CHAPTER 3: History to 1800

3.5 The Baroque, Rococo and Classical Periods 1600-1800

3.5.1 The west

1.3. The Middle Class in the 17th & 18th centuries: England and the Colonies- 5 of 7

passing references
Glasgow tuning-diagrams
Pepys' Diary
Mr. Pearson at Sadler's Wells
Grassineau's Musical Dictionary London 1740
dulcimers played & sold 1760s-1770s
instrument in York museum
four different spellings


One recalls as a student seeking out a variety of sources, in order to obtain a balanced view of some obscure topic, and on noticing a remarkable similarity between them, pondering, "I wonder who really did write the history of music?" The same feeling of déjà vu accompanies an examination of 17th and 18th-century writings about the dulcimer: we have already noted the similarities between the accounts of Kürzinger and Elsel in German, and Mersenne, Furetière, LaBorde and Diderot in French; and the entry under Psalterion in the Musical Dictionary of James Grassineau, gent., published in London in 1740 also has some familiar phrases. Psalterion might seem something of an odd name to warrant more than a cross-reference in an English work, but the puzzle is solved when we realise that Grassineau's entry is, apart from the final paragraph, a translation of that of Furetière of 1690 (which in turn drew much material from Mersenne):

"PSALTERION, Psaltery, a musical instrument much in use among the ancient Hebrews who called it nebel.
"We know little or nothing about the precise form of the ancient psaltery.
"That now in use is a flat instrument in form a trapezium, or triangle truncated a-top.
"It is strung with thirteen wire chords, set to union and octave, and mounted on two bridges, on the two sides: it is struck with a plectrum or a little iron rod, or sometimes with a crooked stick, whence it is usually ranked among the instruments of percussion.
"It's [sic] chest or body resembles that of spinet. It has its name à Psallendo some now call it Nablum or Nablium.
"Pappias gives the name of Psaltery to a kind of flute used in churches, to accompany the singing, in Latin called Sambucus".

Grassineau's retention of the French form cordes in the English 'chords' produces a rather quaint effect, since it does not on its own normally have the meaning of 'musical string' in English. The reference to a plectrum does not appear in Furetière (at least in the edition in the BL); it is possible that it was added to a later edition, or that it comes from Sebastian de Brossard, to whose work (175) Grassineau acknowledged his debt, or that Grassineau added it himself from his own observations: or that both Furetière and Grassineau took their entries from another source, not discovered in this study, which included the phrase and that Furetière omitted it. There is a similar puzzle in Diderot's use (1785) of Grassineau's last paragraph, for he also adds that the 'flute psalterion' used for church singing may also be an organ. Perhaps there is a Master Historian of the dulcimer who has yet to be discovered.

Grassineau's entry under 'D' for 'dulcimer' appears to be original in the main, but knowing how much borrowing there was, one hesitates before taking it as a description of a typical English instrument.

"DULCIMER, a musical instrument, with wire strings in a triangular form, strung with about fifty strings, cast over a bridge at each end, and the acuter gradually the shorter, the shortest about eighteen inches, and the longest about thirty-six; struck with little iron rods: the bass strings are doubled, and it's sound is not disagreeable; to be played on, 'tis laid on a table before the performer, who with the little iron rod in each hand, strikes the strings. This instrument is not much used except among puppet-shews."

The mention of the little iron rod is, of course, the same as that in the Psalterion entry, and is from Furetière: there is no other evidence until O'Curry (19thC.) that iron was used, although John Rae of Ulster uses light steel hammers today. The reference to the bass strings being doubled is a little ambiguous: it can scarcely imply that the treble strings were single, since with 50 strings that would give something in the order of 33 courses. It could conceivably mean that each string was of double length, taken round the hitch pin and attached to a wrest pin at either end; but there is little evidence that Grassineau was familiar with features as detailed as this, and the technique was otherwise not used until the 19th century; the most likely reading is that the bass courses were tuned in octaves, a point made by Mersenne and others, and borne out firstly, by Verschurere Reynvaan's engraving; secondly, by the overspun single bass strings, one per course, on the salterio in the Lady Lever Gallery.