A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Cembalo

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CEMBALO or Cimbalo (Italian), a dulcimer, an old European name of which, with unimportant phonetic variations, was Cymbal. According to Mr. Carl Engel this ancient instrument is at the present day called cymbaly by the Poles, and cymbalom by the Magyars. The derivation of cembalo is from the Greek κύμβη (Latin cymba), a hollow vessel; and with the Greeks κύμβαλα were small cymbals, a larger form of this ringing instrument being well known in modern military bands. These cymbals and bells in the middle ages were regarded as closely allied, and rows of bells of different sizes, tintinnabula or glockenspiel, were also called cymbala. Virdung (1511) names zymbeln and glocken (cymbals and bells) together. It was most likely the bell-like tone of the wire strings struck by the hammers of the dulcimer that attracted to it the name of cymbal or cembalo. It is explained here, however, not only for the meaning dulcimer, but for the frequent use of the word 'cembalo' by composers who wrote figured basses, and its employment by them as an abbreviation of clavicembalo. The dulcimer, or cembalo, with keys added, became the clavicembalo. In course of time the first two syllables being, for convenience or from idleness in speaking or writing, dropped, 'cembalo' also was used to designate the keyed instrument, that is, the clavicembalo or harpsichord—just as cello in the present day frequently stands for violoncello. In the famous Passacaille of J. S. Bach, 'cembalo' occurs where we should now write ' manual,' there being a separate pedal part. [See Pedal.] But we know from Forkel that Bach used a double 'flügel' or clavicembalo, having two keyboards and obbligato pedals, as well as the organ with pedals. There is a story in the Decamerone of Boccaccio of one Dion, who being asked to sing, said he would if he had a cembalo. The early date of this quotation (1352–3) has led to much difference of opinion among musical authorities as to the instrument that was meant. Burney leans to a tambour de basque, a tambourine, which by some caprice had been designated, some time or other, cembalo. Dr. Rimbault (Pianoforte, p. 36) maintains that it was a small clavichord, but for this explanation the date is almost too early. The opinion of Fétis, that it was a dulcimer, is probably the true one. [Harpsichord.]

[ A. J. H. ]