A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Lyre

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LYRE (λυρα), an ancient musical instrument, in use among the Greeks, and undoubtedly derived by them from Asia. It consisted of a hollow body or sound-chest, from which were raised two arms, sometimes also hollow, which were curved both outward and forward. These arms were connected near the top by a crossbar or yoke. Another crossbar was on the soundchest, and formed a bridge to convey the vibrations of the strings to it. The strings—at different times four, seven, or ten in number—were made of gut, and were stretched between the yoke and the bridge, or carried on to a tail-piece below the bridge. The lyre differs from the harp in having fewer strings, and from the lute or guitar in having no fingerboard. It was played by being struck with the plectrum, which was held in the right hand, but the fingers of the left hand were also used to touch the strings. The larger lyres (Cithara) were supported by a ribbon slung across the player's shoulders, or held as shewn in the illustration, but the treble lyre (or Chelys) was held by the left arm or between the knees. The illustration is taken from 'a drawing upon an amphora (B.C. 440–330) in the first vase room British Museum, Case 53, No. 744.
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The portion engraved represents Apollo holding a Cithara or large lyre as rarely shown in detail in Greek art. With his left hand he at once supports the instrument and stops the strings. The plectrum would be held in the right hand and be guided by the thumb, the fingers closing over it.


The modern Greek 'lyra' is a kind of rebec, a bowed instrument with three strings, having no connection with the ancient lyre or cithara, the link between the latter and modern stringed instruments being supplied by the Psaltery, in use in the Byzantine epoch, from which was developed the clavecin, and ultimately the pianoforte. But in the 14th century there were several bowed instruments known in Europe as lyres, and also the Hurdy Gurdy, the lyra mendicorum. In Italy, in the last century, there was a bowed lyra bearing a similar relation to the viol that the well-known theorbo did to the lute—namely, that from a second and higher neck, bass strings were hung that were not in contact with the fingerboard. Three varieties have been distinguished—Lyra di braccio, Lyra di gamba, and Archiviole di lyra. It would be for one of these, a favourite instrument with Ferdinand IV. King of Naples, that Haydn wrote twelve pieces. [See vol. i. 709, 720.] The museums, at home or abroad, known to the writer, have no specimens of this bijuga viol; the cut is taken from the Archiviole di lyra in 'Recueil de Planches de l'Encyclopédie,' tome iii. (Paris, 1784).

[ A. J. H. ]