Origins and History of The Dulcimer


The dulcimer is a member of the string family. It is further categorized into
the Psaltrey family, a group of instruments that are comprised of strings
stretched across a frame and played by plucking or drumming. The only
difference, in fact, between the dulcimer and the psaltrey is the fact that one
is plucked and the other is drummed. The dulcimer family is divided into two
sections. The dulcimers with keys and dulcimers without keys. A dulcimer with
keys would be played by depressing a key which would move a mechanism that would
cause a hammer to strike the string. The most improved instrument in the keyed
dulcimer section is the piano. Dulcimers that are played without the aid of a
key are usually in the unusual shape of a trapezoid. Early descriptions of this
instrument, dating back to the Middle Ages, describe the instrument as a
rectangular box with strings stretched over two bridges. Both the single and the
double bridged dulcimers are common in traditional Irish music. It is played by
striking the strings with padded wooden hammer.

It is commonly believed that the dulcimer came to Europe from the East sometime
in the fifteenth century. This cannot be true. The dulcimer is closely related
to the yang ch\'in from China. However, the yang ch\'in was introduced to the
Chinese around 1800. A similar traditional dulcimer found its way to Korea in
about 1725. The dulcimer originated as the santir in what is now Iraq from a
Greek instrument, the psalterion. The santir was a trapeziodal box covered with
strings. It was played by striking the strings with light sticks. From there
the Arabs carried the santir through North Africa where it was integrated into
the Jewish culture. From North Africa it was taken to Spain, for a carving was
discovered in the cathedral Santiago de Compostela, dated 1184. It is unknown
why the Irish make mention of the timpan, a generic term for any member of the
psaltrey family, being used by St. Patrick in the 6th century, six hundred years
earlier than the dulcimers first introduction into Spain from North Africa.

Dulcimers gained popularity from the churches and cathedrals throughout the 14th
century. But in the 16th century, as the violin and wind instruments became
increasingly fashionable, the dulcimer virtually disappeared. For the next two
hundred years it went unnoticed. In 1705 Pantaleon Hebenstreit presented the
French King Louis XIV with a slightly revised dulcimer. Hebenstreit built a
larger sound chamber and used strings of gut and wire to span five octaves. He
hoped to revolutionize the dulcimer and its capacities. Sadly, the instrument
was not highly accepted, for the reverberation created in the larger sound
chamber made the performance of rapid passages impossible, and the longer
strings were harder to keep in tune. Again the dulcimer lay dormant.

Although the dulcimer escaped the Western orchestral music, it was accepted
amongst the folk musicians of places like Ireland. It has really only gained
popularity in the past fifteen years, although it has been a member of some
Irish ensembles throughout history.

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