CHAPTER 5: Dulcimers in other countries since 1800 > Eastern Europe


[2005: film från Budapest - here]

fig. 209: click

The tendency nowadays is to think of the Hungarian concert cimbalom as a completely different animal from the ordinary dulcimer; and that it was invented in a single stage in the early 1870s by one Schunda, of Budapest. As with so many of the things one learns at a general stage, this turns out not to be quite the case. It is apparent from the paintings reproduced in Manga's Hungarian Folk Song (39) that the Hungarian cimbalom was becoming progressively larger and deeper as the 19th century progressed, and such large instruments (without dampers or pedals) have continued to be played up to today: fig. 209, a post-card postmarked 1905, shows such a one being rested on a barrel, which allows for no pedal.

2010: Hungarian musicologist Robert Mandel writes of this card as "very unique. The lady is Blaha Lujza [Louisa Blaha, 'the Nation's Nightingale', 1850-1926], who was the most famous actress of the 19th century in Budapest. There is even a big square named after her. 'Piros bugyelláris', 'the Red Purse' is the name of the folk-opera."

It is clear from both the sound and the photograph that Cseke Janos is playing a similar instrument on the Expo Norr LP Musik från Ungern ('Music from Hungary') (40). It was presumably for such an instrument that Liszt wrote, in his three pieces, a Magyarok, Istene, Vihairndulo ('Ungarischer Sturmmarsch'), and in the third Orchestral Rhapsody (41) , and he is reported as having said that the gipsy Pinter Pal was a greater artist on his instrument than he was on his (42) .

Hartman also writes about orchestral use of the cimbalom in 1861, when it was introduced in the Budapest National Opera House in Franz Erkel's Opera, Bank Ban. Mosonyi, writing in the music paper of the day, Zenészeti Lapok, said:

fig. 211: click

The Composer has, in the second act, created a veritable orgy of sound, for here one may truly find everything. Artistic sincerity of expression, original and overwhelming musical ideas and tone-colours of rare power and effectiveness. The principal role was taken by the Czimbalom which, combined with the Viole d'Amour, the harp and the English horn, simply ravished the hearers and carried them to expressions of tumultuous applause (43)

Perhaps the illustration at fig.211 captures something of the atmosphere.

Josef Schunda, a cimbalom manufacturer, published a tutor in 1873-4, and in the latter year produced the first pedal cimbalom; this was six years after a patent was taken out in America for the idea, but it seems that none of the Americans actually got round to making such an instrument (41). The pedal cimbalom (pedálcimbalom), or large cimbalom (nagycimbalom) now had a number of characteristics: a chromatic compass, small bridges at the top to obtain short string lengths for the higher notes, dampers, legs, a large size, hammers covered with cotton, overspun bass strings, a range of some four octaves; and yet none of these were first introduced by Schunda. They were used earlier by, respectively, Battaglia (18th-century Milan), earlier 19th century Hackbretts, Low's patent, Durand's patents, earlier cimbaloms, Hebenstreit, the Lady Lever salterio (et al.) and Hebenstreit again: but Schunda was the first to combine them on a single instrument, and the first to use the whole-tone scale, pushing the bass bridges over to the sides for a low chromatic compass.

Hartman describes the two main tunings in use:

fig. 213: click

There was the so-called Zsido (Jew) way and the so-called Hungarian. According to the former, a great number of the tones and chromatics were entirely lacking: and according to the latter, the true intonation was almost impossible to establish firmly, because of the deficient way in which the bridges were placed. (41)

They are not, in fact, so very different, and the Hungarian tuning is given at fig. 213. It is fascinating to note, amid this welter of chromatics, that the heart of the system remains a diatonic octave of C major, on four courses divided at the fifth.

A year or two later, Hugo Klein was writing about the success the new instrument was having in England:

The wife of Mr. Schultz, 'court artist' to the Prince of Wales, presented herself in a big concert playing the cimbalom and provoked ringing applause with Home, Sweet Home, which she performed on the exotic instrument (42).

All were not unanimously in favour, however:

In spite of the undeniable success of the new instrument, I will not conceal that, especially in Hungary, there are many opponents to all these improvements to the cimbalom, for, as such people say, they damage the original charm of the instrument considerably. For orchestral use only the pedal-cimbalom can be considered, but this will hardly supplant the old instrument among the wider populace of Hungary, mainly because the gipsies, the musicians' guild of the Pusstenland - with a few exceptions - do not want to know about the reform of the primitive cimbalom they have grown to love. The pedal-cimbalom is welcomed into salons and the Theatre, the old instrument will stay with the Volk. The gipsy will never know how to handle the pedal and in the Pussta, where the new-fangled instrument really does not fit, he has the right to decide (42,44).

Of course it did catch on with the gipsy musicians too, in spite of Klein's gloomy predictions, and indeed, so much so, that at the memorial ceremony for the recently deceased 'chief of the gipsies', Bela Radics, in the 1930s, an orchestra of 1,000 was to be heard, which included no less than 26 cimbaloms (45).


fig. 210: click

Pedal-cimbaloms spread rather widely - Schunda made 6,000 between 1874 and 1898 - and Hungarians have been heard in nearby Burgenland (Austria) (fig. 210), and further afield in England (London and Windsor), and USA, in restaurants in the big cities, and interest was sufficient for Schunda to write a history of the cimbalom, in 1907. The instruments have also been played by nationals of the countries where the instrument travelled, including Burgenland, Sweden, England (John Leach, fig. 212), and again, America, where Henry Ford included one in his Early America Orchestra; and eastwards to the countries mentioned below. John Leach gives a lot of interesting detail about tuning, repertoire, players and so on (1972).

fig. 212: click

The playing styles are rather too well-known to warrant analysis here, but it may be pointed out that there are at least two main styles: the crisp vamping of chords, sometimes behind another cimbalom playing a melody, and the romantic arpeggios and arabesques familiar from so many gipsy bands.

Consequent upon Schunda's developments, and the establishment of chairs for the cimbalom at the National Conservatory (1890) and the Royal Hungarian Academy of Music (1897)(46), numerous composers of art music have written for the instrument; by 1898 over 40 firms were making instruments after Schunda's pattern (47), and Kling included the cimbalom in his Modern Orchestration (1902, 1904), albeit under the name of dulcimer. John Leach has discussed Stravinsky's use of the instrument (48), but the composer's own account is particularly interesting, as much as anything for the rather odd description of the gusli:

Renard is also inspired by the guzla, an extraordinary instrument that is carried by the goat in the last part of the play, and imitated in the orchestra with good but imperfect success by the cimbalom. The guzla is a museum piece now, and it was rare even in my childhood in St. Petersburg. A kind of fine metal-stringed balalaika, it is strapped over the player's head like the tray of a cigarette girl in a night club. The sound produced is deliciously live and bright, but it is preciously tiny too, and who, alas, now plays the guzla?... One day near the end of 1914, I heard a cimbalom for the first time, in a Geneva restaurant, and decided it could be used as a substitute for the guzla. The cimbalomist, a Mr. Racz, kindly helped me find an instrument, which I purchased and kept with me throughout my Swiss years (In fact I took it to Paris with me after the war). I learnt to play the cimbalom and to love it, and I composed Renard 'on' it (as I normally compose 'on' a piano), with two sticks in my hand, writing down as I composed, I used the cimbalom in my Ragtime for eleven instruments, also, as well as in incompleted versions of the Chant dissident and Les Noces (49).

Recent LPs have made available many of Stravinsky's early pieces with cimbalom.

Aladár Rácz, born of a gipsy family in 1886, was appointed to the professorship at the Budapest Academy in 1954, and an LP of his playing of Bach, Couperin and others, accompanied by his wife, Yvonne Rácz, on the piano, is generally available. John Leach relates how the last few Schunda cimbaloms had open backs, possibly at Rácz suggestion, for better carrying power, and perhaps for recording; one of his instruments was kept for the use of the best student at the Academy (50). He also mentioned another virtuoso who toured between the wars, Vottichenko; John Leach had the opportunity of inspecting his instrument, for which he had invented his own damping mechanism, involving turning a handle rather quickly with one hand (50).

fig. 215: click

fig. 214: click

The Schunda damping mechanism operates from above the strings, but the instrument used for Irish music with the Chieftains by Derek Bell - formerly a pupil of John Leach - has a mechanism operated from below, as John Teall's beautiful photographs show (fig. 214, 215).

Before leaving Hungary it may be interesting to mention that a xylophone is also played, under the name facimbalom, 'wooden cimbalom', and which, whilst not having any part divided, nevertheless has notes placed in a fifth-interval relationship very reminiscent of dulcimer tuning; it was apparently first mentioned in 1867, so may well have been influenced by a stringed cimbalom (51).


A Swedish friend filmed a few minutes of a band in a restaurant in Budapest, the normal combination of lead violin, 'vamping' accompanying violin held 'vertically', cimbalom and double-bass bowed with back-hand grip: the fact that Lennart's party of two couples were the only lunch guests apparently did nothing to deter the band from giving the full virtuoso show from both primo violinist and cimbalom-player. If anyone can identify either the band or the restaurant, do let me know!

movie - 5 mins, 11.4 Mb

H264 format, requires QuickTime 7, free here

lower-quality 'Flash' version from YouTube: here

still pictures from video filmed by Lennart Sjöholm - click for a larger view