wim bosmans

Wim Bosmans

The Pipe and Tabor in the Low Countries


A Basque language translation of this paper was published in 2005 at Txistulari


This study deals with the one-handed flute (pipe) and drum (tabor) played together by one person. Since at least the early sixteenth century the tabor pipe seems to have been a two fingerhole + thumb hole harmonic duct flute.


Dutch. The now usual compounds eenhand(s)fluit and eenhand(s)trom(mel) (resp. one-handed flute and one-handed drum) were probably used for the first time in the early forties by V. Denis. The older source material has only yielded general names. The flute is called pijp (pipe) and fluit (flute) or their diminutives (e.g. pype, piipkiin, fluyte, fleuytje). According to an inventory made in Vianen in 1567, the lord of Brederode possessed a three-hole bruloftspype (wedding pipe) with a stick to beat the drum. The drum is called bong(h)e in the 14th and 15th centuries and bom(me), trom(me) or trommel in the 16th and 17th centuries.

French. In musicological literature the term flute à  une main (one-handed flute) was recently introduced. The only known name for the drum is ta(m)bourin. According to Olivier de la Marche a musician played the flageol (flute) and the tabourin at the wedding of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York in 1468. In the 19th century musicologists used the French terms flute de tambourin (drum flute), flutet (little flute) and galoubet. Only this last, Provencal name is still in use today.

organology of the pipe

Iconographical sources

Our iconographical source material comprises 110 representations of pipe and tabor players. The pipe nearly always seems to be made from one piece of wood. It's most often uniformly yellowish or brownish. Most flutes are between about 25 and 60 cm long. The longest instruments measure about 80-90 cm.

Jan Massys

Flutes longer than 50 cm only appear around 1460. Three quarters of the instruments have a cylindrical form, which suggests a ditto bore. One quarter of the pipes have a distinct conical shape. As flutes hardly ever have a conical bore, these representations may be considered inaccurate. Three illuminations from the last quarter of the 13th century show hornlike instruments. There are, however, no further indications that other types of wind instruments were also played together with a drum.

When the head is shown it seems shaped into a simple cut-back beak. Jan Massys (fig.1) is the only one who depicts window and labium clearly and accurately: the window is about 1 cm wide and a few mm high; the labium is about 2.5 cm high. The number of fingerholes can never be determined with certainty, as it is never clear how many holes are being covered. Nothing can be said about the presence of a thumbhole, either, as the back of the instrument is never shown. Some flutes have more than four fingerholes, which is of course not in keeping with reality. On nearly half the documents, but only from about 1450 onwards, the holes seem to be set on the lower third of the pipe. One seventh of the documents, however, show a high position, with one or more fingerholes on the upper half of the pipe. Obviously such a high location doesn't correspond with reality, as it' nearly always goes together with a conical shape and/or an exaggerated number of fingerholes. On the rest of the documents one or more holes seem to be located between the lower third and the lower half of the pipe.

Most flutes have a very simple design. Under the first fingerhole the pipe sometimes has a kind of slightly flared bell, and decoration only occurs on this part. A few documents show a raised ring at the top and/or the bottom of the bell. Jan Massys shows a pair of incised lines. He is also the only one who depicts a (lateral) vent-hole.

A manuscript from 1800-1820 by the wind instrument maker C.J.J. Tuerlinckx (Mechelen, 1783-1855) shows a flute in two parts with the same refined design as the French tabor pipes of that time.

Extant instruments

So far archaeological research in Belgium and the Netherlands has yielded eleven wooden flutes with two fingerholes and a thumbhole. Nine flutes have been found in the provinces of Zeeland and Zuid-Holland. Presuma¬bly they all date from the period from the late 14th century till the first half of the 17th century. This means the Low Countries - and the West of the Netherlands in particular - have probably preserved more tabor pipes older than 1650 than the rest of Europe. All these flutes, have been found among all sorts of rubbish in former wells or cesspits, whose moist contents provide a favourable ambience for the preservation of organic materials. These flutes may have been thrown away because they weren't satisfactory any more. Indeed, almost half the examples have a split or broken mouthpiece. Only three instruments have preserved their block. The pipe is mostly split, warped, crushed and/or broken. Some of this damage may have occurred after the flutes ended up in the soil.

All the flutes are lathe-turned from a single piece of wood. The wood from which fl. 5 and 6 were made has not yet been identified; the other flutes are made of boxwood. The bore is cylindrical or perhaps slightly tapered. Only fl. 9 seems distinctly tapered. Whatever their length the flutes always have a bore of about 8-9 mm at the bottom; the exceptionally long fl. 1 has a wider bore (Ø 12 mm). Dependent on the length the ratio between the bore and the sounding length ranges from 1:15 to 1:35,5. Five flutes have a ratio between 1:22,5 and 1:26,5.

The head is always shaped into a flat or slightly curved beak. With the exception of fl. 1 & 6 it always has a perforation on each side, which is clearly intended to hold a suspension cord. Strangely enough such a cord is only depicted on one single iconographical document, which moreover doesn't show a tabor pipe, but another, short duct flute. There is mostly an incised line just below the mouthpiece; fl. 2, on the other hand, has a raised ring. The edge of the labium is straight or rounded downwards. Most examples have a nearly square window, which is 0.5-1 mm wider than its height (5-6.5 mm). Fl. 8 has a virtually round window and fl. 6 an exceptionally large one. The labium is always U-shaped.

fig. 2

The holes are round or slightly oval, and in some examples they are wider at the surface than at the bore. In nine out of the eleven preserved examples the three holes are set in a remarkably fixed ratio to the sounding length: the part of the pipe under the lower fingerhole, upper fingerhole and thumbhole comprises resp. ca. 15,25 and 30% of the sounding length. In the remaining two flutes the holes are placed higher up.

All examples have a ca. 1.5-3 cm high, slightly flared bell, but within which the bore doesn't widen. The bell has a flat, concave or convex profile. It is decorated with a raised ring at its top, and one or more (1lx2, 2x2, 3x2 or 3x3) lightly incised lines. A few mm above the bottom there is often a deeper and wider, mostly V-shaped, incision. Fl. 3 and 4 have a thin raised ring, resp. instead of this incision and just above it.

The very similar design of all these examples indicates that in the Low Countries, from the late 14th century till the first half of the 17th century, the tabor pipe was made according to fixed, traditional principles.

In addition to these eleven preserved examples, there is also a fragment of a boxwood flute found in Amsterdam in 1976. On the basis of the above-mentioned characteristics it may be identified as the back of the lower half of a tabor pipe.

Furthermore, the Brussels Museum of Musical Instruments has two identical tabor pipes that carry the mark Verhasselt-Bruxelles under the labium. From ca. 1840 onwards Francois Verhasselt (Brussels, 1813-1853) earned a living as an accordion teacher and instrument dealer. Most instruments that carry his name weren't made by himself. His tabor pipes are much like the refined galoubets by the 19th century Provencal makers Long and Grassel. So possibly Verhasselt imported these tabor pipes from France. His instruments are lathe-turned from a single piece of ebony. They have a slightly tapered (from ca. 9 to 7.5 mm), very narrow (1:37) bore. The curved beak is covered with ivory. It ends on a thin raised ring. The narrow bore as well as the low window and the high, U-shaped labium have optimal proportions for overblowing. The holes are oval and relatively large. The bell is 27 mm high; it is hourglass-shaped and it has a raised ring at its top and bottom.


No single tabor from the Low Countries has been preserved. This means we have to rely on iconographical sources only.

The shell is cylindrical and uniformly brownish, which points to unpain¬ted wood. In the second half of the 15th century it is sometimes provided with a sound hole. Most tabors are 20-35 cm in diameter. In the second half of the 15th century some examples are only about 15 cm across. Only five documents show a diameter of 40 cm or more. Until ca. 1500 the depth seldom seems to exceed the diameter; shells whose diameter is twice to four times as long as their depth are no exception. The shell is usually only 10-15 cm deep; its maximum depth is about 25 cm.

After 1500 the average depth increases substantially. Most tabors are now about 25-35 cm deep, with a maximum depth of 60-65 cm. The shell is mostly deeper than its diameter, but never more than twice as deep. As a rule tabors deeper than 35 cm accompany pipes that are at least 50 cm long. Smaller tabors are played with pipes of any length.

Most documents show the struck head of the drum. The lower head is only visible in ten cases. Quite a few documents don't show how the heads are attached. From ca. 1450 onwards, however, most heads are clearly rope-tensioned. The ropes nearly always go 8 to 14 times to and fro from one head to another, the most usual being 10 or 11 times. Apparently the number is not dependent on the diameter of the shell.

The type of bracing can't always be determined with certainty. The W-type is the most usual. The N-type is much rarer. So is the Y-type, with the use of buffs, which appear for the first time around 1500. Some 16th century documents show a double series of buffs, on both sides of the shell. A few documents possibly represent the X-type.

The shell is often depicted with a ring-shaped thickening on either side, which points to the use of flesh hoops. From around 1540 onwards a few documents possibly show a counter hoop.

A snare often crosses the struck head. It is depicted from ca. 1300 onwards, but mainly between 1450 and 1550. When the lower head is shown it mostly appears to have a snare, too. So it seems possible that snares could be employed on both heads, which was even the rule accor¬ding to Thoinot Arbeau.

The stick is nearly always about 25-35 cm long, minimum about 15-20 cm and maximum about 55 cm. As a rule the beating end has a bulbous form. In some cases it may have been covered with material. Until around 1450 the stick often looks thickish. Some sticks are even club-shaped. After 1450 the stick becomes much thinner. Until around 1550 it always seems cylindrical. Later on tapered sticks appear. Two documents from the end of the 15th century show a probably merely decorative raised ring at about 10 cm from the beating end.


Among the eleven excavated pipes from the Low Countries only those found in Reimerswaal and Mechelen could be restored to playing condition. Their tone scales are shown on p. 43. In their original state both flutes were possibly harmonic flutes with a full diatonic scale of one octave or more. They may also have been intended for a hexatonic tone scale. It is equally possible they were only toy flutes. These possibilities also go for the other examples with a wide bore, and particularly for fl. 5 with its middle range of soundholes.

The tone scale of the Verhasselt pipe is represented on p. 43. The fundamental tones can only be sounded by blowing very gently. C.J.J. Tuerlinckx gives a fingering for the tabor pipe, which is obviously based on French sources like Mersenne and Diderot & d'Alembert. The same goes for the tone scale given by J. Andries. There are no examples of the repertoire played on the pipe and tabor in the Low Countries. It was obviously only used by musically illiterate musicians, who could, of course, do without written music.

adriaen van de venne

Adriaen Van de Venne (fig.3) shows a player who is equipped with bells under his knees, around his ankles, and under the elbow and around the wrist of the arm that beats the tabor.


More than two thirds of our iconographical sources show the pipe played with the left hand. The four fingers are nearly always represented on the front of the pipe. On some paintings the ring finger and/or little finger lie against the back.

In the 13th and 14th centuries the tabor always seems to be strapped to the outer side of the upper arm or to the shoulder of the arm that plays the pipe. Ca. 1420-1440 the tabor lies horizontally against the upper part of the body. It is then hung from the neck or a shoulder.

From the middle of the 15th century onwards the tabor is played in different positions. Mostly it is suspended from the forearm, the wrist or the hand. Some smaller tabors, whose diameter and depth don't exceed 20 cm, hang from the little finger or the ring finger, and sometimes maybe from the pipe itself. A few tabors are suspended from a shoulder strap, but then they are worn lower down than in the first half of the 15th century, namely against the waist, the hip or the thigh. In the second half of the 15th century, and seldom later, the tabor is still resting against the upper part of the body.

From ca. 1450 to 1500 the shell is nearly always shown in a virtually horizontal position. Later on it turns over to other angles, first to around 30°, but from the end of the 16th century onwards also to around 45°. This is of course related to the lengthening of the shell after 1500.

As a rule the stick is held between the thumb and the forefinger, and mostly also by one or more other fingers, which may press it against the flat of the hand or not. The Master of Frankfurt (pl. 16) shows the stick between the middle finger and the ring finger, and Israel van Meckenem between the forefinger and thumb above, and the middle finger below.


The history of the pipe and tabor in the Low Countries begins with three illuminations in manuscripts from the last quarter of the 13th century. This is shortly after the first known iconographical source in Europe, the Cantigas de Santa Maria (ca. 1260). The portrayed flutes, however, have an outspoken conical shape, and it looks as if the illustrators weren't yet really familiar with the instrument. As a matter of fact until ca. 1440 the iconographical source material is very scarce: it is limited to about ten documents. Between 1450 and 1650 players are portrayed much more frequently: this period has yielded about ninety documents. Around 1655 the pipe and tabor disappears almost completely from the visual arts of the Low Countries. After this date only seven more documents have been found, and the very last ones date from the first half of the 19th century.


The pipe and tabor is mostly played by a man with an inconspicuous appearance. Besides, it is also portrayed in the hands of a whole range of different figures. Until ca. 1470 players are often grotesques, and until the first half of the 16th century they are now and then also monkeys or dogs. From ca. 1420-35 until the first half of the 17th century they are sometimes angels, mostly surrounding the Virgin with the Child. In the same period jesters appear now and then. In some rare cases the player is dressed as a Moor (second half of the 15th century) or as a woman (middle of the 16th century). Sporadically the pipe an tabor is played by a king, a child, a cupid or a woman. Nine documents show jugglers performing with a dancing dog (14th till 17th century) or bear (first half of the 19th century), or with dancing puppets (first half of the 19th century). Two buffoons from the middle of the 16th century keep a pot or a candle balanced on their head, and one of them is walking on stilts (pl. 29). According to our iconographical sources the pipe and tabor was mainly played by professional entertainers: wandering musicians, buffoons and jugglers.

Until ca. 1460 the pipe-and-tabor player is nearly always an isolated figure appearing in text margins or illuminated initials. One document shows him in an upper-class context, with Romulus and Remus (pl. 26). The only pictorial evidence of a player in a procession dates from the middle of the 15th century (pl. 14). There is only one written reference for the period up to ca. 1460: the account books of the counts of Bloys from 1361-1364, which mention musicians playing the flute with one hand or playing a drum and flute simultaneously.

Between 1450 and 1650 a player is sometimes seen in a biblical context: mainly in the environment of Saint Job (from ca. 1510 till ca. 1560/70), who was a patron saint of the musicians in the duchy of Brabant and the county of Flanders, and in the neighbourhood of the Holy Mary and the Child (from the last quarter of the 15th till the first half of the 17th century).
After ca. 1460, however, the players are mostly shown in a worldly context. Until ca. 1540 they are only seen in upper- and middle-class circles. Until ca. 1500 they mainly play for dances: they accompany courtly pair and round dances, but also 'wild' dances such as the moresca. Sometimes there is a buffoon among the dancers. To a lesser extent the pipe and tabor also appear on scenes representing a wedding, a serenade, an archers' festival, a tournament or an engagement party.

This iconographical information is partially confirmed by a few written sources. A pipe and tabor was played at the wedding of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York in Bruges in 1468. The player was part of a team of seven dancers dressed up as monkeys, who performed a morisque. In 1511 Sebastian Virdung states that the pipe and tabor was mainly played for dances and weddings in France and the Low Countries. The name bruloftspype (wedding pipe) is also significant in this respect.

Until the beginning of the 16th century there is no pictorial evidence of a difference in status between the pipe and tabor and other musical instruments. In the second quarter of the 16th century two documents show a player entertaining a well-to-do, but debauched company, which may indicate the pipe and tabor was losing prestige.

In the middle of the 16th century this low status had become a fact. This is shown by an ordinance from 1560 issued by the Saint Job's corporation of musicians in Antwerp: those playing the pipe and tabor, 'not being musical instruments', were to become members of this corpo¬ration, but they were exempted from a competence test.

From ca. 1550 onwards the profane iconography shows the pipe and tabor in a popular environment only. The period 1550-1650 has yielded about twenty representations of country weddings, fairs and the like, which isn't very much compared with the number of reproductions of some other folk instruments like the hurdy-gurdy and the bagpipe. It is also striking that all those documents, save two, were made by Flemish artists. They show the pipe and tabor playing in and out of doors for eating and dancing merrymakers, but never in processions. In 1619 Michael Praetorius wrote the pipe and tabor was used for playing dance music and songs in France and the Low Countries, but as he quotes Virdung almost word for word, it isn't certain his information was still up to date.

fig. 5

When the player is shown in his environment, he is almost as often performing solo as in a band, which is mostly a duo or a trio. However, such small ensembles are only depicted from the last quarter of the 15th century onwards. In the period up to ca. 1520, when the iconography only shows the player in an upper- of middle-class company, he mainly plays together with stringed instruments such as the harp and the lute. However, with one exception this type of ensemble never plays for dancing. The pipe and tabor is also combined with other wind instruments such as a second pipe and tabor a shawm , a bombarde , a cornett or a trumpet. In the second quarter of the 16th century the lute appears for the last time but then the fiddle makes its entry. One band also has a bass fiddle.

The fact is that in the mean time the pipe and tabor had fallen to a lower status than the other instruments mentioned, which gained prestige as instruments of the middle-class dilettantes (mainly the lute) or the city waits (shawm, bombarde, cornett and trumpet). Probably from then on this difference in status affected the formation of ensembles.

It is highly debatable to what extent the realistic looking, profane scenes from the period 1475-1550 may be considered to be true represen¬tations of the musical practice of the day. The large ensembles in religious scenes rather look like catalogues of the instruments that were played at the time. The pipe and tabor was probably only exceptionnally part of a band.

From 1550 till 1650, when the profane iconography shows the pipe and tabor in a popular environment only, it is sometimes part of a duo or a trio, with a fiddle, a bagpipe or a hurdy-gurdy, and sometimes also with a rhythm instrument such as the tambourine and the bombas (a bowed monochord with a bladder as resonator). It seems likely that such small bands really existed, as ensembles consisting of a pipe and tabor and a fiddle or a bagpipe are an old tradition in the central French Pyrenees and in Catalonia.

Around 1650 the pipe-and-tabor player disappears almost completely from the visual arts of the Low Countries. For the period 1655-1800 we only know of four pictures: a courtly scene, dancing girls and soldiers in an Italian landscape, and two goose board illustrations. The Dutch treatises on music from the 17th and 18th centuries don't mention the pipe and tabor at all. Verschuere Reynvaan is an exception: in 1795 he shortly deals with the so-called Flute de Tambourin, but the author probably drew his information from French sources.

So everything seems to indicate that in the Low Countries the pipe and tabor tradition died out completely in the second half of the 17th century. A clear cause can't be pointed out. Possibly the tabor pipe had to give way to the fife, e.g. because the side drum offered more rhythmical possibilities than the tabor. On the other hand, fife and tabor pipe played partly different roles. The fife was used in the first place to accompany all kinds of processions, while the tabor pipe is never shown in this context in the iconography of the 16th and 17th centuries.

We only know of three 19th century pictures of pipe-and-tabor players.

Two of them, which show players accompanying a dancing bear, were based on a French and a German example respectively. The most intriguing document is a painting by C.-F. Coene from the beginning of the 19th century (pl. 37). It represents a boy playing the pipe and tabor while making two puppets dance on a string, which he operates with his knee. This scene is situated in the neighbourhood of Brussels. Does this mean the pipe and tabor was still played by wandering street artists at that time?

fig. 6

Furthermore, the fingering chart for Flutte Tambourine in the early 19th century manuscript by woodwind maker C.J.J. Tuerlinckx, and both tabor pipes sold around 1845 by Verhasselt seem to indicate the pipe and tabor was (again) played in Belgium in the first half of the 19th century. Following the French fashion the pipe and tabor was possibly reintroduced in Belgium as a pastoral instrument, used to evoke a rural festive atmos­phere. A petite flute de tambourin was e.g. part of the orchestra that played Colinette it la Cour, a comedic lyrique by the Belgian composer Gretry, in the Parisian Academic Royale in 1782.

It is, however, clear that the pipe and tabor never regained its former popularity. It is e.g. revealing that Tuerlinckx apparently never made or sold tabor pipes. In 1839 Fetis calls the galoubet or flutet a Provencal instrument.
The pipe and tabor was shortly revived in 1930 for the Brussels Omme­gang (procession), which was designed after the mid-16th-century model (pl. 38). The repertoire was composed by Ernest Closson. It consisted of five simple tunes built on four tones (d-e-f-g), which didn't need overblowing.

Since the late sixties Belgium and The Netherlands have known a new interest in their traditional instruments. The tabor pipe was revived in 1970 by folk instrument maker Herman Dewit (Kester). He designed his tabor pipes after the examples found in Mechelen and Goedereede. He also assimilated certain achievements of current recorder making and he adopted the Provencal fingering. Dewit's tabor pipes are made of boxwood and their first degree is g or f. His production is very limited, though. There is some demand in Germany and The Netherlands, but in Belgium the tabor pipe is still only played by Dewit's own band 't Kliekske.