CHAPTER 4: Dulcimers in the British Isles since 1800 > Dulcimers in the later 20th century

The dulcimer in art music

Six of the players in this group are involved in the world of early music, and for all of them it is only a subsidiary interest. Michael and Doreen Muskett feature a programme entitled "Drums, Drones and Dulcimers", but one might be forgiven for considering their use of the word more poetic than musical, for although they use two instruments which might be generically termed dulcimers, both are from other cultures and so have their own local names: a Romanian tsambal and a French épinette; I have so far been unable to hear the programme, but Michael Muskett implied that the full potential of the tsambal had yet to be realised: 'I use it in a fairly simple way to give drones and light accompaniment" (41).

Peter Holman of Ars Nova has two English dulcimers which he is hoping to use, in the fullness of time, in performance; one of these is particularly interesting, having its chessmen bridges placed at the ratio of 1:2, dividing the treble strings at the octave: the support bridge under the soundboard confirms that this is the position originally intended. Such an arrangement is common in Persia, and is sometimes used in America, but very rare otherwise.

Roy Touchin bought the Lancashire instrument in fig. 154 with the same intention, and when I last heard, his ambitions had similarly yet to be realised.

Michael Hesseltine, who works at Sotheby's, has one dulcimer, and envisages building up a consort of treble, alto, tenor and bass.

David Munrow's much publicised LP, Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, features just one track with dulcimer, a 14th century Italian song, played by a non-specialist using a Chinese yang ch'in: the incongruities here are, firstly, that the earliest positive evidence of a European dulcimer dates from no earlier than 1440; and secondly, that apparently no-one has challenged the assertion that Chinese dulcimers date from about 1800, and the example illustrated in the accompanying book (42) displays the technical complexities and heavy varnish which characterise instruments made in the last few decades.

A similar instrument is in use in the current production (July 1976) of A Winter's Tale, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford (they are readily available from Raymond Mann in London), but here, of course, there is not the pretence of authenticity which makes Munrow's treatment so misleading: instead, the instrument is camouflaged with outrageous - but wholly convincing - showmanship, using runic symbols. Michael Tubbs, the Company's deputy Music Director, provides an entertaining account of the background - and incidentally, displays an unusual grasp of the nature of the instrument.

"Shakespeare sets the play in what he calls 'Sicilia' for the earlier and later scenes, with a middle section in 'Bohemia'. The director, John Barton, having suggested that he would like to move the action in the direction of Mongolia, settled, by the time rehearsals began, somewhere between Lapland and Greece. He intended that, within these wide limits, all specific references should be blurred and intermingled ...

"One of the actors, Bob Peck, playing Camillo, a Sicilian Lord, had some ability to play a guitar. The director decided that he could use this talent.... By suggesting the Dulcimer, as an instrument which an intelligent novice could learn sufficiently in the available time, I was able to (avoid) the inappropriate guitar. The Dulcimer seemed right for the context: it has a 'universal' quality but still belongs, for us, to another world; it is a folk instrument which also exists in sophisticated forms; it is as much mediaeval as modern ..." (43) (see fig. 169).

Although John Leach's activities focus on the concert cimbalom, he does occasionally play a smaller dulcimer, and one Purcell Room concert included a suite of Irish airs and dances played with Derek Bell on the harp; he also played on two tracks of Musica Reservata's LP, Music from the Time of Bocaccio's Decameron (14th century Italy, the period also selected by Munrow), one accompanying a singer in a two-part song, the other in a finale with the whole ensemble; in both cases he limits himself to playing single lines, presumably by analogy with mediaeval lute-playing.

Colin Dipper restored to playing condition an 18th century dulcimer for a lady in Jersey, but it is not known whether or not she plays it, since he was unwilling to give her name.

The author's own use of the instrument in renaissance and baroque music is discussed a little later.