CHAPTER 7: Controversies and Misunderstandings

16 of 17 - That there was a mediæval dulcimer

2 Middle Ages

2.1 The Islamic Area

A favourite episode of some writers is the delightful legend concerning the invention of the santur by al-Farabi in the 9th century, of which the reference to the effect of the various scales on the emotions is familiar from a number of other contexts:

'... Farabi's premiere performance on the Santur took place at a party of Persian nobles in Sayfeddole's palace. Farabi played three dramatic Persian scales. The first made his audience laugh. Farabi changed his scale but at the second piece they burst into tears. Again, he changed his scale but the third piece put them to sleep. Disconsolate and feeling that his music was not appreciated, Farabi left the city" (47).

Farmer has pointed out that al-Farabi did not actually mention the instrument in his writings (48) and the possibility of his having produced something so momentous after the end of his writing activities seems to be remote.

Farmer also wrote, in one of his earlier works, of a 10th century dulcimer, sandi sini, 'Chinese sandj' (49), but he appears to have reconsidered his interpretation, for in 1954, he stated categorically that 'Not one of the great Arabic and Persian treatises on music contains the slightest reference to the santir or dulcimer'. Certainly 'sandj' is generally regarded elsewhere as being a harp, (50,51) and the parable of the Assyrian bas-reliefs comes to mind again. There is another possibility, however, that while the santur - with its characteristic divided strings arranged in two planes - may not have come into Islam before the 17th century, the idea of striking the strings instead of plucking them might yet have been used on an instrument with all its strings in one plane such as the qanun or nuzha: such a practice might well warrant a modified form of an existing name - sandj sini is one such - without it constituting a change in the nature or structure of the instrument. If classification were considered essential, the term 'struck psaltery' might be used.

Sachs writes of the tale of King Omar bin al-Nu'uman in the Arabian Nights how the princess has her slave-girl bring some instruments of music, and the maid "returned in the twinkling of an eye with a Samacus lute, a Persian harp, a Tartar pipe, and an Egyptian dulcimer" (52), but charming though the tale is, Farmer states that "the Arabic texts make it manifest that the instrument was the qanun misrí", 'Egyptian qanun' (53). The same mistranslation apparently occurred with the qanun mentioned by Ibn Khaldun (d.1406) in the Maghrib.

Dr. van der Meer interpreted as dulcimer the reference of Emir ben Khidr Mali (Kanz al-tuhaf, 1434) to nuzhe but Farmer describes nuzha in detail as a rectangular psaltery, giving a stringing pattern which provides for no bridges (54), and states that "the existence of the dulcimer is not disclosed in .... the 'Kanz al-tuhaf' "(53).

Hortense Panum disregarded the essential bridging and crossing of strings which characterise the santir, and used the term for anything which was vaguely trapezoid in shape: she even invented the term demi-santir for half-trapezoid instruments for which the term kanun did not appear apppropriate, without explaining the distinction between the two. With such a concept of santir, there are of course numerous mediaeval examples, but none have any particular dulcimer features and are therefore not germane to the present study.

fig. 249

Fig. 249 shows a delightful illustration, reproduced by Southgate from Engel. (perhaps with the help of A. Reid, whose name appears in a corner), and credited with being a 'Persian lady of the 12th century'. Apart from whatever internal stylist evidence there may be, there are two reasons for excluding her from a consideration of mediaeval dulcimers: one is musical: although the tools in her hands might well be considered hammers, it is hard to imagine how she could isolate any single note from the others by striking the strings; she has her hands palms down in the archetypal plucking position, and the instrument has the half-trapezoid shape characteristic of the plucked qanun. The other point is historical: Farmer (53) stated that an examination of some hundreds of Persian paintings had failed to reveal dulcimers between the 12th and 16th centuries, and since he included Engel in his short bibliography, we may feel confident that he knew of this picture.

There is apparently a santur mentioned in the Story of Janshah (Arabian Nights, 499-531) (after searching through a number of English versions, I was able to find only harp, lute and zither of the mi'zaf (open-stringed instruments) (55,49); however, Farmer dismisses this reference as a "late fiction". (53, 56).

Two 16th century references given by Farmer mention the santur, but only as names, and since, as mentioned before, it is known that the santur name is used for other instruments than dulcimers, these cannot be taken as conclusive (57).