The rebec: a short history from court to street

The rebec is a medieval gut-strung bowed instrument with 3 strings, its body carved from a solid piece of wood. Its sound has a nasal quality, unlike the more full-sounding modern violin, which shares some of the rebec’s characteristics: strings played with a bow, a fretless neck, a curved bridge to allow strings to be bowed singly, and a soundboard carved to have a gentle upward curve. Like so many medieval musical instruments, the origins of the rebec are in Arabia and north Africa, the region of so much cultural exchange, trade and crusading in the middle ages. Perhaps surprisingly, it was still being played beyond the renaissance and to the end of the baroque period in western Europe, by now having fallen from grace from a regal courtly instrument to one of lowly street entertainment. In south-east Europe, the rebec continues to be played to this day, playing vigorous and exciting traditional music.

Rebec and gittern pairing: The Night Watch play Noël nouvelet The structurally related rebec and gittern playing a song together that spans much of the life of the rebec. (Click the picture to play the video – opens in new window.) Noël nouvelet is a traditional French new year carol, originating in the early 15th century and becoming one of the most popular of the 16th century. The earliest complete source for the words is the Arsénal ms. 3653 in Paris, copied in the 1490s, a beautiful representation by a professional scribe for a high born family of the different types of noël or Christmas song in the French oral tradition. The Arsénal ms. does not give the tune, which did not appear in writing until the 17th century. The words used here are selected and translated from the Grande Bible des noels, tant vieux que nouveaux (Large Book of carols, both old and new), published in 1721. The refrain, "Noël nouvelet, Noël chantons ici" means 'New Christmas song, Christmas song sing here'! The hymn writer John M. C. Crum made the tune more widely known by setting his hymn, Now The Green Blade Riseth, to it in 1928.
Click picture to play video – opens in new window. The structurally related rebec and gittern playing a song together that spans much of the life of the rebec. Noël nouvelet is a traditional French new year carol, originating in the early 15th century and becoming one of the most popular of the 16th century. The refrain, “Noël nouvelet, Noël chantons ici” means ‘New Christmas song, Christmas song sing here’! The hymn writer John M. C. Crum made the tune more widely known in 1928 by using the tune for his hymn words, Now The Green Blade Riseth.

Origins: the rebab

The origin of the rebec is apparently in the similarly named Arabian rebab or rabab, thus the evolution of names includes rubeba, rubeb, rebecca, rebeccum and rebec. The first brief mention of the rebab in writing is in 9th century Arabia. A more clear description appears in 1377 by Tunisian scholar Ibn Khaldun. In his Muqaddimah (Introduction to History), he described the rebab being played with a bowing string attached to a bent shaft, rubbed with resin and drawn across the two playing strings. It was played on the knee facing forward, with a soundbox made from a gourd (the scooped-out hard shell of the fruit of the cucurbitaceae or of the calabash tree), and it is still played in the same way.

11th century European crusaders brought the rebab back from north Africa, one of the first pieces of evidence for which is the image on a Byzantine (i.e. from the eastern part of the Roman Empire) ivory casket, dated to c. 1000, below left. A century later there is evidence of a parallel musical tradition, a related instrument originating in Greece and still played in Greece and Crete today. The lyra, kemenche or kemençe is the name for a diverse family of stringed bowed instruments originating in the eastern Mediterranean (i.e. Greece, Iran, Turkey, and regions adjacent to the Black Sea), which were and still are played on the knee facing forward, as with the rebab, or held with one hand and bowed with the other. We see this playing position in the illustration below right, a 5 string (2 or 3 course?) instrument played by a dancing man in a Spanish antiphonarium (liturgical choir book) completed in 1109. A similar instrument and playing position is seen in the video available by clicking here.

Left: Byzantine rebab, c. 1000, now in the Museo Nazionale, Florence. Right: What certainly appears to be a five string rebab (five strings tarrying with five tuning pegs) in a Spanish antiphonarium completed in 1109, now B.L. Add. 11695.
Left: Byzantine rebab, c. 1000, now in the Museo Nazionale, Florence. Right: What appears to be a 5 string lyra or kemenche (5 strings corresponding with 5 tuning pegs) in a Spanish antiphonarium completed in 1109, now in the British Library as Add. 11695. (As with all pictures, click for higher resolution.)
These illustrations show the difficulties of early music nomenclature. (Click picture to see larger in new window.) The iconography left and right are from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a 13th century Iberian songbook. None of the instruments in the Cantigas are labelled, in common with almost all medieval illustrations. On the right we have an oud played with a 2 string rebab, the latter conforming to the 13th century description by Jerome of Moravia (see below). On the left we have two instruments that are very similar, also conforming to Jerome’s description, but more in the elongated, straighter ‘cricket bat’ shape associated with the kemenche. In the centre is an instrument very similar in design to those on the left, likewise with 2 strings, 2 decorated roses and played with the same type of arced bow, still played in Morocco today. So are the instruments on the left rebabs or kemeches? Both illustrations conform to both descriptions, and differentiation by shape alone is problematic, since the kemeche is a diverse family of instruments in different shapes, sizes and numbers of strings. If we try to decide by family lineage, it doesn’t help that rebabs are still played in Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia, etc., and have developed a variety of other shapes, sometimes with 3 strings rather than 2; and the kemenche likewise, still played in Greece and Crete, is a family rather than a single type. Perhaps differentiating the two is more an overlapping Venn diagram than wholly differentiated columns.

In 13th century France, music theorist Jerome of Moravia wrote his Tractatus de Musica, c. 1280, in which he stated that the “rubeba” was “a musical instrument played with a bow”, as if it was new to his readers and had to be explained. He described it having 2 strings and being less important (in France at this time) than the 5 string vielle (medieval fiddle).

The first extant evidence in writing for the word rebek is in an early 12th century table of Arabic and Latin terms (Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, Ms. lat. 14754), and this is where it begins to get complicated. There is no illustration with that Arabic/Latin table so, with the notorious fluidity of medieval instrument naming, we cannot be entirely sure what was meant by rebek, and cannot necessarily assume it was the rebec we are seeking. Writing nearly 2 centuries later, Jerome of Moravia was either unaware of this rebek, or did not consider it worth mentioning, or classed it among the fiddles with fewer than 5 strings he did not think worthy of consideration, or rebek at this point meant the same as rubeba. In 1310, 30 years after Jerome, Italian physician, philosopher and astrologer Pietro d’Abano also mentioned the 2 string bowed “rubeba” in his Expositio problematum Aristotelis, but he did not mention the rebec. Evidence is lacking to say with certainty which of the reasons just given is most plausible to explain the 12th century mention of the rebek followed by the long silence.

It gets more complicated.  

The rise of the rebec

Left: The earliest example of an identifiable European rebec in the Catalan Psalter, c. 1050. There are two obvious mistakes in the drawing – no bridge and an impossibly contorted left hand – but the playing style on the arm and the shape of the instrument clearly indicates a rebec carved from solid wood. Right: Detail of a rebec player in the English manuscript, BL Arundel 91 (f. 218), a Passionale (Lives of the Saints) originating in Canterbury in the first quarter of the 12th century. Both illustrations are before the word rebec emerged in the 14th century, but they clearly are rebecs. There is a difference in the shape of the soundholes on these two instruments, and further variety is seen over time, including soundholes resembling the letters C, D, O, S, f, or E, and sometimes a decorated rose positioned halfway between the soundholes and the fingerboard.
Left: The earliest example of a possible European rebec in the Catalan Psalter, c. 1050. However, it is equally as likely that this is a vielle. Right: Detail of a player in the English manuscript, BL Arundel 91 (f. 218), a Passionale (Lives of the Saints) originating in Canterbury in the first quarter of the 12th century. This also appears to be a rebec but, if its 4 strings are taken literally, it has to be a vielle.

The earliest apparent European rebec iconography is in the Catalan Psalter, c. 1050 (see images on the right), a few decades before the first appearance of the word rebek in the early 12th century. Such iconography appears to show that the rebec had been in existence across western Europe since the 11th century, very near in time to the introduction of the rebab in the west. However, identification is not certain and caution is needed.

Since the shape of the rebec was also one of the shapes of the vielle or medieval fiddle, it is virtually impossible to know in any given case whether a 3 string instrument in the shape of a rebec really is a rebec or is a vielle, since vielles sometimes had 3 (or 4 or 5) strings. Corroboration from an accompanying text would settle the matter, but this is very rare in medieval iconography and, as we have seen, there is only one surviving contemporaneous mention of a rebek, which is itself problematic. It is therefore not possible to say whether the image in the Catalan Psalter is a rebec or a vielle. The same would apply to the similar instrument in BL Arundel 91 (right), except that closer examination shows it to have 4 strings. If we work on the assumption that rebecs always had 3 strings – and all the available evidence suggests this – then the BL Arundel 91 instrument is a vielle. This identification is itself based on the assumption that the depiction of 4 strings is accurate, since there are only 3 pegs. Any individual example of instrument iconography of this period cannot be relied upon to be a true representation, as artists were concerned with impressions, not photographic accuracy, and different numbers of non-corresponding pegs and strings are common. Therefore, in this case, if we count the strings, it’s a vielle, but if we count the pegs, it may be a rebec. Frustrating, isn’t it?

What we can say for sure is that the rebec body was carved from wood, since the northern European climate is too cold, damp and wet to produce the gourds the rebab was made from. This adaptation made the rebec very much like a bowed gittern: both have a bowl body carved from a single, solid piece of wood, scooped and chiselled out to produce a hollow shell. The rebec was usually played on the arm or under the chin, occasionally bowed on the knee facing forward in the old rebab style. Jerome of Moravia described “rubeba” tuning in the 13th century as 2 strings a fifth apart, c and g, and the rebec was similarly tuned 3 strings a fifth apart, according to a much later source, Musica instrumentalis deudsch, 1529, by German music theorist Martin Agricola.

The rebab slowly fell into disuse in western Europe towards the end of the 13th and into the 14th century. The story prior to this can be read in 2 ways: (i) The demise of the rebab was due to it evolving into the new rebec, adding an extra string, from 2 to 3. The new rebec was visually similar to one form of the vielle, due to the rebec being based on the shape of the rebab gourd. The earlier rebec-like images were all vielles. (ii) The rebec and rebab existed side by side for a long period, but the rebec did not gain distinction until the rebab died out. Some of the earlier images were rebecs.

If we rely upon corroborating texts about rebecs, notable by their absence, then account (i) is more plausible. However, if we take into account that we have as much western writing from the 15th century as all previous centuries added together, then this poses a question mark over reliance upon the incompleteness of surviving texts alone, and throws us back upon the possibility of earlier rebecs in iconography, so (ii) appears to have more merit. Certainty is impossible.

The picture in the 14th century is much clearer. This was the period of the rebec’s highest esteem and popularity, when the French poet Eustache Deschamps (c. 1346–c. 1406) wrote that “at royal courts everyone wants to play the trumpet, gittern, and rebec.” During the 14th, 15th, and into the early 16th century, the rebec is regularly seen in paintings of saints, therefore associated with heaven and holiness, and sometimes coupled with the lute, which had the same associations.

Two holy pairings of the rebec and lute. Left: Vitale da Bologna, Italy, Coronation of the Virgin, 1353. Right: Gerard David, Netherlands, Madonna with angels making music, c. 1500.
Two holy pairings of the rebec and lute. Left: Vitale da Bologna, Italy, Coronation of the Virgin, 1353. Right: Gerard David, Netherlands, Madonna with angels making music, c. 1500.
Duetting lute and rebec in Gerard David’s The Virgin among angels, Netherlands, 1509.
Duetting lute and rebec in Gerard David’s The Virgin among angels, Netherlands, 1509.

The rebec hangs tenaciously on

Evidence of the rebec’s royal approval is illustrated in the accounts of King Charles VIII of France, showing that he twice paid for a rebec to be played for him: the 1483 account lists a fee of 30 sol to a rebec player, and in 1490 a fee was paid to a rebec player named Raymond Monnet.

However, during the 15th century its courtly appeal was slowly fading. Despite its association with heaven, its reedy, nasal sound came increasingly to be regarded as rural, more suitable for lower class dances. Perhaps, towards the end of the 15th century, it began to compare unfavourably with the more full-bodied tone of the new viola da braccio (also known as the lira or lyra da braccio), which in turn evolved into the violin in the 16th century.

The change was neither immediate nor wholesale: the decline of the rebec was slow and uneven, and it remained popular in English and French royal courts into the 16th century.

No music survives specifically for the rebec, in common with almost every other medieval instrument. From around 1480–1500 – so by now in the renaissance – we see the rise of music written for individual instruments, most especially for the lute and, within the century, for the consort of viols (viola da gambas in different sizes and therefore pitches playing together) and the broken consort (a mixture of wind, plucked and bowed instruments playing together). With the arrival of the much fuller-sounding renaissance six or seven string viol, and with no music being written for the rebec, one might have thought it would die out completely.

A tenor and alto rebec, anonymous, 16th century, Italy.
A tenor and alto rebec, anonymous, 16th century, Italy.

But no. Though there is no surviving music for it, the rebec clearly survived through the renaissance. In his Musica instrumentalis deudsch, 1528, German music theorist Martin Agricola even stated that the rebec now had a full consort of soprano, alto, tenor and bass, as had the lute, viol, recorder and crumhorn families. In 1526, English King Henry VIII had three rebecs in his consort for state occasions. French King Louis XIII kept a personal royal rebec player, Lancelot Levasseur, from 1523-1535; and his succeeding son, King Louis XIV, had Jehan Cavalier performing the same function in 1559. An illustration marked 1590, collegium musicum or musical meeting in Lauingen, Germany (see below), shows an unusual (by English standards) mix of instruments in a broken consort, with a viola da gamba, transverse flute, lute, wooden cornett, leather cornett, harp, portable virginal and, very clearly and seemingly out of time, a slide trumpet and a rebec.

A German broken consort, the picture labelled 1590, including a rebec player fourth from the left.
A German broken consort, the picture labelled 1590, including a rebec player fourth from the left.
rebecrubenspieterpaul_flemish1577-1640
One of the later depictions of a rebec, by the Flemish artist, Pieter Paul Rubens, 1577-1640.

In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, c. 1595-96, at the forced wedding of Juliet, which appears to have turned into her funeral as she is apparently dead, Peter asks the musicians to play a piece called Heart’s ease. Shakespeare helpfully gives the musicians joke names to indicate their instruments, including one “Hugh Rebec”.

Proponents of the rebec were fighting a losing battle, especially with the rise of the esteemed violin, which eventually even trumped the much-loved viol family. In 1628 the Parisian authority wanted to make class distinctions clear in who was allowed to do what and where. They passed a law forbidding the playing of high status violins in public houses, allowing only low class rebecs. Over a century later, the rebec was still being tenaciously played in France when a law was passed in Le Guignon in 1742 restricting the “amusement of the people in the streets and the public houses” to the undignified “three stringed rebec”, specifically forbidding the playing of the higher status four stringed violin.

The rebec lives on

We started the story of the rebec with the rebab, still played today in its variety of forms in north Africa, particularly in Morocco, and in the middle east and far east, and with the lyra or kemenche (kemençe), which remains popular to this day in Greece and Crete.

An only slightly and very recently modified version of the rebec is still played in Bulgaria. The gadulka (or gǎdulka, gudulka or g’dulka) is carved from solid wood and has three bowed strings, with two innovations made only in the 20th century to distinguish it from the rebec: occasionally an additional one or two bowed strings, and up to sixteen higher-pitched sympathetic resonating strings underneath the bowed strings, introduced by the master gadulka player, Mincho Nedyalkov. The instrument remains an integral and celebrated part of Bulgarian traditional music, commonly played in ensembles for dance music, and it even has a place in Bulgarian pop music.

Spot the difference: a reproduction of a medieval rebec above; a Bulgarian gadulka below. Click the picture (opens in new window) to see a video of the gadulka being played superbly by Bulgarian players Violeta Petkova & Hristina Beleva with the National Folklore Ensemble.
Spot the difference: a reproduction of a medieval rebec above; a Bulgarian gadulka below. Click the picture (opens in new window) to see a video of the gadulka being played superbly by Bulgarian players Violeta Petkova & Hristina Beleva with the National Folklore Ensemble.

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