Fundamentum album cover

Fundamentum (2002)

The Birth of Keyboard Repertoire
Anon., De Vitry, Ileborgh, Paumann
Played on the gold-strung Evans clavicytherium

Golden Experience 1

Fundamentum presents the oldest surviving music for two-hand keyboard, beginning c1359 with the Robertsbridge Fragment (six pieces lasting seventeen minutes) and continuing up to c1450 with Conrad Paumann’s Fundamentum Organisandi (seven pieces lasting fourteen minutes, plus the sixteen-minute construct Ascensus et descensus ). In between are eighteen pieces from Germany, Poland, Austria, Holland and England lasting thirty minutes. Hitherto regarded as for organ, most of this repertoire proves to have been intended for string keyboard whether chekker, clavichord, clavicymbalum or clavicytherium. Less than a quarter has been excluded, and most of this is crude or garbled although some requires pedals (which point to clavichord as much as to organ). The instrument used here is a copy of the sole surviving medieval string keyboard, a clavicytherium or vertical clavicymbalum built around 1470 in Ulm and conserved in London.

The copy was commissioned by David Kinsela in 1986 from David Evans of Henley-on-Thames. Completed in 1991 with strings of brass, it was later restrung in gold in accordance with forgotten Renaissance practice following trials in Sydney.

Fundamentum encapsulates the transition of Western culture from Middle Ages to Renaissance.

Running time 76:55.
Designer: Mark Venice
The cover booklet has as many as twenty-eight full-colour pages (whereas organ.o booklets more usually have twenty-four pages). It includes:

  1. A brief history of the keyboard from its invention in Classical times up to the Renaissance.
  2. The illustrated story of the chekker, the first successful string keyboard, which makes its debut in London in 1360 during the captivity there of the king of France.
  3. The first depictions of the clavichord and clavicymbalum which are outstanding
    engineering drawings of their time made for the Duke of Burgundy.
  4. Details of the two tuning systems, Pythagorean and mean-tone.
  5. Details of each piece including origin, transcript and tuning.
  6. Introductory material on the gold-strung Evans clavicytherium, with photo.


Medieval and captivating!

Early Music News (NSW, April 2004)

The story of the chekker

The story of the chekker demonstrates the vicissitudes of fate, and illustrates also that one man’s poison can be another’s food (i.e. vice and virtue belong to the here-now). It also shows that engineering, besides its relevance to farming, building, services, transport and warfare, is fundamental to Western music. There is evidence that between the 1320s and the 1350s, minds in France, England and Florence gave thought to devising a one-man, two-hand keyboard instrument. It would need no bellows or crank because the playing fingers themselves would energise the sound, through key-levers acting on tautened strings (a practicable substitute for bells). The eventual instrument, as we know it, was square in shape looking like a boxed chess set, and so was named eschequier hence ‘chekker’. Within fifty years it was decisively superseded and by 1450 it had probably disappeared. Coming to light again in Belgium in the 1880s, more than five hundred years after its invention, it puzzled researchers as to whether it was a harpsichord, a clavichord, a piano, a ‘vertical clavichord’ or an organ. It took a century and more to realise that the chekker-concept was the simplest of all possibilities. Mechanically it had tangent action, as still used in the clavichord, but it was laid out like the grand piano with the keyboard running across the end of the string-band to allow strings to be lined up with the individual keys (like the clavicymbalum, harpsichord and forte-piano). This layout was never again used with tangent action as it involved, from the clavicymbalum onwards, a costly ‘bentside’. (An alternative layout would also prove viable, having the keyboard parallel to the strings so that the key-levers actually spanned the string-band as in the clavichord, virginals and square piano, instruments which were relatively cheap, compact and portable.)

The first report of the eschequier was penned in London but nevertheless is found in Paris, in the Bibliothèque Nationale, in account books for 1360 of the city’s king. John II was imprisoned for nearly four years by his second cousin Edward III of England, having been captured by the Prince of Wales in 1356 at Poitiers. It is serendipitous, even auspicious, that eschequier means ‘chess-set’, a game whose aim is to capture the enemy king. From the same period comes the Robertsbridge Fragment , a two-page manuscript preserved, it is said, only for its parchment-value in a book binding at Robertsbridge Abbey, once a royal foundation near the site of the 1066 Battle of Hastings. Now in the British Library, it is the oldest surviving music for keyboard. That it was created for a court is revealed by the knightly quality of its three estampies, and that this was the French court is indicated by two motets from the courtly satire Le Roman de Fauvel (a musical whose longevity anticipated, for instance, ‘Phantom of the Opera’). The likely composer of these motets was Philippe De Vitry, author of the famous polemic Ars nova ( c 1322) and subsequent secretary to three successive kings including the unfortunate John II. One motet in particular might have consoled the king in his terrifying predicament, Tribum que ‘The tribe which gained power ruthlessly was swiftly overthrown’. De Vitry had befriended the young music-scientist Johannes de Muris whose treatise Musica speculativa was released shortly after Ars nova , likewise finding wide use in universities. It laid a theoretical foundation for the chekker in a discussion of string-lengths for a triangular monocordium of nineteen diatonic notes, but it approached none of the design problems and did not even mention the action. (The Robertsbridge music similarly requires seventeen diatonic notes, along with ten accidentals.) In tangent action, a length of sheet metal called a tangent is affixed to the rear of the key-lever to simply hammer and at the same time to check the string, remaining in contact for the duration of the note in order to prevent bouncing and to isolate the damping felt. (It provides one node, the other being the bridge which transfers the vibrations to the soundboard.) Tangent action requires strings of drawn metal, and these became readily available in England and Germany around the mid-century. It has been said that De Muris visited Oxford and that he attended the first round of negotiations for King John’s ransom. (As an astronomer, he also advised Pope Pius VI on calendar reform.) The king, a music lover of mercurial temperament, could well have found consolation in playing Tribum que on the chekker, his memory assisted by the Robertsbridge transcription. Some twenty years later playing the chekker would be praised by Eustace Deschamps for lifting one’s spirits. Writing around the turn of the century, the influential churchman Jean de Gerson made at least seven references to the instrument. In spite of the tiny sound of tangent action, the chekker was used, he says, to accompany songs in army camp (like the accordion in the First World War). ‘In the chekker of our hearts the victory is melodious.’ ‘Devotion makes the strings of the chekker sound in accordance with diverse emotions.’ The chekker is ‘struck by the fingers of meditation’. The so-called mystical chekker presents an allegorical Battle of Virtues and Vices.

It is not certain that the chekker was an English development. Culture was vibrant through much of Edward’s fifty-year reign and the instrument enters history as a gift from Edward to John during a week of festivities celebrating the ransom settlement and pending release, but John actually paid for it. Assuming the cost was not taken elsewhere into account, Edward’s gift must have been the design itself as a state secret. It is even possible that the chekker was developed or improved in John’s court yet was claimed by Edward as within his realm. His avariciousness is shown by his exacting a ransom from the French that was in fact unpayable. (By contrast, John was so profligate as to be called Jean le bon .) It is most likely, however, that Edward simply lent a chekker to John who appreciated it so much as to commission a copy to take back to Paris. The maker may well have been brought over from France, his name being Jehan Perrot. Nothing is proved by the term l’eschaquier d’Angletere ‘the chekker of England’, used four years later by Guillaume Machaut. Of some seventeen known reports of the chekker only one is English, found in a roll of accounts for 1392 for the Bishop of London cuidam ludenti super le chekker apud Stebbenhith ‘to him that plays on the chekker at Stepney’. This provides the word ‘chekker’. The instrument would be cultivated at the courts of Burgundy and Barcelona, although no music for it survives there. Edward’s tomb in Westminster Abbey calls him the ‘bringer of peace to his people’, but on the Continent he wrought considerable suffering through promoting his valid claim to the throne of France. He instigated the Hundred Years’ War which led ultimately to the loss of the extensive Plantagenet holdings in France, and to the evolution of France and England into modern nations identified with a unified, defendable territory. Their political union was not to be. King Edward or the Prince of Wales may well have taken a chekker on one of their grand forays into Gaul but, as is shown above, no one nation can claim to have invented it.

Tuning systems

Compared with the organ, the string-keyboard had everyday advantages of portability and self-sufficiency. It also suited experiments in tuning. By 1430, less than a century after its invention, the theoretical tuning of keyboard music was changing from the ancient Pythagorean system based on pure fifths to a tuning based on pure thirds. It was a slow and convoluted process, but in hindsight it was simple to comprehend.

As is readily demonstrated on the common keyboard, four consecutive fifths make one major third, C-E for example being determined by the sequence C-G-D-A-E (ignoring octave shifts). This came about because four pure fifths happen to approximate a major third, but this third is over-large to the point of ugliness and is useless as a chord. (The mathematic relationship is readily calculated, because a fifth oscillates at 50% greater speed i.e. its frequency ratio is 3:2, while the frequency ratio of a major third is 4:3.) Hence medieval theory held the third to be a dissonance, while the only consonances in the octave were the prime, fourth and fifth. Voices and instruments have the possibility of adjusting pitch enough to help with intonation, but the keyboard knows no such flexibility. Furthermore when singers or solo instruments make counterpoint together spatial separation helps distinguish their lines, yet on a keyboard all ‘voices’ are created by the same tonal generators. This ensures their absolute equality, but it means that on a Pythagorean keyboard no more than two continuous voices can be readily distinguished. These voices furthermore will either run in parallel fourths or fifths, or will feature contrasting rhythmic character. Hence in the earliest keyboard music, two-voice multi-rhythmic textures are usual.

Pure thirds can be obtained at the cost of narrowing the fifths, however, in a tuning system scientifically specified as ‘quarter-syntonic-comma mean-tone temperament’. When it is shared among four fifths, the former out-of-tuneness of the Pythagorean third becomes just acceptable because the slow beat of the narrowed fifths is rather sweet, although any further narrowing renders them sour and useless. As in the Pythagorean system, one fifth is different and so nasty as to be called a ‘wolf’, in this case excessively wide, with the result that only two-thirds of the 24 keys are usable. (This invited further compromise.) Mean-tone fifths are cloudy in comparison with radiant pure fifths, but a new radiance in introduced by the pure thirds. This compromise bore abundant harvest for centuries, and illustrated with particular clarity the principle that progress is based on compromise. The retuned octave consisted of six consonances and six dissonances which maximised its versatility in both counterpoint and harmony. Within one generation the playing of three independent continuous voices had been mastered on the keyboard, then the next generation mastered four voices. Five and six voices were duly played, but the norm became four i.e. two voices per hand. Furthermore, the change in tuning led to a new structural dimension in music, tonal harmony, which soon became as fundamental as rhythm and melody. When brought by the Habsburgs to Spain, music with the new tuning was so distinctive as to be called flamenco ‘Flemish’. (Flanders had belonged to the dukes of Burgundy until 1477 when it came peacefully under Habsburg control.) The string-keyboard would thenceforth dominate Western music and ultimately, in accord with Plato’s insight that ‘our songs are our laws’, it spread around the world as an agent of civilised culture.

Fundamentum presents all the known two-hand keyboard music for Pythagorean tuning, including the complete repertoire of the chekker, along with the earliest pieces written for mean-tone temperament.


1. The Robertsbridge Fragment

  • Apel, Willi: The Notation of Polyphonic Music, 900-1600 (Cambridge, Mass., 1942; rev. 5th ed. 1953)
  • Apel, Willi: Geschichte der Orgel- und Klaviermusik bis 1700 (Kassel, 1967); rev. ed. (tr. H. Tischler), The History of Keyboard Music to 1700 (Bloomington, 1972)
  • Arlt, Wulf: “Instrumentalmusik im Mittelalter: Fragen der Rekonstruktion einer schriftlosen Praxis”, Basler Jahrbuch fur Historische Musikpraxis VII, 1983
  • Caldwell, John: English Keyboard Music before the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1973)
  • Handschin, Jacques: “Uber Estampie und Sequenz”, Zeitschrift fur Musikwissenschaft XII/1, Oct., 1929
  • Markstrom, Kurt: “Machaut and the Wild Beast”, Acta Musicologica LXI 1989, 12-39
  • Roesner, E.H., Avril, F. and Regalado, N.F.: Le Roman de Fauvel, facsimile and introduction (New York, 1990)
  • Parrish, Carl: The Notation of Medieval Music (New York, 1957)
  • Rokseth, Yvonne: “The Instrumental Music of the Middle Ages and Early Sixteenth Century”, New Oxford History of Muisc, III Ars Nova and the Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 1960)
  • Vellekoop, Kees: “Die Estampie: Ihre Besetzung und Funktion”, Basler Jahrbuch fur Historischen Musikpraxis VIII, 1984
  • Waley, Andrew: “The Peace of 1360-1369 and Anglo-French Musical Relations” Early Music History IX, 1989, 129-159
  • Wolf, Johannes: “Zur Geschichte der Orgelmusik im 14. Jahrhunderts”, Kirchenmusikalischen Jahrbuch XIV, 1899
  • Wolf, Johannes: Geschichte der Mensuralnotation I (Leipzig, 1904)
  • Wolf, Johannes: “English Influence in the Evolution of Music”, Sammelbande der Internationalen Musik-Gesellschaft XIV, 1912-13
  • Wolf, Johannes: Handbuch der Notationskunde II (Leipzig, 1913-19)
  • Wooldridge, Harry E.: Early English Harmony from the 10th to the 15th Century I (London, 1897)
  • Wright, Craig: Music at the Court of Burgundy 1364-1419 (Brooklyn: Institute of Mediaeval Music, 1979)

2. The Medieval Two-Hand Keyboard

  • Arnault de Zwolle: Les Traites d’Henri-Arnault de Zwolle et de divers anonymes, ed. G. le Cerf and E. Labande (Paris, 1932; Kassel, 1972)
  • Bowles, Edmund A.: “A Preliminary Checklist of Fifteenth-Century Representations of Organs in Paintings and Manuscript Illuminations”, Organ Yearbook XIII, 1982, 5-30
  • Bowles, Edmund A.: “A Checklist of Fifteenth-century Representations of Stringed Keyboard Instruments”, Keyboard Instruments: Studies in Keyboard Organology 1500-1800, ed. E.M. Ripin (Edinburgh University Press, 1971; New York: Dover, 1977)
  • Clutton, Cecil: “Arnault’s MS”, Galpin Society Journal V, 1952, 3-8
  • Howell, Standley: “Medical Astrologers and the Invention of Stringed Keyboard Instruments”, Journal for Musicological Research X/1-2, 1990, 1-17
  • Kinsela, David: “The Capture of the Chekker”, Galpin Society Journal LI, 1998, 64-85
  • Lester, John: “The Musical Mechanisms of Arnault de Zwolle”, English Harpsichord Magazine, Oct. 1982, 35-41
  • Marcuse, Sybil: Musical Instruments, A Comprehensive Dictionary (London: Country Life, 1964)
  • Marcuse, Sybil: A Survey of Musical Instruments (New York, 1975)
  • Mercier, Philippe: La Facture de Clavecin du XVe au XVIIIe Siecle (Louvain-la-Neuve: College Erasme, 1980)
  • Ripin, Edwin M.: “Towards an Identification of the Chekker”, Galpin Society Journal XXVIII, 1975
  • Strohm, Reinhard: “Die private Kunst und das offentliche Schicksal von Hermann Poll, dem Erfinder des Cembalos”, Musica Privata, Die Rolle der Musik im privaten Leben, Festschrift fur Walter Salmen (Innsbruck: Helbling, 1991)

3. General

  • Bryant, Arthur: The Age of Chivalry (London, 1963; The Reprint Society, 1965)
  • Gimpel, Jean: The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages (New York, 1976; Penguin, 1977)
  • Harrison, Frank Lloyd: Music in Medieval Britain (London, 1958)
  • Kinsela, David: “A Taxonomy of Renaissance Keyboard Compass”, Galpin Society Journal LIV, 2001, 352-396
  • Lindley, Mark: “Fifteenth-Century Evidence for Meantone Temperament”, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association CII, 1975-6, 37-51
  • Page, Christopher: Voices & Instruments of the Middle ages (London: Dent, 1987)
  • Picket, Philip: Knightly Passions – The Songs of Oswald von Wolkenstein, compact disc cover booklet, Editions de L’Oiseau Lyre 444 173-2, 1996
  • Schering, Arnold: Studien zur Musikgeschichte der Fruhrenaissance (Leipzig, 1914)
  • Strohm, Reinhard: The Rise of European Music 1380-1500 (Cambridge University Press, 1993)
  • Toman, Rolf (ed.): The High Middle Ages in Germany (Cologne, 1990)
  • Tuchman, Barbara: A Distant Mirror, The Calamitous 14th Century (Knopf, 1978; Pan Macmillan, 1989)
  • Wolff, Christoph: “Conrad Paumanns Fundamentum organisandi und seine verschiedenen Fassungen”, Archiv fur Musikwissenschaft XXV, 1968/3


Alterations to Clavicytherium Stand, Action and Stringing

Ross Whatson, Graeme Stenterford, Hugh Jones (respectively)

Musicological Advice

Dr Kimberley Marshall, Dr John Caldwell (Oxford)

Interpretive Suggestions

Jeannie Kelso, Denis Scott, Dr Jeffrey Nelson-Arnold, Noel Tointon, Dr Bill Pender, Hamish MacDougall

Preparatory Performances

  • Newcastle Keyboard Festival 1991 and 1995 (Director: Prof. Michael Dudman)
  • Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1991 (Producer: Judith Irvine)
  • National Trust of NSW at Old Government House and Juniper Hall 1991, 1992
  • Barossa Festival SA 1992 (Director: John Russell) – first complete performance of the Robertsbridge Fragment
  • Port Fairy Festival, Vic. 1992
  • St John’s Church, Young NSW 1992
  • St John’s College, University of Sydney 1993
  • Sydney Mint Museum 1993 (Facilitator: Tamsyn Taylor)
  • Berkelouw’s Bookshop, Paddington NSW 1996

First Complete Performance

Turramurra NSW, the home of Jenny and Robert MacDougall, 1993

Trial Venues

  • All Saints’ Hall, Woollahra NSW
  • HMAS Watson Chapel, Watson’s Bay NSW
  • Elizabeth Bay House, Vaucluse NSW (hall, music room, dining room, kitchen)
  • Wentworth Memorial Church, Vaucluse NSW
  • University of Newcastle (Radio 2NUR studio; Senate Room)

Complete Recordings

  • Newcastle Conservatorium Concert Hall; facilitation Robert Constable and Philip Sketchley, January 1996 (discarded)
  • Old Chapel, Avondale Adventist College, Cooranbong NSW; facilitation Alan Thrift, July 1999 (Fundamentum)
  • Studio 301, Erskineville NSW; facilitation Martin Benge, January 2001 (discarded)

Assistant Editing Engineer

Guy Harding


Dr Francis Muecke (Uni. of Sydney), Prof. Ken Dutton (Uni. of Newcastle), Paul Reisner (Sydney Grammar School), George Dunn

Proof Reading

Alec Dingwall (London), Ewing Wallace (Dunblane), Dr Bill Trotter, Dr Bill Pender, Robert Parkinson, Steve Fargo, Phillip Cameron