.

I could easily see how an ensemble of these instruments, along with voices would give a full and lively sound – especially with the acoustics of the Cathedral to add a little echo and ring to the music 🙂


If you’d like to read more about our Camino in 2016, here is the index page for all my Camino posts

Camino de Santiago 2016

or click on the link above 🙂


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Why you should see a concert in St Martin-in-the-Fields

Iconic on the outside, the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields is also a bit special inside. And not because of what you see. This post is about what you can hear when you venture inside.

First, a bit about the building. The earliest reference to a church on this site is in 1222 when a dispute was recorded over who should have authority over the church. At that time, the place was surrounded by fields used by the monks of Westminster.

Around 1542 Henry VIII built a new church here to keep plague victims from being carried past his palace at Westminster. The church was enlarged in 1607 by Prince Henry, the son of King James I of England/VI of Scotland.

That building was pulled down in 1721 to make way for a new church – the one we see today. This church was designed by James Gibbs and was completed in 1726.

St Martin in the Fields

St Martin in the Fields

Gibbs was influenced by Christopher Wren, but where Wren saw the steeple as separate from the building, Gibbs incorporated it into the fabric of the building as an integral part of the structure.

In Gibbs’ church, the nave, or central part of the rectangular building was capped with a flattened barrel-vaulted ceiling, divided into panels by ribs. Whether by accident or design, the resulting structure has extraordinarily good acoustics, making it one of the finest concert venues in the UK.

St Martins was really surrounded by fields until the 19th century when Trafalgar Square was built. So it would have been an amazing building to encounter on a muddy road between Westminster and the City of London – which still largely followed the form of the old Roman wall.

St Martin in the. Fields

And so to music. The acoustics in St Martin’s is quite amazing. Just enough echo to provide warmth to the sound without the notes interfering with each other. There is great separation of the instruments and if you close your eyes it is actually difficult to pinpoint the source location of the sound. It seems to come from everywhere and within.

So to hear a concert of Baroque music by the Thames Chamber Orchestra is really something special (but don’t forget to hire a cushion(!)).

The 1748 Guadagnini violin played by First Violinist and soloist David Juritz came through in all its richness. In keeping with the period, the musicians limited their vibrato so the music was played much as it would have been in Handel’s or Bach’s time. The harpsichord played by Edward Batting was subtle, but ever present – never fully overpowered by the other instruments.

Thames Chamber Orchestra

The building’s raised position and the location of the orchestra near the alter end meant there was no intrusion from the traffic noise, even in the quietest passages. That is quite something given how busy Trafalgar Square can be these days!

There are free lunchtime concerts most days (gold coin donation). But it really is quite special to hear a full concert played under candle light in an 18th century church with near perfect acoustics. So, if the visual stimulation provided by London seems a bit much, then why not treat your ears to some amazing live music that will live with you for years afterwards.

Copenhagen – Jazz Festival

If you are in Copenhagen in early July you will find the streets alive with the most amazing jazz music. This is the week of one of the world’s great global jazz festivals. The outdoor cafes on Nyhavn are wonderful at the best of times, serving great food, coffee, beer or wine at reasonable prices, and the friendly atmosphere will quickly draw you in.

Copenhagen Jazz Festival

Copenhagen Jazz Festival

If you have the opportunity there are some great things to see here – try taking a canal cruise around the old harbour area and see how Copenhagen was modelled on old Amsterdam. Don’t forget to check out the full size bronze cast of Michelangelo’s ‘David‘.

Copenhagen - David

Copenhagen – David

As a fiddle player, I was fascinated by the rich variety of instruments at the  Danish Music Museum where you will see some extraordinary violins – some looking like they have melted into new shapes. This museum is open daily except Mondays.

Copenhagen music museum - 'Arpa'

Copenhagen music museum – ‘Arpa’

And as the home of the vikings, the national museum holds a huge collection of viking artefacts. In fact the national museum is a collection of several museums covering the period from the iron age through to WWII. The national museum has free entrance and is open to the public 10.00AM-5.00PM year round except Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

Copenhagen national museum

Copenhagen national museum

But for me, the best way of experiencing Copenhagen is to walk along the canals and take in the delightfully painted buildings, or hire a bike  – they have dedicated bike lanes right throughout the city – or find one of the delightful coffee shops and watch the world go by.

Copenhagen Nyhavn

Copenhagen Nyhavn

What jazz festivals have you enjoyed – and where were they? Let me know in the comments below this post 🙂


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