CHAPTER 3: History to 1800 > Later Renaissance - 16th century


A major innovation, that of two bridges and strings crossing in two planes, is first seen about 1500, and is thereafter to be seen in 70% of instruments.

A single example of another major development is the 1514 instrument at Leipzig, having an extra single bass bridge (type 12.2): this did not become common until the following century, and causes one to wonder about the dating procedures used.

Of five examples of instruments without a bridge, only one is shown with realistic attention to detail, that of Cellier, 1585, although one might add Agricola's Psalterium; but if this type of bridging were actually used, it was certainly rather rare.

On all instruments except one the bridges were composed of long strips of wood running the whole length of the soundboard; the individual bridges of the Evora dulcimer seem to have been something of a freak.

Three examples - two museum instruments and Stimmer's engraving - show the use of wrest- and hitch-blocks which are an integral part of the body of the instrument (a feature considered by Norlind to be typical of the 18th century); but a box structure was certainly much more normal (Norlind's 'older type').

The holding of hammers between finger-and-thumb seems to have become a little more popular than in the 15th century, but two-thirds of players illustrated were still using the older grip, between two fingers: a few instruments were plucked.

About half the players held their instruments on their knees while the rest had placed it on a table; Holbein's was the first and only example of a neck-strap.

There were far fewer angel-representations in the 16th century; only four were discovered in this study - although these included the important Evora and Cornelisz van Oostzanen paintings - and there were four symbolic representations of human musicians.

Five illustrations showed tuning-pins in the top of the instrument, two showed them in the side, but of detailed descriptions and actual examples all but one had top pins: one wonders if the artists were depicting an older style which had passed out of use.

Most of the representations showed the new double courses - occasionally single courses in less detailed examples and one example of triple courses (Evora) - but surviving instruments have triple, quadruple or quintuple sets, causing one again to wonder whether the dating is reliable.

From iconographical evidence, a range of about an octave or an octave-and-a-half on either side of the treble bridge seems to have been normal, plus perhaps four or five notes from the bass courses: such stringing would give either one or two major keys and their diatonic modes.

The evidence about the place of the instrument in the social hierarchy is conflicting, as at all points in its history: the written evidence suggests that it was lightly regarded in many circles ('instrumentum ignobile', Carnival use, etc.), yet the illustrations show noble folk and angels quite at home with it as well.

Of thirty 16th-century items of evidence, only one is from an area where the dulcimer was not known in the 15th century - the missing Swedish instrument - so that the dulcimer apparently migrated little, if at all, during this time. Indeed the overall picture is one of changes of great significance at about the turn of the century, followed by a long period of stability.


1600-1800 -