The Wonderful World of
Medieval Bowed Strings
By David Douglass
When I first held a medieval stringed instrument in my hands I felt I had entered a whole new world, one full of adventure and promise. My, how different it was! The year was 1972, I was in the college collegium, and the instrument was a vielle, the medieval version of a viola. At first glance, the instrument looked primitive when I compared it to my modern violin, but when I put it under my chin and began to play the heavy gut strings I was overwhelmed by the richness and earthiness of its sound. It was a sound that immediately transported me to an earlier time and allowed me to feel and think outside the box of the present day.
After that first encounter I grew to appreciate all the expressive potential of the vielle without any negative comparisons to present day instruments. For example, the large diameter and heavy gauges of a vielle’s gut strings create a certain amount of noise when you start a bowstroke. That’s an anathema to modern strings, but a fabulous sound for medieval repertories, especially if you want to play a dance or lend a piece a dance-like character. That noise also enables a player to create speech-like articulations and come closer to music’s ideal, the human voice. The many and varied turnings for the vielle, something a modern string player doesn’t need to consider, allow a vielle player to create many effects by playing on two strings at once, a really fun exercise of the imagination.
A smaller, equally popular medieval stringed instrument that I’ll be playing in the October program is the rebec, a European adaptation of the Egyptian rebab both in name and construction. The rebab was most likely the first instrument played with a bow, and appeared around 400 A.D. It was constructed from of a type of gourd that was plentiful in the Middle East, and it had three strings. When the Crusaders returned home, the rebab was one of the many souvenirs of their travels. It caught the fancy of the nobility and was fashioned out of wood as a reasonable, more durable facsimile. From there it caught on, and over its 300-plus year lifespan both monarchs and commoners alike favored it. The rebec also has a singing, pure sound that can approach the flexibility and beauty of a treble vocal line, or combine beautifully with singers.
Next up: Plucked strings