The Shawm and the Alta Ensemble during the “Slide Trumpet Years”

Adam Knight Gilbert


In the alta ensemble, the “slide trumpet years” refers to the decades between the rise of the alta ensemble in the early 15th century and the simultaneous development of “Low Contra” style and the arrival of the trombone. During this period, a core duo of schalmei and bombard, pitched a fifth apart, performed the functions of Cantus and Tenor voice, presumably performing composed polyphony in one of two pitches a fourth apart, and instrumentalists of the alta perceived links between their instrumental ranges, fingerings, solmization, and tuning. In considering the issue of the slide trumpet, imagining scenarios in which the instrument did or did not exist suggests that the presence of a slide trumpet during these years remains the most elegant and simple solution for performing the Contra voice and function. Existing evidence challenges assumptions about the musical literacy of instrumentalists of the alta as enjoying less refined skills in reading notated music and crafting counterpoint than other contemporary musicians. Moreover, positing that members of the alta would have been fluent in an equally crucial form of literacy – employing solmization in visualizing composed and extemporized counterpoint – this article presents examples of contemporary compositions and counterpoint indicating proposed vocables.


Alta capella; shawm; slide trumpet; trombone; performance practice; 15th-century music


«... und machens nur aus dem Synn»