A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Rebec

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REBEC (Ital. Ribeca, Ribeba; Span. Rabé, 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 mandoline, of which it was probably the parent. It was shaped like the 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 considerably cut down in level, thus leaving the upper solid part of the instrument to form a natural fingerboard. 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 soundholes, and fitted with a bridge and soundpost. 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 the 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 arcuabant,
Muliebrem vocem confingentes.

An old Spanish poem speaks of 'el rabé gritador,' or the 'squalling rebec.' This powerful tone made it useful in the mediæval orchestra; and Henry the Eighth employed the rebec in his state band. It was chiefly used, however, to accompany dancing; and Shakspere'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'Allegro. It was usually accompanied by the drum or tambourine. It was in vulgar use in France in the last 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 from using anything else; 'Il leur sera permis d'y jouer d'une espèce d'instrument à trois cordes seulement, et connu sous le nom de rebec, sans qu'ils puissent se servir d'un violon à quatre cordes sous quelque prétexte que ce soit.' A similar order is extant, 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 is known to exist. [App. p.767 "a correction of th[is] statement … will be found in vol. iv. p. 271, note 1."] Representations of it in sculpture, painting, manuscripts, etc., are abundant. The illustration is from an Italian painting of the 13th cent. engraved in Vidal's 'Instruments a Archet.'

[ E. J. P. ]