A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Dulcimer

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DULCIMER (Fr. Tympanon; Ital. Cembalo, Timpanon, Salterio tedesco; Germ. Hachbrett). The prototype of the pianoforte, as the psaltery was of the harpsichord. These instruments were so nearly alike that one description might serve for both, were it not for the different manner of playing them, the strings of the dulcimer being set in vibration by small hammers held in the hands, while in the psaltery the sounds were produced by plectra of ivory, metal, or quill, or even the fingers of the performer. It is also no less desirable to separate in description instruments so nearly resembling each other, on account of their ultimate development into the harpsichord and pianoforte by the addition of keys. [See Harpsichord, and Pianoforte.]

Dr. Rimbault (Pianoforte, p. 23) derives dulcimer from 'dulce melos.' Perhaps the 'dulce,'—also used in the old English 'dulsate' and 'dulsacordis,' unknown instruments unless dulcimers—arose from the ability the player had to produce sweet sounds with the softer covered ends of the hammers, just as 'piano' in pianoforte suggests a similar attribute. The Italian 'Salterio tedesco' implies a German derivation for this hammer-psaltery. [See also Cembalo.] The roughness of description used by mediæval Italians in naming one form of psaltery 'strumento di porco,' pig's head, was adopted by the Germans in their faithful translation 'Schweinskopf,' and in naming a dulcimer 'Hackbrett'—a butcher's board for chopping sausage-meat.

The dulcimer is a trapeze-shaped instrument of not more than three feet in greatest width, composed of a wooden framing enclosing a wrest-plank for the tuning-pins, round which the strings are wound at one end; a soundboard ornamented with two or more sound-holes and carrying two bridges between which are the lengths of wire intended to vibrate; and a hitchpin-block for the attachment of the other ends of the strings. Two, three, four, and sometimes five strings of fine brass or iron wire are grouped for each note. [App. p.619 "English dulcimers have ten long notes of brass wire in unison strings, four or five in number, and ten shorter notes of the same. The first series, struck with hammers to the left of the right-hand bridge, is tuned

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \relative g { \cadenzaOn g4 a b c d e f! g } }

the F being natural. The second series, struck to the right of the left-hand bridge, is

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \relative g' { \cadenzaOn g4 a b c d e f! g } }

the F being again natural. The remainder of the latter series, struck to the left of the left-hand bridge, gives

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \relative d'' { \cadenzaOn d4 e fis g a b c d } }
This tuning has prevailed in other countries and is old. Chromatic tunings are modern and apparently arbitrary."] The dulcimer, laid upon a table or frame is struck with hammers, the heads of which are clothed on either side with hard and soft leather to produce the forte and piano effects. The tone, harsh in the loud playing, is always confused, as there is no damping contrivance to stop the continuance of the sounds when not required. This effect is well imitated in various places in Schubert's 'Divertissement Hongroise.' The compass of two or three octaves, from C or D in the bass clef, has always been diatonic in England, but became chromatic in Germany before the end of the 18th century. As in most mediæval musical instruments ornamentation was freely used on the soundboard, and on the outer case when one existed. The dulcimer and psaltery appear to have come to us from the East, it may be through the Crusades, for the dulcimer has been known for ages in Persia and Arabia, and also in the Caucasus, under the name of 'santir.' Its European use is now limited to the semi-oriental gypsy bands in Hungary and Transylvania. The Magyar name is 'cimbelom.' Mr. Carl Engel ('Descriptive Catalogue,' 1874) points out the remarkable resemblance between an Italian dulcimer in South Kensington Museum of the 17th century and a modern Georgian santir; and refers to the use by the translators of the English Bible of the word 'dulcimer' as well as of the names of other instruments common in the Elizabethan epoch, to represent Hebrew musical instruments about which we have no sure knowledge. Pantaloon Hebenstreit of Eisleben, a distinguished violin-player, became about 1697 a virtuoso upon the dulcimer, which he quadrupled in dimensions and had constructed as a double hackbrett with two soundboards, each with its scale of strings on the one side overspun catgut, on the other, wire. There were 185 strings in all, costing 100 thalers a year to keep in order. With this powerful chromatic instrument, demanding herculean force to play, Hebenstreit travelled to Paris in 1705, where Louis XIV baptised it with his name, Pantaleon. Kühnau (in Mattheson's 'Critica Musica,' Dec. 8, 1717) praises the instrument and its prerogative over harpsichords and clavichords in the properties it possessed of piano and forte. It was this, according to Schroter's account, that led him to ponder over a keyed instrument to do the like, and to his notion of a pianoforte. [See Cembalo, Harpsichord, Pianoforte, Psaltery, Schroeter.]

[ A. J. H. ]

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