Rebec

rebecRebec

Italian Rebeca, Ribeba; Spanish Rabe, Rabel

The French name (said to be of Arabic origin) of that primitive stringed instrument which was in use throughout western Europe in the Middle Ages, and was the parent of the viol and violin, and is identical with the German ‘geige’ and the English ‘fiddle’; in outline something like the mandolin, of which is was probably the parent.

It was shaped like half of a pear, and was everywhere solid except at the two extremities, the upper of which was formed into a peg box identical with that still in use, and surmounted by a carved human head. The lower half was considerable cut down in level, thus leaving the upper solid part of the instrument to form a natural finger board.

The portion thus cut down was scooped out, and over the cavity thus formed was glued a short pine belly, pierced with two trefoil shaped sound holes, and fitted with a bridge and sound post.

The player either rested the curved end of the instrument lightly against the breast, or else held it like the violin, between the chin and the collar bone, and bowed it like a violin.

It had three stout gut strings, tuned like the lower strings of the violin (A, D, G). Its tone was loud and harsh, emulating the female voice, according to a French poem of the 13th century.

Quidam rebecam arcubant,
Muliebrem vocem confingentes.

An old Spanish poem speaks of ‘el rabe gritador,’ or the ‘squalling rebec.’

This powerful tone made it useful in the medieval orchestra; and Henry the Eighth employed the rebec in his state band.

It was chiefly used, however, to accompany dancing; and Shakespeare’s musicians in Romeo and Juliet, Hugh Rebeck, Simon Catling (Catgut), and James Soundpost, were undoubtedly rebec players.

After the invention of instruments of the viol and violin type it was banished to the streets of towns and to rustic festivities, whence the epithet ‘jocund’ applied to it in Milton’s L’Allego.

It was usually accompanied by the drum or tambourine.

It was in vulgar use in France in the 18th century, as is proved by an ordinance issued by Guignon in his official capacity as ‘Roi des Violons’ in 1742, in which street fiddlers are prohibited form using anything else; ‘Il leur sera permis d’y jouer d’une espece d’instrument a trois cordes seulement, et conn sous le nom de rebec, sans qu’ils puissant se server d’un violon a quatre cordes sous quelque pretexte que ce soit.’

A similar order is extanct, dated 1628, in which it is forbidden to play the treble or bass violin ‘dans les cabarets et les mauvais lieux,’ but only the rebec.

The rebec was extinct in England earlier than in France.

It is now totally disused, and no specimen was known until, at the exhibition of Musical Instruments at Milan in 1881, six genuine specimens were shown.

Representations of it in sculpture, painting, manuscripts, etc. are abundant.

The custom of playing songs in unison with the voice, which came into vogue in the 15th century, resulted in the classification of rebecs into definite ‘sets’ answering in pitch to the Treble, Alto, Tenor, and Bass voices.

Martin Agricola, in his Musica Instrumentalis, 1528, gives woodcuts of a ‘set’ of rebecs which he calls Discant, Altus, Tenor, and Bassus.