What are the instruments shown in these three examples from the beautiful and richly illustrated Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs of Saint Mary, i.e. the Virgin Mary), a Spanish-Portuguese royal music manuscript dated 1260-80? We can’t say with certainty, as mediaeval manuscripts never label their illustrations; but we have enough clues to make an educated guess, on the basis of which the instruments appear to be related to those still played today in the Middle East.
The Cantigas were commissioned by King Alfonso X, who included Christian, Muslim and Jewish poets, musicians and scientists in his court, fostering east-west interaction between intellectuals of all groups, with an emphasis on tolerance and cultural achievement. So it is completely in keeping that the picture on the left shows an upper-class Muslim and noble Christian knight (signified in both cases by their clothes) playing identical instruments together, with the Christian musician singing. The number of frets, pegs and strings is indistinct; but the large peg-head and strings indicated show that the number of strings was intended to be numerous: usually, in such mediaeval depictions, the artist only aimed at an approximation in such matters, which is why, so often, the number of strings or courses compared to tuning pegs don’t correspond. The triangles of dots on the fronts of the instruments are a convention that usually shows them to be made of skin. But is that a carved rose (decorated sound-hole) indicating a wooden soundboard, or is it a design painted on skin? Since we’re working with only iconography and no surviving instruments, it’s impossible to be sure.
The middle picture shows a clean-shaven man standing – therefore he’s a Christian, as only Jews and Muslims wore beards; Jews always, Muslims frequently – and a seated Christian knight – knights being the one Christian exception to the clean-shaven rule. The faces of the instruments are certainly wood, indicated by their paired, crescent-shaped soundholes. Three strings appear to be depicted but five pegs, which could be a typical artist’s approximation, or it may indicate two lots of 2 strings paired (courses) and a single string, which is not an uncommon type of arrangement.
In both of the first two pictures we see that the strings run over the bridge and into a tailpiece. The function of a tailpiece is to take the tension of the strings off the soundboard so that the instrument doesn’t have to be so rigidly built, also allowing for a moveable or ‘floating’ bridge which is kept in place by the strings. It also has the effect of extra sound projection and volume. (Today, metal tailpieces are common on archtop and gypsy jazz guitars and the mandolin family for just these reasons.)
The illustration on the right shows two Christian nobles with instruments that appear to be a combination of the other two and also have their own characteristic. They have the three dot convention for skin tops, as with the first illustration; the overall shape of the instruments in the second illustration; strings attached at the end rather than attached to a bridge, as with both the first and second illustrations; but, unlike the others, these instruments lack a tailpiece, meaning they were probably more rigidly built.
This variety should not be surprising. We may be inclined to think that this or that sort of instrument should exactly fit this or that criteria; but mediaeval (and renaissance) iconography generally shows a great deal of experimentation with musical instruments.
What we can’t know, for lack of evidence, is how they were tuned, what their strings were made of (gut or wire), or whether the frets were fixed or tied. But there are clues that may lead to possible answers.
The medieval oud and rebec, both also depicted in the Cantigas, are still played today: the oud unchanged and known by the same name in the Middle East; and the rebec, virtually unchanged except for the addition of sympathetic strings, is played as the gadulka in Bulgaria. So it is perfectly possible to find an instrument or family of instruments that have persisted the seven and a half centuries since the Cantigas were made. And there exists in the Middle East today a family of instruments with very similar characteristics to those illustrated: the saz and tanbur family.
‘Saz’ is simply Persian and Turkish for ‘musical instrument’, and denotes a long-necked, variously tuned wire-strung instrument of three courses with tied frets, played with a plectrum (see picture). It comes in four sizes and is made entirely of wood, with a bowl back generally made of separate ribs. It either has a solid soundboard with an opening carved in the side of the body for a soundhole, or else small soundholes carved in the soundboard, as in the Cantigas. Also as in the Cantigas, saz strings are attached at the end of the instrument rather than to the bridge. What marks the saz out as an eastern rather than a western instrument is the placing of the frets. Western music has 12 semitones to the octave (if you imagine playing an octave on the piano by playing all the white and black notes, you play 12 notes), whereas the saz has 15 notes to the octave, that is, the western notes with the addition of quartertones. The saz is played today throughout the countries of the Middle East (e.g. Turkey, Kurdistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran) and also in Greece and Bosnia Herzegovina.
A similar and related instrument is the tanbur or tambur of central Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan), which differs from the saz in having only 2 or 3 strings (as depicted in the middle and right illustrations above from the Cantigas, if we take the illustrations literally), and being historically made of a solid piece of wood, carved to make the bowl (though modern tanburs may be made from separate strips of wood). The tanbur was widely used in central Asia in the middle ages, both in the palace (as in the Cantigas) and in folk music. Islamic philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi, c. 870– 950, noted that the tanbur was older than his own faith, which began in the early 7th century.
There is much evidence that mediaeval stringed instruments were played using drones – that is, with the melody played on one string while other strings, tuned in fifths and octaves, were played continuously underneath – which is just how the saz and tanbur are played to this day.
Saz playing Dansse Real, anonymous, France, from Manuscrit du Roy, c. 1300