Medieval lituus

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This article describes a medieval musical instrument; for other uses see Lituus.

The medieval musical instrument called a lituus is of obscure nature, the word being used to describe a variety of different instruments.

Medieval use[edit]

The lituus was used for a variety of purposes, including as part of classical compositions.[citation needed]

Chroniclers of the Crusades from the 11th through the 13th centuries often used the various Classical Latin terms for trumpets and horns—including tuba, cornu, buccina, and lituus—alongside the more up-to-date French term trompe with reference to instruments employed in the Christian armies. However, it is difficult or impossible to determine just what instruments were meant, and it is not likely they were the same as the Roman instruments called by these names.[1]

In the early 15th century, Jean de Gerson listed the lituus among those string instruments that were sounded by beating or striking, either with the fingernails, a plectrum, or a stick. Other instruments Gerson names in this category are the cythara, guiterna, psalterium, timpanum, and campanula.[2]

Modern use[edit]

By the late 16th century the word was being applied to a variety of different instruments. A 1585 English translation of Hadrianus Junius's Nomenclator defines lituus as "a writhen or crooked trumpet winding in and out; a shaulme" (i.e., shawm).[3] The early Baroque composer and author Michael Praetorius used the word as a Latin equivalent of the German "Schallmeye" (shawm) or for the "Krumbhoerner" (crumhorns)—in the latter case also offering the Italian translations storti, and cornamuti torti.[4]

With an added adjective, the term lituus alpinus, was used in 1555 by the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner in the earliest published description of the Alphorn: "nearly eleven feet long, made from two pieces of wood slightly curved and hollowed out, fitted together and skillfully bound with osiers".[5]

Johann Sebastian Bach specified the use of two litui for his composition O Jesu Christ, Meins Lebens Licht (BWV 118). This motet or cantata, written in the 1730s, is believed to be the only remaining composition that calls for the lituus,[6] and the only known piece ever written for the instrument.[7] Since there are no known surviving examples of a Baroque lituus, the exact appearance and sound is unknown. However, researchers have been able to rely on depictions of instruments believed to be similar to the lituus in order to approximate its characteristics.[8]


The modern design and construction of Bach's lituus was initiated when the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (SCB) in Switzerland approached a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh to assist with the recreation. The student and his research team had developed a software application for working with brass instrument design.[9] The SCB provided the Edinburgh team with details and assumptions about the correct design of the lituus. The software application was then to convert those designs into an accurate representation of the shape, pitch, and tone of the medieval instrument. The Edinburgh team produced two identical prototypes, approximately 2.5 meters long. The lituuses are straight and thin, with a flared bell at the end. The horns are made of pine and feature cow horn mouthpieces. The Edinburgh team noted that the reconstructed instrument could easily have been made in Bach's time using then-current technology.[6]

Tone and performance[edit]

The tone of the finished instruments is described as "piercing" and they have a limited range.[9] One member of the development team referred to the tone as being "broadly like a trumpet" but more "haunting".[6] The reconstructed lituus has also been described as difficult to play.[10][8]

The SCB used the reconstructed lituus in a performance of O Jesu Christ, Meins Lebens Licht, believing they are the first to do so since Bach's time.[6]


  1. ^ John Wallace and Alexander McGrattan, The Trumpet (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012): 73.
  2. ^ Christopher Page, "Early 15th-Century Instruments in Jean de Gerson's 'Tractatus de Canticis'", Early Music 6, no. 3 (July 1978): 339–49. Citation on 344.
  3. ^ Kenton Terry Meyer, "The Crumhorn", PhD thesis (Iowa City: University of Iowa, 1981): 22.
  4. ^ Michael Praetorius, Syntagmatis Musici, Tomus Secundus: De Organographia (Wolffenbüttel: Elias Holwein, 1619): 3, 40.
  5. ^ "longum ferè ad pedes undecim, duobus lignis modicè incuruis & excauatis compactum, & uiminibus scitè obligatum" (Conrad Gessner, De raris et admirandis herbis qvae sive qvod noctv luceant, siue alias ob causas, lunariae nominantur, commentariolus : & obiter de alijs etiam rebus quæ in tenebris lucent : inferunter & icones quedam herbarum nove : eivsdem descriptio Montis Fracti, siue Montis Pilati, iuxta Lucernam in Heluetia : his accedvnt Io. Dv Chovl G.F. Lugdunensis, Pilati Montis in Gallia descriptio : Io Rhellicani Stockhornias, qua Stockhornus mons altissimus in Bernensium Heluetiorum agro, versibus heroicis describitur. Tigvri [Zurich]: Apud Andream Gesnerum F. & Iacobvm Gesnerum, frates, 1555): 52.
  6. ^ a b c d Staff (2009-06-02), Bach's Lituus Used for First Time in 300 Years, Telegraph Media Group Limited, retrieved 2009-06-03 
  7. ^ Staff (2009-05-31), Researchers Resurrect Extinct Musical Instrument, RedOrbit, retrieved 2009-06-03 
  8. ^ a b Ghosh, Pallab (2009-05-30), 'Lost' Music Instrument Recreated, BBC News, retrieved 2009-06-03 
  9. ^ a b Staff (2009-05-31), Ancient instrument reproduced with help of new software, CBC News, retrieved 2009-06-03 [dead link]
  10. ^ Sanderson, Katharine (2009-06-01), Bach's bizarre horn born again,, retrieved 2009-06-03 

Further reading[edit]

  • McKinnon, James W. 2001. "Lituus". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Marcuse, Sibyl. 1975. "Lituus". Musical Instruments: A Comprehensive Dictionary, corrected edition. The Norton Library N758. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc. ISBN 0-393-00758-8.