CHAPTER 3: History to 1800 > Early Renaissance - 15th century

Summary - 1 of 2

fig. 36: Distribution of dulcimer sources
- the first 50 years, 1440-1490

There are really too few examples for us to think that any generalisations we make could be universally valid.

Nevertheless, it is particularly interesting that divided strings and hammers should go hand-in-hand; no psaltery with divided strings was discovered during this study, while dulcimers without divided strings are extraordinarily rare after 1500, but in the majority before then.

One interpretation of this is that the idea of hammering psaltery strings spread fairly quickly through Europe, and that opinion remained divided, between the conservatives, for whom the old instruments could perfectly well handle the new striking techniclues, and the progressives, who felt that a new structure was nedded to accomodate the new hammers.

On the other, it must be considered a possibility that the correlation between divided strings and hammered strings is pure coincidence, that the struck technique became more popular than the plucked in the 15th century as music developed in complexity and left the psaltery behind; and that it just happened to be at the same time that there was felt the need for more notes per unit area of the chopping-board.

Another result of dividing the strings should not be forgotten, that as one note is sounded, so sympathetic vibrations are set up on the other side of the bridge. This phenomenon is nowadays considered a minor by-product of the instrument's basic structure, but it is conceivable that it was of greater significance in an earlier age when the harmonic structure was still much more firmly based on fifths than it is today: in a later era, even individual courses were tuned to sound in fifths (Mersenne 1636).

Whatever the reasons behind the changes, the two main types of dulcimer, bridged and unbridged, existed side-by-side for half-a-century, until after 1500 the bridged version became quite standard; bridgeless instruments were then quite unknown apart from the occasional and rather anachronistic use of instruments like the plucked 'shepherd's harp' described by Galpin (13) and mentioned below.

From a tabulation of the sources, some characteristics of early Renaissance dulcimers are shown quite clearly:

  1. no representation shows multiple courses;
  2. there are examples of every number of strings between 3 and 16 (except 10 and 14), 60% having between 6 and 9;
  3. tuning pins were inserted in the side (90%), except for 'pig's head' forms, all of which had pins in the top, and possibly some oblong instruments;
  4. the dulcimer was usually shown on the player's lap (70%) occasionally on a table.

Of the pictorial representations, 15 were symbolic (11 angels, 4 people), while 15 sources indicated secular use (6 illustrations, 9 written sources).

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