CHAPTER 3: History to 1800

3.5 The Baroque, Rococo and Classical Periods 1600-1800

3.5.1 The west

1.2. Higher cultures in the 17th & 18th centuries: Romance language-area

Documentary evidence: 2 of 14


Very much more informative is the account of the psalterion in the Harmonie Universelle (1636 etc) of Father Marin Mersenne - scientist, mathematician and physicist; indeed so comprehensive is his treatment that having quoted him in full there sometimes seems very little left to be said about the instrument. His work is chiefly concerned with construction, and includes detailed tables of string gauges, both wire and gut, discussion of the precise thickness of a good soundboard and so on; yet he devotes some 1,000 words to the psalterion, quite the most of anyone until recent times, covering bridging, stringing, tuning, temperament, playing techniques and repertoire, including a little of what he saw as its history. He even mentions a current controversy - apparently still not settled today about the nebel of the Scriptures. He writes very enthusiastically about its many advantages, in a manner surprisingly reminiscent of late-Victorian advertising slogans, after saying that the instrument is ideal for those with little time to spend, yet capable of much pleasure when diligently perfected; he concludes with a little aside, apparently aimed at his detractors. The summary headings are mine, added for ease of reference since the various aspects are not structured, but are, rather, "cheek by jowl".

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Third Book -
Proposition XXV.

To explain the shape, tuning, range, Tablature and use of the Psalterion
The Holy Scriptures often speak of this instrument, which the Hebrews call nebel but we know neither the shape of it, nor the number of strings; for although the Decachorde precedes the Psalterion and appears to serve as an epithet for it, nevertheless, there are those who believe that these are two different instruments.
However that may be, this figure represents that which is used now, on which are put thirteen sets of strings, of which each has two strings at the unison or at the Octave, to which one could add others at the fifth, and: at the fifteenth to augment the harmony.
Its triangular shape GHKC shows a truncated triangle, which can be made equilateral, or isosceles, or in whatever other way you like.
The ascending numbers signify the 13 sets of strings, of which there are 26.
Their tuning is shown by the letters of the Gamme (scale), which are on the right, of which the first signifies G re sol which is a fourth lower than the second letter C, since the second G re sol has its low octave. But the other letters which follow by step, and show the sounds and intervals of each string, as may be seen in the following table, which shows the justesse (intonation) of all the notes, and intervals, consonant as well as dissonant.
The two sides of the Psalterio E G, & K D show wooden triangles, which function as bridges for the strings, except the last C G, which has a separate bridge marked by the letter B.
Now this string acts as a bourdon [presumably an extra-low bass-note, rather than a drone], and is attached to one of the iron

pins (pointes) which are all along the side K C, like the other strings, and on the other side (attached) to the [tuning] pins (chevilles),

which are like those of Epinettes and which serve to draw the strings tight with the hammer α β δ which is done by turning βδ when the pin has been put in the square hole α. From this it may be concluded that this hammer is related to the windlass or capstain, or one of the other machines I have dealt with under 'mechanics'. Now this hammer may be of iron, or of brass, or such other material as may be preferred.
tuning hammer
The top of its handle, namely γ , is used to twist the strings, and to make the loops or rings which are attached to the hitch-pins.
hitching loops
M & L show the instrument's two roses, although one of the two could suffice:
but it should be pointed out that the method of playing this instrument is different from that of others, in as much as the bâton εζ is used, held in the right hand by the handle or finger-grip ε to hit the strings with the curved end ζ,
which is dropped gently on to the strings, so that it makes little jumps, which to a certain extent take the place of the tremolos of other instruments:
thus the Psalterion may be placed with the instruments of percussion,
even though the strings may also be played with the quill or the fingers, like the Harpe, Mandore & Cistre.
quill, fingers
Letter P shows the depth, or thickness of the Psalterion which may be given a span of five or six pieds (feet), as is done with those of the largest Clauecins although they are given only one pied length on each side or edge, so that they are portable.
The little irons N 0, which have three holes, and which are made in the shape of a lily, fasten the lid which closes the Psalterion
which has this advantage over other instruments, that the playing of it may be learnt in the space of an hour or two, for which reason it is valued by those who have not the advantage of time to devote to this exercise.
ease of learning
Now the first strings are of brass, and the others of steel, having a certain pointe, and gayetie which is not found in other instruments, as much because of the little jumps and bounces of the bâton as the shortness and tension of the strings, which are capable of all sorts of songs, provided all the necessary strings are set; for although that illustrated is tuned with b mol (b♭), it is very easy to tune with ♮quarre ('square b', 'b♮');
if the player wishes to play two or more parts together on this instrument, he may have two bâtons or pluck one, two or more parts with the left hand, while the right hand hits the strings with the bâton.
As to its manufacture and materials it is no different from that of the Épinette of which more later.
But the Psalterion may be made double or triple, by means of three or more crossing (transverse) bridges,
double, triple; bridges
so as to play the three genres of music on a single instrument, it may also be used for teaching singing and for just intonation. Now it may be played with such industry and dexterity, that it gives no less pleasure than other instruments.
As to the Tablature, it may be shown by musical notes, or by the letters of the Harmonic hand, A, B, C, &c., or by the numbers used by some people in singing, one, two, three, four, five &c. in place of ut, re, mi, fa, sol, &c., so that the first thirteen numbers may be used for all the songs playable on the instrument: for provided the pitch of each string is known, the unity will serve for the lowest, the binary for the second, the ternary for the third, & the others similarly up to the thirteenth which indicates the highest note.
Certainly the harmony of this Psalterion is most agreeable, because of the clear and silvery notes produced by the steel strings: & I have not the slightest doubt that one would receive as much contentment or more as from the Épinette or from the Harpe if one met someone who played with as much industry as the Clauecin is played.
agreeable nature
Be that as it may, one may receive pleasure from this instrument cheaply and very conveniently, since it may be had with all its science for a crown (escu),
and which may be carried in a pocket.
Now there are those who place a division from top to bottom, in the middle or wherever else in the strings they wish, so as to have two Psalterions in one, and to play Duos on it,
two-in-one; duos
& it may be strung using all the metals of which I spoke in the 19th Proposition of this book, to experiment as to how the tone of one set is more harmonieux than that of the others. It may also be strung with gut or silk, like other instruments. Now having spoken of instruments plucked with the fingers, and those having keyboards, I must explain everything concerning those which are played with a bow, which we will do in the following book. For as to the Harpe, & to the Psalterion of the Royal Prophet, & all the other instruments mentioned in the Holy Scriptures, the most learned Rabbis confess that they cannot know their real shapes, nor how they were played:

& I did not undertake this treatise to fill it up with conjectures, or to devine (102), but to show what exists, & that which cannot be denied by those who do not renounce sense, experience and reason'.

(tr. DK).

to show what exists


Almost every paragraph warrants comment, but we will limit ourselves chiefly to those points which Mersnne was the first to mention. The first remarkable point is about tuning each course in fifths or fifteenths: it is not clear that such tunings were actually used, since Mersenne says "on en pourroit adiouter d'autres", 'others could be added', implying a prescription rather than a description; the author has tuned a dulcimer thus and the effect is certainly very striking, much as a mixture stop on an organ, but rather more powerful - an analogy with a hurdy-gurdy tuned in fifths might be more appropriate - and certainly the thought of trying to blend in ensemble with such sounds is daunting.

Mersenne's description and illustration of the little bass bridge on the left-hand side is the earliest to which an indisputable date can be ascribed, other examples being on surviving instruments: but one of the most amazing points is the extent to which Mersenne describes tiny detail, even to the little hook on the top of the tuning key, used to make the loop for the hitching end of the string. The little jumps which the hammer makes are not elsewhere so described, yet they fit exactly the styles of several living traditions, notably those of Scotland and America, in which tremolo, short or long, is a characteristic. Hebenstreit, discussed below, is usually given the credit for having been the first to enlarge the dulcimer above its normal size of three feet or so, but Mersenne already speaks of psalterions having strings as long as those of the largest harpsichords: no examples, illustrations, or even other descriptions of such instruments have survived, but even if they were exceptional, it appears that they had been tried. The use of steel strings for the treble notes and brass for the basses is first mentioned here, and is still preferred by many players when brass is available, particularly in East Anglia, and in Persia.

Mersenne's remarks on the use of the hammers are particularly interesting: he seems to assume that a single melodic line requires only a single hammer and that two hammers only become necessary when two parts in harmony are to be played - nowadays a pair of hammers is alternated for fluency. The idea of playing chords with one hand - very seldom used nowadays - was mentioned by Cellier in 1585, but the notion of combining one hand plucked with one hand struck seems to have been Mersenne's own: certainly it is never heard again, until rather recently, for Billy Bennington of Barford, Norfolk, uses the technique to simulate a mandolin (plucked) accompanied by a piano (hit).


The instrument portrayed in the figure has been described in recent times as bridgeless, but from the later reference to extra bridges across the body, it seems that Mersenne was simplifying his drawing for the sake of understanding, and that in reality the treble bridge did divide the strings as normal: only if this were the case, would the cut-out portions in the treble bridge be needed and would the little single bass bridge B need to be separated from the treble bridge; although this lowest string could sound a fourth below its neighbour because of greater mass or tension, it seems on balance more likely to be because of increased length. Nevertheless, the fact of the bass bridge being solid cannot be explained away, except by omission or because it was not thought necessary to give every detail: if the two bridges shown were treble and bass, then the treble strings would normally pass through the bass bridge and it would need cut-outs similar to those of the treble bridge; to put it another way, there is no bridging system which combines a solid bass bridge and a treble bridge with cut-outs. Such a system would produce planes as in fig. 74 and since the bass strings are not accessible, provides no more notes for a given size of instrument than does a single treble bridge.

fig. 74: showing how bass strings would be inaccessible if the treble strings may not pass through the bass bridge; and how such a system would porduce no more notes than a single treble bridge

Another innovation attributed to Hebenstreit was the introduction of gut strings, but Mersenne describes both these and silk strings, although he gives no indication of the currency of such.

The last point is a little puzzling, about the instrument fitting into a poche: Kastner (1852) apparently assumed Mersenne to have meant pocket, for he concluded that the instrument must have been rather small, but it is just possible that the Father was referring to some kind of pouch. Attempts to consult a costume expert have yet to prove fruitful.