CHAPTER 7: Controversies and Misunderstandings

16 of 17 - That there was a mediæval dulcimer

1.2 Literature


1. Sendrey considers Pi-santir to be the root of the name pesanterin quite in isolation, apparently, for all other recent writers give psanterin (etc.) as the root of santur - and continues

"from this picture (that referred to in paragraph 17.1.1. above and the etymology of the word pesanterin it becomes evident that the Semitic peoples of Antiquity have known a dulcimer-like instrument... Villoteau (36) and Fétis (37) link the two... Galpin defines it (pesanterin) correctly as a dulcimer-like instrument... The santir must have been known and used by Oriental peoples much earlier than the psalterion by the Greeks" (38)

Unfortunately Sendrey does not give any more detailed reasoning for his etymology or consequent argument, and although most recent authors - notably Farmer - take a different view, he does not mention any such, and only quotes 19th century scholars in support of his own; Farmer's case is much more convincingly argued, and although it chronologically precedes Sendrey, in substance it supercedes him, and Sendrey's view can therefore not be accepted.

2. In parentheses, it is interesting to note Marcuse's statement that bagpipes did not exist at the time of the symponia (etc.) sources (34), although Baines tentatively traces them from Aristophanes (39).

3. The references to 'dulcimer' in the English versions of the Bible are rather surprisingly taken at face value by a number of authors: of a Victorian dulcimer in the Victoria & Albert Museum, Engel wrote "Modern as this specimen is, it is of the old stamp, and may be regarded as a faithful representation of the dulcimer mentioned in the English translation of the Bible"(40). It is also fairly common in America to hear the Biblical instruments spoken of as being actual rather than symbolic, in terms such as the following:

"The instrument started back in early times, maybe three thousand years before Christ, and was at that time called the 'santir'. The Greeks, being a very original people then took the instrument and developed it with tunings of their own, and with adding bridges to the instrument, they named it 'psaltery'. Then they passed it back to the original people who played it ... and liking the name 'psaltery' very much, but not wishing to use exactly the Greek expression, they called the instrument a 'psanterim', with a p on the beginning of it. Now they've completely done away with the p and they still play the instrument in the Near East, calling it a 'santur', and that's as much as I can tell you." (44).

"It is no wonder that King Nebuchadnessar's decree was opposed, for the sound of the dulcimer makes me feel much more like dancing than 'worshipping' ...

"All evidence seems to indicate that the Appalachian dulcimer dates back no more than 200 years and that bibles refer to the hammered type" (42).

"They tell me they have found a stone carving of some king holding a dulcimer. But, anyway, it goes back to Biblical times at least. Dulcimers are mentioned in chapter three of Daniel, verses 5,10 and 15. Just make sure you've got the King James Version" (43).

4. Whilst the above amount to little more than romantic fantasy, more scholarly opinions are given by Ogilvie, Weekley, Galpin, and editors of the Authorised Version, all of whom reject the suggestion that symponia was a dulcimer:

"Dulcimer - an ancient musical instrument, the name of which has been used by our Bible translators in rendering Daniel chap. iii ver.5. What its precise nature and shape was is uncertain" (1859 (44)).

"Dulcimer: ... Orig. a stringed instrument and wrongly used (Dan iii,5 etc) for bagpipe" (1921 (45)).

"Our translators however, did the best they could to mark the grandeur of the music used on this occasion, and as the exact explanation of Assyrian instruments was beyond them, as in many details it is still beyond us, they gave us a list of representative English instruments used in their own day: for the 'cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery and dulcimer' we should probably read 'the horn, pipe, lyre, harp, psaltery and bagpipe'. " (46)

The editors of the 1810 Authorised Version added two footnotes to the name 'dulcimer': "1. or singing 2. Chald. symphony"

Thus, while it is beyond the scope of this study to prove positively that there were no dulcimers in ancient times, the it can at least show that the consensus of scholarly opinion is that there were none.