bout the Rebec
The Rebec is a bowed string instrument of the Middle Ages. There are a wide variety of types of rebecs, just like there are studio pianos and grand pianos. One prominent characteristic of all rebecs is their arched body, which is somewhat like that of a lute. Unlike the lute, the body is usually carved from a single piece of wood. The neck of the rebec is not distinct from its body.
Rebecs evolved from an Arab instrument called the rabab, and a Byzantine instrument called the lura or lyra. The term rabab is currently used to refer to several types of string instruments. The first of which, a spike lute with a long stick like neck, is also known as the rebab-esh sha'er. The second, and the one which concerns us now, has a profile that looks like a boat and has no discernible neck when viewed from the front or the side. The later type of rabab is approximately two feet tall and has a very narrow body that is of approximately five inches wide. They were originally made by hollowing out a piece of wood, in a fashion similar to a dug out canoe, and then covering the cavity skin or a thin sheet of wood. Rebabs usually only have one or two strings that run the length of the body. Sometimes they are strung with two pairs of strings. The earliest depiction of a rebab is found on a figurine that was found at the Tell at Suza. It dates from the eighth century B.C. At that time the instrument was plucked. Arab writers of the Middle Ages describe the instrument as being played with a bow. Early bows feature a large arc, very much like the hunting bows from which they were derived. When playing the rebab, the bottom end of the instrument would rest on the player's leg and neck would be held by the player's left hand. The instrument would be held so that the strings would be roughly perpendicular to the ground, and that the back of the body faced the player. The right hand was used to bow the instrument. The lyra was a bowed instrument with a narrow body that was approximately two feet long. Some lyra have a pear shaped body, while others take the shape of a bottle, like the Pontic kemenche which is descended from the lyra. The pear shaped lyra was essentially a bowed form of the oud or lute. The lyra usually had three strings, although some instruments had as many as five strings, and others had only two. Some instruments were fingered like violins, with a fingerboard, while others were played by pressing the fingernail laterally against the string.
Rebecs began to be depicted in the sculpture and illustrations of the eleventh century. Two types of rebecs are clearly identifiable. One, which is derived from the lyra, has a pear shaped body with tuning pegs that were perpendicular to the soundboard. The other, which is derived from the rebab, has a narrow body with tuning pegs arranged like those on a violin. The former type of instrument is illustrated in the "Great Canterbury Psalter" while the latter kind is depicted in the "Cantigas de Santa Maria." There is a substantial amount of variation among instruments that belong to one of these types. The soundboards on the narrow rebecs were usually made of skin, but on some instruments they were made of wood, like the soundboards on the pear shaped instruments. The pegboxes of the narrow instruments also varied in shape. Some were angled like those of lutes, while others were sickle shaped, taking on a form similar to that of a violin. Both types of instruments exhibited variation in the number of strings, the placement and shape of sound holes, and the fingerboard. Some instruments had only two strings, while others had five. Drones were attached to the tail piece of some instruments and were connected to the body near the fingerboard. Many instruments featured crescent shaped sound holes that were placed symmetrically on either side of the strings. These were placed as low as on either side of the tail piece, or further up the instrument well above the bridge. In most instances they were placed just above the tail piece with the arc of the crescent facing outward. Other instruments have the sound holes placed in the center of the instrument, like on a lute. They were either simply a set of small holes, or a rose like that on a lute. Some instruments had fingerboards, while others did not. The fingerboards were some times as crude as a flat raised area above the soundboard.
Early writings refer to the rebec as the lyra or rubeba, terms which are derived from lura and rabab. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the rebec was sometimes called the gigue, a term that it shared with the fiddle. The term rebec began to be used in the fourteenth century. Johannes Tinctoris wrote in his treatise "De Inventione et usu Musicae" of 1511 that the instrument was sometimes called the marionetta. Sebastian Virdung writes in "Musica Getuscht und Angezogen" that it was called the geigen, which is related to the term gigue.
Like the viol, the rebec was held in one of three positions: on the knee, cradled in the arm, or on the shoulder something like a violin. The later position was favored very early on. Rebecs were used to perform both sacred and secular music. They were used in processionals, dances, and at feasts. They played alongside a wide variety of instruments including trumpets, harps, lutes, and viols, pipe, tabor, and were also used to accompany song. Rebecs were used in the courts of the nobility as well as by peasants. There is even an account of the rebec being played in the field by a sheppard.
During the Renaissance the rebec continued to evolved and became known as the pochette, sordino, or kit. It was used to accompany dance music into the nineteenth century.
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