1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Dulcimer

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

DULCIMER (Fr. tympanon; Ger. Hackbrett, Cymbal; Ital. cembalo, timpanon or salterio tedesco), the prototype of the pianoforte, an instrument consisting of a horizontal sound-chest over which are stretched a varying number of wire strings set in vibration by strokes of little sticks or hammers. The dulcimer differed from the psalterium or psaltery chiefly in the manner of playing, the latter having the strings plucked by means of fingers or plectrum. The shape of the dulcimer is a trapeze or truncated triangle, having the bass strings stretched parallel with the base, which measures from 3 to 4 ft.; the strings decrease gradually in length, the shortest measuring from about 18 to 24 in. at the truncated apex. The sound-board has one or two rose sound-holes; the strings are attached on one side to hitch pins and at the other to the larger tuning pins firmly fixed in the wrest plank. The strings of fine brass or iron wire are in groups of two to five unisons to each note; the vibrating lengths of the strings are determined by means of two bridges. The dulcimer is placed upon a table in front of the performer, who strikes the strings with a little hammer mounted on a metal rod and covered on one side with hard and on the other with soft leather for forte and piano effects. The compass, now chromatic throughout, varies according to the size of the instrument; the large cymbalom of the Hungarian gipsies has a range of four chromatic octaves, Britannica Dulcimer Cymbalom Range.jpg.

The origin of the dulcimer is remote, and must be sought in the East. In the bas-reliefs from Kuyunjik, now in the British Museum, are to be seen musicians playing on dulcimers of ten strings with long sticks curved at the ends, and damping the strings with their hands. This is the pisantir of the days of Nebuchadrezzar, translated “psaltery” in Dan. iii. 5, &c., and rendered “psalterion” in the Septuagint, a confusion which has given rise to many misconceptions.[1] In the Septuagint no less than four different instruments are rendered psalterion (from Gr. ψάλλω, pluck, pull), i.e. ugab, nebel, pisantir and toph, two stringed, one wind and one percussion. The use of the word in Greek for a musical instrument is not recorded before the 4th century B.C. The modern santir of the Persians, almost identical with the German hackbrett, has a compass from Britannica Dulcimer Santir Compass.jpg according to Fétis.[2] The Persians place its origin in the highest antiquity. Carl Engel[3] gives an illustration said to be taken from a very old painting.[4]

The dulcimer was extensively used during the middle ages in England, France, Italy, Germany, Holland and Spain, and although it had a distinctive name in each country, it was everywhere regarded as a kind of psalterium. The importance of the method of setting the strings in vibration by means of hammers, and its bearing on the acoustics of the instrument, were recognized only when the invention of the pianoforte had become a matter of history. It was then perceived that the psalterium in which the strings were plucked, and the dulcimer in which they were struck, when provided with keyboards, gave rise to two distinct families of instruments, differing essentially in tone quality, in technique and in capabilities: the evolution of the psalterium stopped at the harpsichord, that of the dulcimer gave us the pianoforte. The dulcimer is described and illustrated by Mersenne,[5] who calls it psaltérion; it has thirteen courses of pairs of unisons or octaves; the first strings were of brass wire, the others of steel. The curved stick was allowed to fall gently on to the strings and to rebound many times, which, Mersenne remarks, produces an effect similar to the trembling or tremolo of other instruments. Praetorius[6] figures a hackbrett having a body in the shape of a truncated triangle, with a bridge placed between two rose sound-holes, and played by means of two sticks. Another kind of hackbrett[7] (a psaltery), which was played with the fingers, was known to Praetorius. The pantaleon, a double dulcimer, named after the inventor, Pantaleon Hebenstreit of Eisleben, a violinist, had two sound-boards, 185 strings, one scale of overspun catgut, the other of wire. Hebenstreit travelled to Paris with his monster dulcimer in 1705 and played before Louis XIV., who baptized it Pantaléon. Quantz[8] and Quirin of Blankenburg[9] both gave descriptions of the instrument. (K. S.)


  1. The names of the musical instruments in those verses of the Book of Daniel have formed the basis of a controversy as to the authenticity of the book.
  2. Histoire de la musique (Paris, 1869), vol. ii. p. 131.
  3. Music of the most Ancient Nations (London, 1864), pp. 42-3.
  4. Hommaire de Hell, Voyage en Perse, p. lxii.
  5. L'Harmonie universelle (Paris, 1636), livre iii. p. 174.
  6. Syntagma musicum (Wolfenbüttel, 1618), pl. 18 (3).
  7. Pl. 36 (1).
  8. “Herrn Joh. Joachim Quantzens Lebenslauf von ihm selbst entworfen,” in Fr. W. Marpurg's Histor. kritische Beyträge, Bd. i. p. 207 (1754-1755).
  9. Elementa musica, chap. xxvi.