The association Instrumentarium de Reims is conducting an absolutely fascinating research project on medieval music – with a particular focus on the second half of the 18th century. This is of keen interest to lovers of the genre as well as those curious by nature.

When one luthier meets another luthier, they naturally get talking – besides lutes – about their passion for these plucked or stringed musical instruments and for ones with sound boxes, such as violins, cellos and other guitars, that they make, repair, restore and maintain.

If by chance their path should lead them to Reims Cathedral, they soon spot some of these instruments among the venerable ancestors depicted on the statues and stained-glass windows. They ask right off the bat if it would be possible to count how many. They are quite quickly met with “there aren’t any!” and yet, certain their eyes aren’t deceiving them, they decide then and there to investigate further.

They meet Laure Bailly, who has written a thesis on cathedral instruments – proof that they exist! – and who has listed, identified, described them and then grouped them into families.  On the sculptures, carvings and stained-glass windows, there are precisely 541 of them, mainly around the façade and central doorway, with the emblematic Grande Rose stained-glass window and its 24 angels, including 18 ‘musicians’ who accompany the Virgin Mary and form a celestial orchestral ensemble. 

Photo album before photographs

“What is rather unique,” explains luthier François-Joseph Pommet, “is that you can observe the structure of the instruments and the way they are played. This provides a great deal of information about musical practice at the time, particularly during the second half of the 18th century, because the rare musicology and iconography treatises (essentially illuminated manuscripts) don’t explain how they were played. As such, the Cathedral is almost a… photographic album ahead of its time. On the doorway in particular, we can see a musician playing some kind of cittern, ancestor of the guitar, with his fingers positioned on each chord in a beautifully graceful gesture.”

Detail of a stained-glass window of the Reims Cathedral

Promote, restore and bring to life

Hoping to promote the instrumental heritage that features on Reims Cathedral, François-Joseph Pommet (quartet luthier), Ludovic Pothet (luthier specialising in guitars and instruments of the world) and Laure Bailly (cultural mediator), joined by Cécile Bolbach (honorary professor at the Conservatoire de Reims), then founded the association Instrumentarium2 de Reims. With this first objective in mind, the quartet developed a thematic tour of the Cathedral based on its some 2,300 statues and stained-glass windows. It also then set itself the goal of ‘restoring’ some of these instruments, since there are no physical remains of them from the time. François-Joseph Pommet therefore made a perfectly ‘playable’ prototype of an eight-part fiddle, while a cittern and hurdy-gurdy are currently in the process of being restored. The association’s third and final aim is to bring the instrumentarium to life through conferences, introductions to medieval music and even concerts with specialist musicians.

Guided visit by the Instrumentarium de Reims at the Reims Cathedral

Consultants for the Maison des Musiciens

But the founders of the association also took on the role of consultants during the restoration of the façade of the Maison des Musiciens on Rue de Tambours in Reims. François-Joseph Pommet explains that they had to “identify the type of the instruments and the way in which the characters played them as accurately as possible” from the original statues and their ‘missing pieces’, kept in the Saint Rémi Museum; from photographs of the façade dating back to pre-1914 and from comparisons made with the cathedral statues. In particular, their contribution enabled them to correct positions of the flute and tambourine players on the early models, as well as the fiddle and the way the musician used it…

Knowing that the Cathedral and the Maison des Musiciens in Reims possess a real treasure trove from this period, members of the Instrumentarium can only dare to dream that one day the Palace of Tau will have a dedicated room for medieval music… 

1This includes horns, trumpets, bagpipes, cymbals and drums for the ‘high’ instruments, used in the open air; harps, citterns, psalteries, fiddles, guitars, flutes and bells for the ‘low’ instruments, intended to be played indoors. 
2In the musical world, an instrumentarium denotes the ensemble of instruments used for a piece of music.

Text : Jacques Rivière
Images : Instrumentarium de Reims