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The Vielle

The Vielle

The vielle, or medieval fiddle, was one of the most popular instruments during the medieval period. This is clear from the huge amounts of iconography that exists from the time, including a wealth of paintings and frescos. 

Carving of an angel playing a vielle in Lincoln cathedral.

One medieval source, Tractatus de Musica written by Jerome of Moravia around 1280-1300, describes the vielle as more important than the rebec. This source gives instruction for both secular and religious playing. This usage is supported by iconography that depicts both humans and angels playing the instrument.

As one of the most popular instruments it is associated with amateur and professional players, and was also a courtly instrument. It is particularly suited to the accompaniment of song, but was no doubt used to play dance music as well.

There are only 3 surviving vielles from the medieval period: one dated from the 14th century that was excavated in Poland and two found during the excavation of the Mary Rose. However, due to size and features there is some doubt among musicologists as to whether these were vielles, rebecs or something else!

From contemporaneous sources, writings and iconography, so know the vielle had the following features:

  • 4 or 5 strings, though more or less were possible
  • 5th string (lowest string) was usually a bourdon
  • variety of bridge height, often flat
  • flat back
  • variety of sizes and shapes, though usually oblong 
  • played on the arm or the leg

Jerome of Moravia's Tractatus de Musica is the only existing medieval source on the vielle's tuning that has been found. He gives three different tunings:

Due to the notation of medieval music (the whole gamut was only two and a half octaves) he used the lowest note 'ut' (G) as the bottom or lowest note.

Vielle tunings

Tuning 1: d, G, g, d', d' Tuning 2: d, G, g, d', g'  Tuning 3: G, G, d, c', c;

 

During the medieval period there was no set pitch. Therefore we should concentrate on the intervals for these tunings, and keep those, rather than focussing on the notes. This is supported by the Renaissance theorist Johannes Tinctoris who gives the tuning as "unevenly in fifths and unisons".

In terms of playing the vielle it is an universal assumption that it is only played in first position (the left hand doesn't have to shift up the fingerboard). The bourdon can be played with the bow or plucked with the left-hand thumb.

For more on playing the vielle we recommend our publication by Clare Salaman - Introducing... the Vielle: A Practical Start to the Instrument

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