“Dulcimer” is derived from the Latin “dulce melos” (“gentle sound”). Historically, in modern knowledge of instruments, this name has become common for a number of other instruments used by musical cultures of many nations (in the regional music world, the term “dulcimer” is most popular in Great Britain, Ireland, USA and New Zealand, partly in France and Spain).
Regional groups of the instrument names originated from the Greek “kimbalom”, which led to the “cimbalom” in Eastern Europe, and the Greek “tympanon”, which spread to Western Europe. The “cimbalom” has changed into “tambal” (Romania), “zambal” (Moldavia), “cymbal” (Hungary), “цимбалы” (Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine), “cymbolai” (Lithuania), “cymbole” (Latvia). The “tympanon” has become “tympanon” (France), “timpanon” (Spain), “timpano” (Italy; the term “salterio tedesco” – “German psalteryum” is also used).
The Persian name of dulcimer “santur” (“santari”, “santir”, “santuri”, “suntur”), derived from the Greek “psallo” (pluck the strings), is assumed to denote a modification of an instrument found in Egypt, Greece, India, Iraq, Iran, Slovenia, Turkey. “Santur” (Armenia) and “Santuri”, “Zincila” (Georgia) also trace their lineage to this.
The Chinese term “yangqin” (“alien stringed instrument”) is borrowed from Sanskrit and is generally accepted in the East. “Janggum” (Korea), “jan kin” (Japan), “jengjing” (Central Asia), “joochin” (Buryatia, Mongolia), “kim” (Thailand) the Chinese term originated from.
In Germany, the dulcimer goes by a bright, distinctive name – “Hackbrett” (“cutting board”). It varies with a country: in Austria – “Brettl”, in Sweden – “Hackbrad”, “Hackbrade”, in Switzerland – “Hachbratt”, “Hachbrattli”, in Denmark – “Harrtbrett”.
There are also quite narrow-regional names of the dulcimer. In Hong Kong, for example, it sounds like a “butterfly harp”, in Tibet — “many strings” (“jyn-mang” — “multi-stringed instrument”), in the USA (Michigan) — “whamdiddle”, “lumberjacks piano” (“a bulky box for musical gadgets’), in Sweden — “hammarharpa” (“hammer harp”) and, finally, “Pantaleon” (on behalf of the inventor of one of the modifications of the instrument – Pantaleon Hebenstraite, see below). We also rank the name “chang” (in Persian — “hold”, “snap”) as a group of narrow-regional names.
In addition, in medieval Western Europe, dulcimer was often also called a “psaltery”, a name that was, however, attached to a related though plucked instrument. Sources of those times were full of facts of confusing these terms, which indicates the presence of mixed methods of playing: the hammer was occasionally used to play psaltery, and the pinch was used to play dulcimer.
Thus, the above terminology does not allow establishing the exact place of origin of the dulcimer. However, this does not mean that the instruments so named do not have their own lengthy national history of existence.
One of the oldest known images of the instrument, which is unconditionally accepted as an image of a dulcimer and dated from the 12th century, is an ivory-carved image on the cover of a book made in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Sources indicate that the instrument existed already in the middle of the 14th century in the territory extending between France and Poland, England and Italy. In this respect, images of the mid-14th-15th centuries are known. It is also assumed that the dulcimer came to Western Europe from Byzantium in the 15th century, evidenced by the images of the instrument, dating from the middle of the 15th century, which have survived. From another perspective, dulcimer could appear in Western Europe from the Middle East through Spain. It is not unlikely that it was brought there by Slavs and Hungarian Gypsies. The history of the appearance of dulcimer in China and neighboring countries is rather curious. According to Chinese sources, the instrument was introduced to China during the time of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Korean sources indicate that the instrument from China was brought to Korea around 1725, and then from Korea to Japan. It should be noted that, according to more ancient Chinese sources (around 145–86 BC), a stringed percussion instrument called “Zhu” existed in China already BC and later, at least during the first nine centuries CE.
A number of the instruments that have survived, references to them and their images refer to the 17th century. They come from England, Bohemia, Hungary, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Poland, Flanders, France, Switzerland, Sweden and some other countries. The greatest number of surviving instruments and relevant data about them suggest the 18th–20th centuries – the time when the instrument gained the greatest popularity in a number of countries.
In general terms, and to a certain degree supposedly, the map of the areas of existence and migration routes of the dulcimer with its regional varieties — actually dulcimer, hakbrett, santoor, cymbals and yanqin — can be represented as follows. Four areas of existence of instruments and four branches of their migrations can be distinguished, namely: 1) the Western European area of existence of dulchimer and hakbrett and the ways of their migration from Western Europe; 2) the south-east (mainly, Turkish) area and migration routes from this region; 3) the Eastern European area and migration routes from Eastern Europe; 4) East Asian area and migration routes from there.
1. The epicenter of the existence of dulcimer as such is the territory of north-eastern France, Germany and Switzerland. From here, the instrument has advanced to the north-west: to England, Ireland, the USA, New Zealand, and to the south-west, i. e. to Spain, Mexico, and the Canary Islands. It is to be recalled that in France and Spain dulcimer existed also under the names “tympanon” and “timpanon”. Having experienced Turkish influence, hakbrett, considered to be originally German (to be more exact, an instrument of German-speaking countries), “paid a dept”, firstly, to Turkey, and also left imprint in Syria; migrated to the north, namely to Denmark, Sweden and Norway; influenced the development of the corresponding instrument making branch in Eastern Europe: in Hungary (through Austria), Romania, Czechia, and Poland. It is from Hungary that the second wave of migration began, crossing the first one in Czechia, Poland, and making the finish in Lithuania and Latvia; the same wave has reached the borders of the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
2. The path of the dulcimer (santoor) from Turkey can be traced far to the north-west – through the territories of Bulgaria, partly Albania and Greece, Yugoslavia, Austria, to Germany. From Turkey, the santoor migrates to the Caucasus, viz. to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan; to the south: Syria, Israel, and Egypt; to the south-east — through Syria to Iraq, Iran, India, and through Iran and Afghanistan to Pakistan.
3. The slight trace of late migration of dulcimer (cymbalo) from Eastern Europe can be observed in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
4. Dulcimer (yangqin) came to China, then in Korea and Japan from Persia. Seamlessly blending into the culture of China, it migrated from there to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Mongolia and Buryatia; westward — to the regions of Tibet; to the south-west — to India and Bangladesh; southward to Burma, Thailand, Kampuchea, the Vietnam and Philippines. Thus, it becomes obvious that dulcimer falls into the category of instruments that were very widely spread and made their mark on the musical cultures of many countries.
If touching upon the issues of the development of its design to the level of a concert instrument, at least two episodes should be pointed out. Around 1697, the German virtuoso of playing dulcimer Pantaleon Hebenstreit (1667-1750) invented wing-shaped instrument about 3 meters long, equipped with 185 2-stringed choirs and 2 resonant decks. The instrument possessed artistic and expressive possibilities, which were phenomenal for that time. In 1705, in Paris, listening to Hebenstreit playing dulcimer, Louis XIV was so delighted that ordered the instrument to be called the name of a musician — “pantaleon”. Hebenstreit and his students’ playing pantaleon was a success in Europe until 1789. It is believed that the pantaleon had a significant stimulating effect on the evolution of the piano, to the point that the early pianos of the simplest design were called “pantalons” (see below).
The second episode in the history of the dulcimer is associated with the name of J. Schunda (1818–1893) — a Hungarian master of musical instruments of Czech origin. In 1874, he managed to design and launch a stationary concert cimbalom. The instrument is mounted on 4 legs, equipped with a damper mechanism regulated by a pedal. Given the migratory paths of the cimbalom, it can be assumed that the Schunda’s instrument had a significant influence on the evolution of cymbalo and the traditions of its performance in the Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia. No wonder that in the middle of the 20th century in those countries — then the republics of the USSR — families of orchestral cymbalo were created, and learning to play them and performing practice were raised to a professional level. A bright example of this movement is the Ukrainian cymbalo of the system created by A. D. Nezovibatʼko.
As for the Russian cymbalo, written sources evidence it was no later than the beginning of the 17th century that the instrument and the performers emerged in Russia. Thus, the facts of salary payment to the Moscow “cymbalo makers” are known: Tomila Mikhailov’s son Besov (1613, 1615), Melentiy Stepanov (1625–1631), Andrey Andreyev (1630). In 1646, there lived a “landless peasant Ignashko Ivanov, a cymbalo maker” in Vologda. “Malorossijskaya” customs book for 1693–1694 records the fact of the presentation of “5 бунтов дроту цынбального” [5 bundles of cymbalo wire, i. e., cymbalo strings]” by a Voronezh citizen Moses Alexeyev (who brought the goods from Voronezh through Sevsk to Moscow). However, it is impossible to disregard the fact that at that time the harpsichord was also called “cymbalo”. For example, in 1675, in Moscow, the “organist Simon Gutovskiy” was issued “crow feather for the repair of cymbalo”.
Judging from the images dated the 14th and 15th centuries, the body of dulcimers could be a beam-shaped (monochord-shaped), equipped with 1 to 3 strings. It is unlikely that they were popular, although they existed until the 16th century. At the same time, the design features of later dulcimers existing in the abovementioned countries and their appearance are very much alike, and allow for the following extremely generalized description.
The trapezoid body is composite. The lateral side bars are made of solid hardwood trees. The left side bar also serves as a pin holder — metal pins are hammered in for hanging the strings, and the right one — as a wrest-pin block, with metal pegs hammered in (in the past, the heads of pegs were forged in the shape of a dovetail, in modern times — modifications of piano pegs are used). The dulcimer can be adjusted by rotating the pegs. The deck, the lower and upper side bars, and often the bottom, are made of coniferous wood. In the deck, round resonator holes of various diameters are cut, sometimes with “stars” — roses decks, either inserted or cut directly into the wood of the deck. To protect the deck and the bottom from warp (the strained strings act vigorously on the twisting of the body), the barring and, quite often, the sound post (sound posts) are mounted. An important acoustic part is played by flat mobile stands. They are two wooden perforated plates, which are set with an edge on the deck almost parallel to the left and right side bars. Their tops, which are the surfaces of contact with the strings — are laid with a metal bar. The 2–5-string choirs are divided into 2 alternating groups: one choir, designed to produce a single sound, is thrown through the left stand and then passed through the hole in the right stand; the next choir, on the contrary, is passed through a hole in the left stand and is thrown over the right one — it divides the stand into 2:3 parts and is devised to produce two sounds in the quint ratio, etc. Sometimes individual mobile stands can be installed to adjust individual strings. Body surfaces are tinted and decorated with profiled moldings. Dulcimer produces sound by striking the strings with a pair of wooden or bamboo hammers. Often, one side of their hitting parts is covered with leather. This makes it possible to “play timbres”: ringing, mixed with a multitude of high overtones, when the strings are struck with the open surface; and soft, muffled, when struck by the surface, covered with leather. During playing, the dulcimer is placed on the knees, on a table, or a purpose table support. Stationary concert instruments are mounted on legs. For playing while standing and on the move, the instrument is equipped with a throw-over belt.
Dulcimers for watches hold a special place. They produce sound due to hammers as well, but at the expense of ingenious starting and music-reading mechanisms. The traditions of making such dulcimers go back centuries. For example, in 1675, “Peter Vysotskiy, a watchmaker” repaired “watches with the organs for cymbalo players”. Among the mechanical dulcimers, the signal ones were also common, with the bodies made in a variety of forms and decorated in many ways. Their strings were tuned for any chord, supplied with hammers on the threads and hung on the door, as the bells are still being hung for the similar purpose.
The museum collection of dulcimers has 25 instruments. The earliest of them dates from 1628 (1678?), the latest one — from 2017. The collection presents traditional dulcimers of the 17th and 19th centuries, made in Western Europe, cymbalos from Eastern Europe, Hungary (cimbalom), Latvia (cymbole) of 19th – 20th centuries.
Iranian santoors of the 18th — 19th centuries and Chinese yangqin of 19th – 20th centuries make it possible to see firsthand the difference between eastern and western traditions of design, manufacture and decoration of dulcimers.
Dulcimers for watches of the 17th to 19th centuries, which entered the museum without clock, starting or reading mechanisms, provide us with a convenient (paradoxically!) opportunity to study the principles of their design.
The wooden body of the dulcimer of the 18th century calls attention to itself thanks to its excellent (in the sense of authenticity) preservation. The picturesque scene of learning to dance (the inner surface of the lid depicts a dance master and his young girl student) may do an honor to the pages of any scientific or art paper about the dance art of early times. As I recall it, “In the city of Vyborg, a dance master is wanted for both the nobility and the children studying at the National School, who will be given firewood, an apartment, a table and a carriage in addition to the salary, and the number of students will reach 50 people” (“Vedomosti”. September 26, 1794/ No. 77).