Waisted Vielle

Vielle front view

Overview

The vielle was one of the most common instruments in the Middle Ages. Images of vielles (the old French word for 'fiddle') abound in medieval artwork. The repertory available to the medieval fiddler is vast.  Writes Christopher Page,

In the thirteenth century the viella found its way into almost every are of intellectual life: the sermon; the music-treatise; the psalm commentary; the gloss upon Aristotle; the romance. No instrument came more readily to the mind of a thirteenth-century author in search of a comparison or figure of speech (Voices and Instruments, 133.)

This model vielle was designed specifically to explore monophonic modal playing.

Evidence

Lisle Fiddle

Psalter of Robert de Lisle Psalter, f 134v, c. 1320. 

This image served as my model for my vielle, providing me with the shape, proportion, and soundhole details.

Lincoln Fiddle

Lincoln Cathedral Angel Choir, c. 13XX.

This carving, along with many other companion carvings, is beautifully detailed.  The edges of the instrument, while not visible from the angle of this picture, are voluted.

Linarol lira da braccio.jpg

Lira da Braccio by Francesco Linarol, Venice, 1563. National Music Museum 4203.

The renaissance lira da Braccio is one of the descendants of the medieval vielle, and shares many constructional features.

Johannes de Grocheio, who lived in Paris around 1300, wrote that "A good fiddler generally performs every kind of cantus and cantilena, and every musical form."

Reconstruction

 This reconstruction attempts to represent a typical vielle of the thirteenth and fourteenth century. The body is carved out of a single piece of wood, having a keel-shaped back like the British Museum Citole (c. 1310s), and voluted edges like, among others, the Lincoln Cathedral vielle (c. 1275) and the lyra de braccio.

 The waisted shape and the soundholes are modeled after the vielle in the Robert de Lisle Psalter (1330s). It has a bent soundboard, and requires no soundpost. It has five strings, which can either all be on the fingerboard, or one running along side the fingerboard, as a drone string. It is intended to be tuned to one of Jerome of Moravia's tunings (see below). The vibrating length is 38 cm (15 inches). The body length is 40 cm (15.75 inches).

Back view of the Vielle
This is the back of the Vielle.

End view of the Vielle
This is the end view, showing the keel-shaped back, bent soundboard and slightly arched bridge.

Vielle peg box
This shows the peg box set up with one drone string; an optional setup includes five strings on the fingerboard.

Here is a sound sample, which follows Jerome's tuning 2 (see below).

Options

The body, carved out of one piece of wood, can be made either of maple, pear, or cherry.

Many options are available for stringing, based on your intended use of the instrument and your interpretation of Jerome's tunings. Some strings can be paired together in courses. The bottom string can run alongside the fingerboard; it is possible to build an instrument retaining the option of having the bottom string either on or off the fingerboard.

Tuning

The most important source for information about tuning medieval fiddles is Jerome of Moravia's Tractatus de Musica (1272-1307), which contains a chapter about the rubeba and viella. Jerome provides one tuning for the rubeba (an instrument with two strings tuned a fifth apart), and three tunings for the five-stringed viella.

Jerome's three tunings of the viella:
Jerome tunings

Perhaps the most unusual feature of this tuning to the modern violinist's eyes is the re-entrant tuning- the fact that the lowest note pitch-wise is not the lowest on the fingerboard. This reminds us that this instrument is not intended to function like a violin, in which the strings proceed from low to high with an even timbre. With the realities of string-making technique, it would be impossible to have two strings tuned two octaves apart produce the same timbre. Rather, to the medieval fiddler, the strings were tuned to consonants and bowed multiple strings at a time, to vibrate together in a large humming block.

Jerome's lowest note is G-Gamma-ut, the lowest note in medieval music theory. Rather than assigning this to a particular frequency, as we would think of pitches today, I interpret this as being the lowest note available on the instrument, taking size and string gauge into consideration. Thus the important features of Jerome's specifications are not the actual pitches, but the intervals between each string. The second tuning is the most problematic for choosing pitches, since it covers the incredible range of two octaves. I find the premium set-up on my instrument to be using low pitch D's and A's. This could probably be brought up to high pitch using slightly thinner strings.

Related to the issue of tuning is the shape of the bridge. My instrument has a slight arch in the bridge, so it is possible to play all strings at once, or the top string by itself or with any number of adjacent lower strings.

Price

The price for a waisted vielle is $1400.  This includes a case and an extra set of strings.  Bows cost an additional $275.

For more information, see Ordering Instruments.