Origins and History of The DulcimerThe dulcimer is a member of the string family. It is further categorized intothe Psaltrey family, a group of instruments that are comprised of stringsstretched across a frame and played by plucking or drumming. The onlydifference, in fact, between the dulcimer and the psaltrey is the fact that oneis plucked and the other is drummed.
The dulcimer family is divided into twosections. The dulcimers with keys and dulcimers without keys. A dulcimer withkeys would be played by depressing a key which would move a mechanism that wouldcause a hammer to strike the string. The most improved instrument in the keyeddulcimer section is the piano.
Dulcimers that are played without the aid of akey are usually in the unusual shape of a trapezoid. Early descriptions of thisinstrument, dating back to the Middle Ages, describe the instrument as arectangular box with strings stretched over two bridges. Both the single and thedouble bridged dulcimers are common in traditional Irish music. It is played bystriking the strings with padded wooden hammer.It is commonly believed that the dulcimer came to Europe from the East sometimein the fifteenth century.
This cannot be true. The dulcimer is closely relatedto the yang ch’in from China. However, the yang ch’in was introduced to theChinese around 1800. A similar traditional dulcimer found its way to Korea inabout 1725. The dulcimer originated as the santir in what is now Iraq from aGreek instrument, the psalterion. The santir was a trapeziodal box covered withstrings. It was played by striking the strings with light sticks.
From therethe Arabs carried the santir through North Africa where it was integrated intothe Jewish culture. From North Africa it was taken to Spain, for a carving wasdiscovered in the cathedral Santiago de Compostela, dated 1184. It is unknownwhy the Irish make mention of the timpan, a generic term for any member of thepsaltrey family, being used by St. Patrick in the 6th century, six hundred yearsearlier than the dulcimers first introduction into Spain from North Africa.Dulcimers gained popularity from the churches and cathedrals throughout the 14thcentury. But in the 16th century, as the violin and wind instruments becameincreasingly fashionable, the dulcimer virtually disappeared. For the next twohundred years it went unnoticed.
In 1705 Pantaleon Hebenstreit presented theFrench King Louis XIV with a slightly revised dulcimer. Hebenstreit built alarger sound chamber and used strings of gut and wire to span five octaves. Hehoped to revolutionize the dulcimer and its capacities. Sadly, the instrumentwas not highly accepted, for the reverberation created in the larger soundchamber made the performance of rapid passages impossible, and the longerstrings were harder to keep in tune.
Again the dulcimer lay dormant.Although the dulcimer escaped the Western orchestral music, it was acceptedamongst the folk musicians of places like Ireland. It has really only gainedpopularity in the past fifteen years, although it has been a member of someIrish ensembles throughout history.Music and Movies