Sambuca (instrument)

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The sambuca (also sambute, sambiut, sambue, sambuque, or sambuke[1]) was an ancient stringed instrument of Asiatic origin. However, many other instruments have also been called a "sambuca".


The original sambuca is generally supposed to have been a small triangular harp of shrill tone.,[2] probably identical with the Phoenician sabecha and the Aramaic sabbe, the Greek form being σαμβύκη or σαμβύχη.[3]

The sambuca has been compared to the siege engine of the same name by some classical writers; Polybius likens it to a rope ladder; others describe it as boat-shaped. Among the musical instruments known, the Egyptian nanga best answers to these descriptions, which are doubtless responsible for the medieval drawings representing the sambuca as a kind of tambourine,[4] for Isidore of Seville elsewhere defines the symphonia as a tambourine.[3]

The sabka is mentioned in the Bible (Daniel 3 verses 5 to 15). In the King James Bible it is erroneously translated as "sackbut".[3]

Other Instruments[edit]

During the Middle Ages the word "sambuca" was applied to:[3]

  1. a stringed instrument, about which little can be discovered
  2. a wind instrument made from the wood of the elder tree (sambūcus).

In an old glossary article on vloyt (flute), the sambuca is said to be a kind of flute:[5]

Sambuca vel sambucus est quaedam arbor parva et mollis, unde haec sambuca est quaedam species symphoniae qui fit de illa arbore.

sambuca (Latin singular sambucus) are soft and pliant trees, and from the sambucus is named one of the symphonia family of instruments, which is made from [the wood of] these trees.

Isidore of Seville describes it in his Etymologiae as:[6]

Sambuca in musicis species est symphoniarum. Est enim genus ligni fragilis unde et tibiae componuntur.

The sambuca is in the symphonia family of musical instruments. It is also a kind of softwood from which these pipes are made.

In a glossary by Papias of Lombardy (c. 1053), first printed at Milan in 1476, the sambuca is described as a cithara, which in that century was generally glossed "harp":[3]

Sambuca, cytherae rusticae.

Sambucas, simple harps.

In Tristan und Isolde (bars 7563-72) when the knight is enumerating to King Marke all the instruments upon which he can play, the sambiut is the last mentioned:

Waz ist daz, lieber mann?
— Daz veste Seitspiel daz ich kann.

What is this now, you free man?
— It's the Seitspiel, yes, I can.

A LatinFrench glossary[7] has the equivalence Psalterium = sambue. During the later Middle Ages sambuca was often translated "sackbut" in the vocabularies, whether merely from the phonetic similarity of the two words has not yet been established.[3]

The great Boulogne Psalter (11th Century) contains many fanciful instruments which are evidently intended to illustrate the equally vague and fanciful descriptions of instruments in the apocryphal letter of Saint Jerome, ad Dardanum ("to Dardanus"). Among these is a Sambuca, which resembles a somewhat primitive sackbut without the bell joint. In the 19th Century it was reproduced by Edmond de Coussemaker, Charles de la Croix and Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, and has given rise to endless discussions without leading to any satisfactory solution.[3]

Fabio Colonna created the pentecontachordon keyboard instrument which he called a sambuca.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, published 1913 by C. & G. Merriam Co.
  2. ^ Schlesinger 1911, p. 114 cites: Arist. Quint. Meib. ii. p. 101.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Schlesinger 1911, p. 114.
  4. ^ Schlesinger 1911, p. 114 notes: see Michael Praetorius (1618). Syntagma Musicum (in Latin). Wolfenbüttel. p. 248. and plate 42, where the illustration resembles a tambourine, but the description mentions strings, showing that the author himself was puzzled.
  5. ^ Schlesinger 1911, p. 114 cites: Fundgruben (in Latin). 1. p. 368.
  6. ^ Schlesinger 1911, p. 114 cites: Isidore of Seville. "20". Etymologiae (in Latin). 2.
  7. ^ Schlesinger 1911, p. 114 cites: MS Montpellier H110, fol. 212 v..
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSchlesinger, Kathleen (1911). "Sambuca". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. 23 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 114.