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ALTA CAPELLA
the mediaeval and renaissance loud band

'The shawm players play on instruments of various sizes, some high for the upper voices, some low - commonly called bombard - for the middle and bottom voices. Sometimes ... they are joined by brass players who play on a kind of trumpet known in Italy as the trompone and in France as the saque-boute. When all these instruments play together it is called the alta.'
Johannes Tinctoris De usu et inventione musicae Naples, c.1487

The ensemble of shawms, bombards and trumpet or sackbut (trombone) - the alta capella - was one of the most important and influential instrumental formations in the history of Western Music. It was the type of ensemble most often heared in mediaeval cities, the first in history to be placed on civic payrolls - the predecessor of the municipal symphony orchestra. In its heyday practically every town from Scotland to Sicily and from Poland to Portugal employed a loud wind band. Buoyed on this wave of patronage, standards of wind playing reached new hights of virtuosity. The best players were famed for their improvisatory skills and huge memorised repertoires, accorded star status, and transferred for huge sums between rival European cities and courts.

The alta capella was the loudest ensemble of its day, capable of a wide range of musical styles from tower signals and fanfares to complex polyphony, from masses and motets to dance music and songs. This was the ensemble which played from the minstrel's galleries which still survive in many mediaeval buildings today. It was the dance band of its time par excellence. Images of the ensemble abound in paintings by such masters as Durer, Memling, Fra Angelico, Bosch and others. Composers whose works are known to have been played by loud wind bands include Dufay, Dunstable, Binchois, Josquin, Obrecht, ...

'In our christian times there are countless wind players who sometimes play at religious festivals, and very often at wedding celebrations and at the splendid banquets of the nobility; they are also called upon to play at victory celebrations and other festivities, both public and private; they are heared in cities at daybreak and at nightfall; they play sacred and secular music of all types on their instruments, gracefully and full of inventiveness.'

The music theorist Johannes Tinctoris was one of the best-placed eye-witnesses of the alta capella But one of the last writers to describe such an ensemble was none other that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who heared the Nuremberg Stadtmusikanten playing their traditional tune at the opening of the Frankfurt Fair around 1750:

'All at once a wonderful music heralded the arrival of some past century. It was three pipers, one played shawm, the second a trombone, the third a bombard.... '
Goethe Dichtung und Wahrheit, Erstes Buch

The prizewinning ensemble Les haulz et les bas has already won the hearts of audiences and critics throughout Europe, and brought hitherto unknown but ravishingly beautiful and exciting music to the concert stage.