Tambourines originated in the Near East. They came into being when bells and other rattles of various kinds were attached to the shell of a frame drum. Initially though, frame drums without bells were also commonly referred to as tambourines. The instrument was already known to the ancient Egyptians and Assyrians: in Egypt it was used in religious ceremonies by female temple dancers. Women were the principal players of tambourines in other early civilizations, too. Apart from being used to accompany dances, tambourines were also played in processions, at festivities and at funerals.
Although the size of the instrument and the shape of the jingles have undergone numerous changes over the centuries the structure has always remained the same; the tambourines used by the Greeks and Romans looked very much the same as the modern instrument.
The instrument of angels and traveling entertainers
In the Middle Ages the tambourine was already common all over Europe. In medieval Britain it was known first as the tymbre, and until the 18th century as the tabret or timbrel. In France, Spain (where it is called the pendereta) and in southern Italy its importance as a folk instrument has never diminished. But the tambourine as a part of folk entertainment is not confined to Europe; it is also found in many other cultures, for instance in China, India, Peru, Greenland, the Caucasus and central Asia.
The medieval tambourine consisted of a rectangular or round flat wood frame with a single head; the underside was open. Four or more pairs of jingles were let into the shell at regular intervals. These jingles were somewhat larger and thicker than today’s. In addition to or instead of the jingles small bells or other objects that produced a rattling noise were fixed to the frame. The tambourine was struck either with the flat of the hand or with the fingers in the same way as its ancient predecessor. Medieval paintings and carvings, as well as religious manuscripts, often portray the instrument being played by angels. On the other hand, the tambourine was also a favorite instrument of itinerant entertainers and minstrels.
But not only early forms of the tambourine were known as timbrels; the name was applied to other kinds of frame drum as well, for instance the frame drum with one or two heads and a model with a closed wood bottom. These drums were struck either with the hand or with wooden sticks. Some illustrations show still other drums with a single snare across the head; it may be that this string was plucked to produce a tone.
Frame drum according to Praetorius (Syntagma musicum, 1620)
The tambourine in the orchestra
The timbrel was already being played in concert with other instruments on special occasions in the late Middle Ages. The tambourine’s admittance into the orchestra was initiated in the mid 18th century by Janissary music, which enjoyed huge popularity at the courts of European princes and brought the tambourine – and the cymbals, bass drum and triangle – to the attention of a wider audience. It was around this time that the instrument began to be known as the tambourine (small drum), a derivation from the French word for drum, tambour. Among the first orchestral works to feature the tambourine were Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Echo und Narziss (1779) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Deutsche Tänze (1787).
The inconsistent spellings tamb(o)urin and tambourin(e) in scores repeatedly leads to confusion, the tambourine being mistaken for the tambourin, the Provençal tubular drum. The latter is a drum played with one hand and is made of particularly light wood, is about 70 cm deep and has a single head. It is used for example in George Bizet’s Arlésienne-Suite No. 2 (and therefore also in the ballet sequence in Carmen). It is still used today in folk music in the south of France.
Carl Maria von Weber used the tambourine in his incidental music for Preziosa (1821) to represent the gypsy life. Apart from this, the tambourine stands for folk entertainment, dance and, since George Bizet’s Carmen (1875), epitomizes Spanish flair. It is for this specific function, and also to accentuate the rhythm and create a bright musical background, that the tambourine has been used in orchestra works since the mid 19th century.
Tambourine ("Mohrenpäucklin", from: Praetorius, Syntagma musicum, 1620)