1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Rebec

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REBEC, or Rebeck (Med. Fr. rubèbe, rebelle, rebec, gigue; Ger. Rubeba, Rebek, Geige, Lyra; Ital. ribeba, ribeca, lyra; Sp. rabel, rabeca, ravé, rabé), a medieval stringed instrument played with a bow, derived from the Oriental rebab. Like the rebab (q.v.), the rebec assumed at first one of two forms the pear-shaped body with a wide base, strung with three strings, or the long, narrow pear- or boat-shaped body with two strings and, in addition, the other Oriental characteristics of the rebab, i.e. the vaulted back, the absence of ribs and pegs set in the back of the head. Except for the addition of a fingerboard, what is now recognised as the rebec underwent no structural development and never entered the domain of art. When the guitar-fiddle and the oval vielle with five strings made their appearance in Europe, apparently during the 11th century, a number of hybrids combining characteristics of both types of construction spread rapidly over western Europe.

A spoon-shaped instrument, in most cases without neck, the head being joined directly to the wide shoulders of the body, must not be confounded with these hybrids; the compass and capabilities of the instrument, which sometimes had but one single string, must have been extremely limited. What the name of the instrument was in the various ages is not known, but it may be classed with the rebab and rebec, from which it only differs in the outline of the body. The present writer discovered an Oriental archetype on a small terra-cotta figure[1] in the style of the Gandhara school, unearthed at Yotkan on the site of the ancient Khotan. The round head is fastened directly to the shoulders, the three strings are thrown into relief by deep indentations, the bridge tail-piece has three notches. The instrument (assigned to some period between the 5th and 8th centuries A.D.) may be compared with the European medieval type, such, for instance, as the bowed spoon-shaped rebec on the capital of the left pillar in the miniature[2] of King David and his musicians, belonging to the 10th-century psalter of Labeo Notker at St Gallen; also with the musicians' lyra on the western doorway of the church at Moissan;[3] and with the British Museum Add. MS. 17333, in which several of these spoon-shaped, neckless instruments are to be found.

The pear-shaped rebec with wide base was in all probability introduced into Europe through the Byzantine Empire, and the narrow boat-shaped by the Moors by way of Spain. The first of these types is represented on one of the sides of an ivory casket of Italo-Byzantine workmanship preserved among the Carrand Collection[4] in the Palazzo del Podesta in Florence. It belongs to the same group as the Veroli casket at the South Kensington Museum, all of which are assigned to the 9th century at the latest.

The pear-shaped rebec on the ivory casket, although like all rebecs it had no separate neck, was elongated to form one, and terminated in a lozenge-shaped head all in one piece with back and neck, the soundboard being cut to the same outline and glued to the back. There were four strings to these rebecs, of which there are many examples in English MSS. from the 11th century. One of the best known, sometimes described as the Anglo-Saxon fythele, is the one played by Jeduthun in the usual illustration of King David and his musicians prefaced to the Psalms in an Anglo-Saxon psalter (Cotton MS., Tib. C. VI., Brit. Mus.). Other examples are to be found in a Latin psalter illuminated by an English artist at the beginning of the 12th century (Lansd., 383, Brit. Mus.), in which the rebec has but one string and resembles the lyra teutonica mentioned above.[5]

Medieval documentary evidence points to the fact that the long boat-shaped rebec had survived in Spain and spread by way of France over western Europe. The much-quoted 14th-century poem by Juan Ruiz, archipreste de Hita,[6] containing an enumeration of the musical instruments of his day, includes el ravé gritador con su alta nota (the shrill rebec with its high note) and el rabé morisco. By a process of deduction we have no difficulty in identifying the long, narrow, boat-shaped instrument as el rabé morisco, since the instrument has survived almost unchanged among the Arabs of the present day[7] from the 13th century, and probably from the early centuries of our era. The shrill rebec (el ravé gritador) with thinner strings was the pear-shaped instrument. In the magnificent MS. known as the Cantigas di Santa Maria, assigned to the 13th century,[8] there are three of those boat-shaped rebecs played with a bow and one twanged by the fingers; they have finger-boards and two strings, and are held like the violoncello. Rebabs of this type, but without bows, were in use in ancient Persia, c. 789 B.C., as is demonstrated by some little terra-cotta figures of musicians unearthed in a tell at Suza.[9] Two of the instruments, held, however, like the violin, are unmistakably the archetypes of this rebec.

The rebec did not escape the general tendency so noticeable in Europe from the 12th to the 15th century towards the ornamentation of musical instruments with grotesque heads. The socket of the chaunter of the bagpipe, the heads of the cittern and ghittern, the mandoline and the rebec, were all alike decorated with grotesque human or animal heads, which in England became proverbial as cittern-heads.

The boat-shaped rebec survived as the sordino or pochette,[10] an instrument widely used by dancing masters until the 19th century, when it was abandoned for the kit, a diminutive violin. The pochette, as its name in French and also in German (Taschengeige) indicates, was small enough to be carried in the pocket; it measured from 15 to 18 in. and was played with a correspondingly small bow. The 15th- and 16th-century rebec or geige, as the pear-shaped variety was called in Germany {gigue in France), is figured by Sebastian Virdung;[11] there were three strings tuned to G, D, A, and it had a finger-board cut in one piece with the sound-board in some cases and forming a step. Some writers consider that the addition of the finger-board constituted the difference between the geige and the rebec. Facts hardly support this theory, since the lyra teutonica in the 9th or 11th century already had a finger-board, and Farabi, the Arabic scholar of the 10th century, who was equally familiar with the Greek, Persian and Arabic musical systems, distinctly states that the rebab was also known as the lyra. The modern Greek rebec with three strings is to this day played by rustic musicians under the name of lyra. Moreover, in Germany, bowed instruments of all kinds were at first known as geige, in contradistinction to those whose strings were plucked, classed together as cytharas or some word derived from it, the most modern example of which is the zither. With the rise of the viols and later of the violin, which represent the most perfect type of construction for stringed instruments, the rebec tribe, inferior in every respect and without artistic merit, was gradually relegated beyond the pale,[12] and by the 18th century had fallen into disuse except in certain rural districts, where for outdoor music, their shrill, penetrating tone continues to endear them to itinerant and village musicians. (K. S.)


  1. See Marc. Aurel Stein, Ancient Khotan: Detailed Report of the Archaeological Explorations in Chinese Turkestan carried out by H.M. Indian Government (Clarendon Press, 1907), vol. i. pl. xlvii. No. Y0011d.
  2. See Laurent Grillet, Les ancêtres du violon (Paris, 1901), vol. i. p. 29. The author calls these instruments lyra, which is a synonym of rebab.
  3. See Kathleen Schlesinger, The Instruments of the Orchestra, part ii., “Precursors of the Violin Family” (London, 1910), pl. iv. p. 154. The spoon-shaped instrument with a long neck on pl. v. (9th century) must be referred to the pandoura family.
  4. The casket has been reproduced by A. Venturi in Gallerie Naz. Ital., vol. iii., 1897, p. 263; and L'Arte, vol. i. 1896, p. 24.
  5. See also English psalters of the 13th century in the British Museum, Lansd. MS., 420, and Arundel, 157, fol. 71b.
  6. See Mariano Soriano Fuertes, Historia de la Musica española (Madrid, 1855), vol. i. p. 105. Aymeric du Peyrac, in his Vita Caroli Magni (13th century), mentions the rebec; see Du Cange, Glossarium, s.v. “Baudosa.” Hieronymus of Moravia mentions the rubebe, and states that it has three strings, whereas the vielle had five (MS. Fonds Latin, No. 16 [663 actuel.], Paris Bibl. Nat.). In the Minne Regel (“Rules of the Minnesingers”), 1404, line 415: “Noch dan quinterna, gyge, videle, lyra, rubeba”; see Der Minne Regel von Eberhardus Cercne aus Minden, 1404, edited by Franz Xaver Woeber (Vienna, 1861), p. 24.
  7. For an illustration see Carl Engel, Researches into the History of the Violin Family, and E. Heron-Allen, The Violin, and how to make it.
  8. Edward Buhle is of opinion that the miniatures in these MSS. are the work of a 14th-century artist. See Die Musik-instrumente in den Minaturhandschriften des Mittelalters (Leipzig, 1903).
  9. See J. de Morgan, La Délégation en Perse (Paris, 1900), vol. i. pl. viii., Nos. 8 and 9.
  10. There is a pochette in the Galpin Collection, c, 1700; for an illustration see Kathleen Schlesinger, The Instruments of the Orchestra, part ii., “Precursors of the Violin Family,” p. 201 , fig. 158.
  11. Musica getutscht und ausgezogen, Basel, 1511, reprinted in Publikationen d. Ges. f. Musikforschung, Berlin, 1883, Bd. xi.
  12. Antoine Vidal in La Lutherie et les luthiers, to show the contempt with which the rebec was viewed in France in the 15th century, quotes from the charges of King Charles VIII., 1483, where the following entry occurs: “On donna sur son ordre 35 sols à une poure insensée qui jouoit du rebec.” The lieutenant of Paris, in March 27, 1628, issued the following order: “Faisant défence a tous musiciens de jouer dans les cabarets et mauvais lieux des dessus, basses ou autres parties de violon ains seulement du rebec.” A well-known passage in Chaucer testifies to a similar contempt in 14th-century England: “Brother, quod he, here woneth an old rebekke,” &c. (Freres Tale, 7156).