Popular Science Monthly/Volume 68/March 1906/The Jewsharp

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THE common English name of this primitive musical instrument is misleading, for it is not a harp nor has it any associations with Hebrews, as its appellation seems to imply. That it has nothing to do with Jews as respects either its origin or its employment is easier to demonstrate than it is to determine the real significance of its name, or the occasion of its invention. Antiquarians and lexicographers have attempted to trace the history and etymology of this term, but their suggestions are for the most part mere guesses.

Samuel Pegge, an antiquary of the eighteenth century, derives jewsharp from 'jaw's harp,' which is regarded by later authorities as absurd; and Skeat in his useful 'Etymological Dictionary' takes the singular view that this name was 'given in derision, probably with reference to the harp of David.' Dr. Littleton, adopting the vulgar error that the instrument is Jewish, inserted in his Latin Dictionary (1679), the phrase 'Sistrum Judaicum,' a mere translation, notwithstanding the fact that the term Crembalum had been used sixty years before by Praetorius in his 'Organographia.' After all, the simple proposition of another writer is not so improbable as it might seem; he suggests that, after a long interval of disuse and of forgotten name, the instrument was peddled through England and Scotland by a Jew, and the name jewsharp became naturally the popular one.

Another distinctive name current prior to the nineteenth century was 'trump,' or 'jews' trump,' prevalent especially in Scotland. The earliest mention of this musical instrument known to the writer has the latter form; in Sir Richard Holland's 'Duke of Howlat,' a Scottish poem satirizing King James, occurs a long list of musical instruments, from which we take a single line:

The trump, and the talburn, the tympane but tray.
(Line 760.) 

This poem dates from the middle of the fifteenth century. The word trump is almost identical with the French 'trompe' applied to the jewsharp, as well as to several other musical instruments, the trumpet, the horn and even the rattle. Another common name in French is 'guimbarde'; in German the term is 'Maultrommel,' and 'Brummeisen'; in Italian it is known by the poetical expression, 'Scaccia pensieri,' banisher of thought. The word trump prevailed in Scotland, as was natural, considering the intimacy with France, and the phrase jews' trump was used by English dramatists until the end of the seventeenth century. Henrie Chettle, in the poem 'Kind Hearts' Dream,' dated 1592, wrote: "There is another juggler that being well skilled in the Jews' Trump takes upon him to be dealer in musick." In the following century Thomas Randolph wrote:

O, let me hear some silent song
Tun'd by the Jews' trump of they tongue.
(The Conceited Peddler.) 

About fifty years later Thomas Otway in his 'Friendship in Fashion' represents one of the actors, 'Malagene,' pulling out a Jews' trump and playing a tune. (1685.) Some wiseacre, seeking the derivation of Jews' trump, makes the suggestion that it is a corruption of jeu-de-trompe, but the guess loses much force owing to the simple fact that this expression does not occur in French.

In 'Hakluyt's Voyages'[1] the instrument is called simply 'Jewes-harpe.' The early explorers found these toys very advantageous as articles for trading with the aborigines; the barter of 'hatchets, knives and jews-harps' is mentioned by E. Duddeley, in 1595, and one year later Sir Walter Raleigh wrote of the same people: 'Wee should send them Jewes-Harpes, for they would give for every one two Hennes.'

These baubles were also acceptable to the natives of Guiana in South America; E. Harcourt names them in connection with beads and knives. This trade with the aborigines of the western continent has continued until modern times; Mr. Joseph D. McGuire refers to it in connection with his description of a pipe of catlinite carved in form of a jewsharp.[2]

In Bailey's Dictionary, which dates from the eighteenth century, the term is jewstrump, and in Teesdale's 'Glossary' still another synonym is used, 'gew-gaw'; this last name is also used for a kind of flute in Scotland.

This humble instrument of music, treasured chiefly by semi-civilized races and by children of intellectual nations, is but rarely mentioned in print, as its mediocre qualities give it no prominence in musical circles, and toys are seldom subjects of discussion. Sir Thomas Brown states that a brass jewsharp richly gilded was found in an ancient Norwegian urn; this suggests great antiquity, a point which will be discussed later.

In the report of those horrible witch trials conducted in the reign of James VI. of Scotland, in 1591, the 'grave and matron-like' Agnes Sampson and the poor servant Gellie Duncan play conspicuous and melancholy parts. After horrible tortures, Agnes confessed that Gellie, Dr. Fian and herself, with upwards of two hundred witches, used to assemble at midnight in a kirk, where they were joined by the devil himself, who incited them to murder the king. On these occasions the devil always liked to have a little music, and Gellie Duncan used to play a reel on a trump, or jewsharp, while all the witches danced. And at another time when a large number of witches marched in procession to hear the devil a-preaching, Gellie Duncan, the musician of the party, tripped on before, playing on her jewsharp and singing:

Cummer, go ye before, cummer go ye;
Gif ye will not go before, cummer, let me.

The Skene manuscript of Scottish melodies, written about the years 1615 to 1620, mentions the trump, and William Daunay commenting on this says the jewsharp was the only instrument of music formerly known to the inhabitants of St. Kilda; and as this isolated, rocky island had only twenty-seven families residing there in 1793, Daunay's statement seems credible.

These few notes and the references scattered through that rich treasury for antiquarians, the English 'Notes and Queries,' are evidently written by persons ignorant of the birthplace and great antiquity of the jewsharp; examination of the collection in the U. S. National Museum, however, shows that Asia can indubitably claim that distinction, for the primitive models preserved there prove that these musical instruments are widely known throughout the Orient. They are common in the Chinese empire, Thibet, Burmah, Siam, and Japan, as well as in the islands of Borneo, New Guinea, Sumatra, Samoa, Fiji and the Philippines. The Chinese call the jewsharp Keou Kin, 'mouth harp,' and consider it very ancient, and with some reason, for it is found among the Ainos, the original inhabitants of Japan, of whom a few survive in the northern islands.

As constructed by orientals who have not been influenced by contact with Europeans and Americans, their jewsharps are made of narrow pieces of bamboo from five to nine inches in length, and split so as to form a longitudinal section in which the jaws and tongue are cut somewhat like a three-pronged fork. A portion of the bamboo, of full size, is sometimes left attached to the split section to serve as a handle, and this measures in addition five to seven inches in length.

Often the construction is peculiar in that the jaws of the instrument are made to vibrate instead of the tongue, in which case the tongue occupies an inverse position. In jewsharps made by the Ainos the vibration of the tongue is effected by a bit of bamboo fiber fastened to a minute orifice at its base. These wooden jewsharps have little power, and the modern Chinese, imitating Europeans, make them of iron with a projecting handle, which is virtually a prolongation of the tongue beyond the point where it is riveted to the jaws.

Several native tribes in the Philippines make jewsharps—the Moros, on northern Mindanao, the inhabitants of the Sooloo archipelago and the Negritos. In Burmah and Thibet, where the common name is Murchang (or simply Chang), they are not made by the Thibetans themselves, but by the Lissus and by tribes in the southeastern districts, where nearly all women carry jewsharps in ornamental cases suspended from their girdles. Melodies are played on three having a different pitch.

For the opportunity of examining the collection in the National Museum and information concerning them I am indebted to Professor Otis T. Mason, acting curator in anthropology, and to Mr. E. H. Hawley, preparator in charge of musical instruments.

The Waschamba tribe in Africa make a childish toy used like a jewsharp, quite unique in construction. Near the end of a pith-bearing stem is cut a small orifice communicating with the central bore, and a thin section of the outer bark or rind of the stem is split so as to form the tongue; this is vibrated by gently striking it with a strip of wood, at the same time that air is blown into the tube through the small orifice. The character of the sounds obtained is not given by the ethnologist who describes this primitive instrument.[3]

In occidental countries jewsharps are manufactured on a large scale; they were manufactured in Nuremberg as early as 1524. In Birmingham one dealer, who made thousands of gross in 1895, packed them in boxes labeled 'Irish Harps,' a better designation for trade.

Regarded as an instrument with musical capabilities, the jewsharp was studied by the distinguished English scientist Sir Chas. Wheatstone in 1828. He wrote as follows:

The jewsharp consists of an elastic steel tongue riveted at one end to a frame of brass or iron (shaped like a horseshoe). The free extremity of the tongue is bent outwards to a right angle, so as to allow the finger easily to strike it when the instrument is placed to the mouth and firmly supported by the pressure of the parallel extremities of the frame against the teeth. The vibrations of the tongue itself correspond with a very low sound, but being placed before the cavity of the mouth, the form and dimensions of which are capable of various alterations by the motions of the tongue and lips, when the number of vibrations of the contained volume of air is any multiple of the original vibrations of the (steel) tongue, a sound is produced corresponding to the modification of the oral cavity.

After specifying the notes yielded by a given instrument, he continued:

This scale of notes is too incomplete and too defective to allow even the most simple melodies to be played on a single jewsharp, but the deficiencies may be supplied by employing two or more of these instruments.

And he refers to a celebrated performer, Mr. Eulenstein, of whom more anon.

The mouth forms a resonant cavity or sounding box, analogous to the body of a guitar, or to the stretched parchment of a banjo, the pitch varying with the form and size of the cavity; every one has noticed that in pronouncing the vowels a, e, i, o, u in their natural order the cubical capacity of the mouth is gradually diminished.

A few persons have acquired such proficiency in playing the jewsharp as to gain recognition in history and literature. Koch, a private in the Prussian army under Frederick the Great, played with extraordinary skill, and of him the following story is told. One summer evening, sitting by an open window, the king overheard strains of music of unusual quality, and on making enquiry learned that they arose from a jewsharp played by a soldier doing sentinel duty in the garden. Thereupon Frederick commanded the musician to ascend to his suite of apartments and to play before him, but young Koch politely refused to do so without an order from his colonel. 'But I am king,' said Frederick. 'I know it, your majesty, but I can not leave my post, or I shall be punished.' Although very angry, the king respected the sentinel's candor and fidelity. On the following day Koch, by invitation of the king and an order from the colonel, played in Frederick's apartments and so delighted him that the king gave him a sum of money and an honorable discharge from the army. Koch then traveled through Germany, giving exhibitions of his skill and playing in concerts, whereby he accumulated a moderate fortune. The chief attraction of Koch's playing was his descriptive music, pieces similar to the 'Turkish Patrol'; he used to depict a funeral procession marching along to the tolling of bells, the approach and passing of a chorus of mourners, and their singing of an old German popular dirge.

In the first decade of the century just closed Heinrich Scheibler, of Crefeld, invented an instrument which he called 'Aura'; it consisted of ten jewsharps of different keys grouped in two series of five each and fastened to a disk, with the bows towards the center, so that the jaws diverged like rays. With this combination he performed in concerts before large audiences, producing surprising and beautiful effects.

But by far the most eminent performer on jewsharps was a man named Charles Eulenstein, born in Würtemberg about 1802. He spent many years studying the capabilities of the jewsharp, and being an accomplished musician, he found that the best effects could only be obtained with instruments of different pitch, and he had manufactured sixteen jewsharps, on four of which he was able to play at once by connecting them with silken cords so arranged that he could grasp four with his lips. He appeared in London in 1827-8 and had great success playing in concerts and producing effects greatly admired by amateurs. Eventually his teeth were injured and he had them repaired by a clever dentist, who coated them with some glutinous substance that aided him in supporting the iron instrument. He also performed in Scotland and on the Continent; he was still living in 1878 at Ulm.

Wheatstone wrote of this expert as follows:

Mr. Eulenstein by using sixteen jewsharps was able to produce effects trulyoriginal and of extreme beautv. Those who have heard only the rude twanging to which the performance of this instrument in ordinary hands is confined can have no idea of the melodious sounds which in Mr. Eulenstein's hands it is capable of producing.

  1. 'Hakluyt's Voyages,' III., 576.
  2. Report National Museum. 1897, p. 488.
  3. Bernhard Ankermann, 'Die Africanischen Musik-Instrumenten,' inaugural dissertation, p. 47, Leipzig [Berlin, 1902].