Early bowed instruments around 1500, Part II (north of the Alps)

Groß Geigen, Vyolen, Rybeben: Research Project on Large-size String Instruments in North-Alpine Sources around 1500.

Burgkmair Hans Triumphzug Lauten Ribeben

One of the most famous pages from the Triumph of Maximilian I is captioned “Musica Lauten und Rybeben” (woodprint from 1517). The pictured “Rybeben” are large-size string instruments of a special kind that are also designated in German-language sources as “Gross Geigen” (Virdung 1511) or “Vyolen” (Zwingli 1528). They appear to represent the northern equivalent of the likewise still young “viole da gamba” of the Italian court culture of around 1500, but display clearly different body forms, construction features, and also a discrete repertoire. The common explanatory models of a direct Italian influence on the North (Woodfield 1984) therefore pose considerable difficulties, even if the underlying idea seems comparable: the extension of the compass in the low range. In a two-year research project of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (2013–2015, supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation SNSF), a renewed and in-depth examination of the sources of the “Gross Geigen” was undertaken, whereby, in contrast to previous research, the instruments were dealt with entirely from within their own context.
For this purpose, the work was divided into several thematic areas: in the first, the description of the local phenomenon of the “Gross Geigen” was examined on the basis of preserved textual, musical and, above all, iconographical sources. In a second research area, the relations to the European context were sought, particularly to Italy and Spain; and in the third research area, first hypotheses for the possible reconstruction of individual instrument types were developed in connection with an identifiable repertoire for “Gross Geigen.”

At the scheduled study meeting, the Basel research team will exchange its preliminary results with an international circle of colleagues with the goal of attaining a better understanding of the specific nature of the “Gross Geigen” and their music in North-Alpine cultures. With the application of these findings to musical practice, their transfer into the training at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis takes place.

Translation: Howard Weiner


Project Staff:

  • Prof. Dr. Thomas Drescher (direction)
  • Thilo Hirsch (co-direction)
  • PD Dr. Martin Kirnbauer
  • Kathrin Menzel M.A.
  • Dr. des. Martina Papiro



  • Museum für Musik Basel (Historical Museum Basel)

Funding: Funded by the SNSF (Swiss National Science Foundation)

Project Duration: October 2013 - September 2015

Keywords: Culture research, Repertoire, (String)instrument construction, Fiddle, Violin, Viola da gamba, Viol, “1500,” Cultural transfer North-Alpine regions, Iconography, Organology