A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Psaltery

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PSALTERY (ψαλτήριον; Old English Sautry; French Psalterion; Ital. Salterio; Ger. Psalter). A dulcimer, played with the fingers or a plectrum instead of by hammers. The French have adopted the Greek name without change. There exists a classic sculptured representation of the Muse Erato, holding a long ten-stringed lyre, with the name ΨΑΛΤΡΙΑΝ cut on its base. From this it has been inferred that the strings of this lyre were touched by the fingers without the usual plectrum of ivory or metal. Chaucer's 'sautrie' in the Miller's Tale[1] came direct from the East, perhaps imported by returning Crusaders, its kinship to the Persian and Arabic santir and kanun being unmistakable. The psaltery was the prototype of the spinet and harpsichord, particularly in the form which is described by Praetorius in his 'Organographia,' as the 'Istromento di porco,' so called from its likeness to a pig's head.

The illustration is drawn from a 15th-century painting by Filipino Lippi in the National Gallery, and represents a 'stromento di porco' strung vertically, a mode less usual than the horizontal stringing, but more like that of a harpsichord or grand piano. Notwithstanding the general use of keyed instruments in 1650 we read in the 'Musurgia' of Athanasius Kircher, that the psaltery played with a skilled hand stood second to no other instrument, and Mersenne, about the same date, praises its silvery tone in preference to that of any other, and its purity of intonation, so easily controlled by the fingers.

No 'Istromento di porco' being now known to exist, we have to look for its likeness in painted or sculptured representations. The earliest occurs in a 13th-century MS. in the library at Douai. It is there played without a plectrum. From the 14th century there remain frequent examples, notably at Florence, in the famous Organ Podium of Luca della Robbia, a cast of which is in the South Kensington Museum.

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But other forms were admired. Exactly like an Arabic kanun is a psaltery painted A.D. 1348 by that loving delineator of musical instruments, Orcagna, himself a musician, in his 'Trionfo della Morte,' at Pisa. The strings of the instrument are in groups of three, each group, as in a grand piano, being tuned in unison to make one note. Sometimes there were groups of four, a not unfrequent stringing in the Dulcimer. There is a good coloured lithograph of Orcagna's fresco in 'Les Arts au Moyen Age,' by Paul Lacroix (Paris, 1874, p. 282); it is there called 'Le songe de la Vie.' A fine representation of such a psaltery, strung in threes, by Orcagna, will be found in our National Gallery (Catalogue No. 569).

[ A. J. H. ]


  1. 'And all above ther lay a gay sautrie
    On which he made on nightes melodie,
    So swetely, that all the chambre rong,
    And Angelus ad virginem he song.'