CHAPTER 7: Controversies and Misunderstandings

16 of 17 - That there was a mediæval dulcimer

2 Middle Ages

2.2 Europe

2.2.2 Literary evidence

There are references in a number of Latin and Irish mss from the 8th to the 17th centuries (63) to an instrument or instruments with names such as timpan (64); tíompan (65), teampan (66), tympanum (67) timphanum (68); the references are found in such sources as the writings of Bishop Dunstan (68), Geraldus Cambriensis (67) and St. Patrick (69), and the books of Leinster, Ogaliv and Ossian (69).

fig. 250

O'Curry collected together a large number of references, and having discussed them in some detail concluded that the name was used at one time for a harp, at another for the instrument known as stråkharpa ('bowed-harp') or talharpa in Swedish, crwth (and many variants) in British languages (64), and classified by organologists today as a 'bowed lyre' (fig.256). O'Curry's arguments are summarised and substantially endorsed by Otto Andersson (70), and in Grove 5; Ann Buckley completed a master's thesis in 1972, which considered the etymology, literary references, and morphology of the tiompan and the function and status of the tíompan-player (71), evidently retracing O'Curry's steps, and reaching the same conclusions (63).

More specifically, she writes: "I have no evidence that the word timpan (or indeed tíompan) was used to mean dulcimer before the 1970s. Also I have no reason to believe that the tíompan was anything other than a lyre, plucked ... up to ca.1000 A.D., and thereafter bowed" (85).

The opposing view was first expressed by Galpin; he expressed his reluctance to accept O'Curry's conclusions in toto and decided instead that it seemed "very probable that this once popular Timpan was a form of Psaltery 'plucked with a quill', in later days becoming a Dulcimer 'struck with a rod'. His positive reasons for this were etymological, comparing timpan with the French tympanon, the reference to striking, and the mention of "treble strings ... of silver and ... bass strings.. of white bronze" (implying that there were more than three strings); two of these are rather scanty as evidence (the earliest use of tympanon as a dulcimer name seems to be that of Furetière in 1690, and Derek Bell (quoted below) says that the words for plucking, bowing and hammering are all the same in Irish: c.f. frapper, slaen, schlagen in Chapter 3.4., here and here.

Andersson considered the notices quoted by Galpin "of no real importance" and concluded that

"the 'probability' of his conjectures seems exceedingly small. The arguments he adduces in support of his view are not sufficient to outweigh those given by O'Curry and Dr. Sullivan (72) in favour of the opposite theory"(73).

He also quotes Gratton Flood's theory (1906) that the timpan was identical to the kinnor, triganon and fidil (74).

In spite of the lack of supporting iconographical evidence Derek Bell evidently finds Galpin's view convincing:

"A perusal of this old literature suggests that the Timpan... was originally a lyre with only three strings, later becoming a psaltery, later still in some parts it was a bowed psaltery... and only finally is it believed to have become a hammered dulcimer, and psaltery and dulcimer rolled into one. This is what Dr. Apel and many Scottish Irish (sic) musicologists believe.., what we cannot prove for certain is how it was played, for the Irish to slide off a string... to pluck with nail or plectrum like a psaltery or again like a harp, and to hammer are all the same word! ...

"My 'timpan' as Buckley says on my sole record sleeve, 'an educated guess'. I wanted to bring back the metal, brass bronze-string sound into Irish music again in an ethnic way, without resorting to foreign instruments like guitars and bouzoukis and banjos, which are near but not quite right"(69).

In spite of his declared concern for an ethnic Irish sound, the instrument which Derek Bell plays is identified by John Teall as having been built by a Hungarian as a cimbalom (86) (figs.214, 215); it is nevertheless introduced as a timpán, in concert apparently, and, for instance, in Alun Owen's notes to the fine LP Chieftains 5:

"The Timpán Reel

Features an instrument which in twelfth century Ireland was called the timpán and Paddy Moloney always had a hunger for its sound. Derek Bell who played its drawing room cousin, the dulcimer, got bored with listening to Paddy's oral rambling..."(87)

The word is glossed in Dineen's dictionary as "drum, gong, cithern, lute, lyre, cymbal": and even "bagpipe, eardrum, roasting jack, and trouble, disorder" (65, 75): not of very great help in our deliberations.

All in all, then, there seems no convincing argument against O'Curry's original view, and that there was no dulcimer in ancient Ireland.

The point was made by Ruth O'Riada that "if there were a dulcimer it would have been called téadchlár", mentioned in Chapter 2.

One fascinating case merits mention here. A Munster folk tale, 'Ollean na gCuig mBeann' ('Island of the five mountain peaks'), containing a reference to 'Teampan Uaine' ('green tíompan'(76)), was published in Gadelica in 1913; in 1923, the tale was published in a German translation (77), 'Die Insel mit den fttnf Buchten', 'The Island with the five Inlets', the timpan name translated as 'grüine Zimbel' perhaps following Galpin (first published 1910), or perhaps quite fortuitously; and in 1973, the story appeared yet again, in English, this time, as 'The Palace of the Seven Little Hills' (78). The authoress, Ruth Manning-Sanders, tells how she arrived at her choice of name: "The German word for the musical instrument is Zimbel, according to the dictionary a cymbal, but obviously a cymbal couldn't fill the palace with ravishing harmonies as this instrument did and so I took the liberty of replacing it with a dulcimer" (79): how strange the ways of coincidence.

The extracts from the English version of the story are thus not germane to the history of the instrument itself, but are an example of modern symbolic use of the name and are therefore dealt with in Chapter 4.

Two other literary references should, however, be mentioned here.

According to Marcuse, "The mediaeval dulcimer seems to have been known in 14th-century Spain as dulcema (80); and according to Hartman (81) in the "XII century ... the Czimbalom is cited among the harp-like and zither-like instruments." Unfortunately, a study of the etymology of instruments shows that it is not possible to deduce the early history of an instrument simply from references to a name current today - a later dolcemel was a clavicord, for instance (80); an attempt to solicit further details from Dr. Narcuse has yet to be successful so that the value of her reference must remain etymological, and Hartman's account must be weighed against Sarosi's statements that:

1. the earliest appearance of the cimbalom name was in the 15th century (indicating idiophone cymbals); and

2. the earliest evidence of the instrument we know as cimbalom was in the 16th century (82).

Then comes the point that the name 'zither' is not older then two or three centuries, and the instruments denoted by the Hungarian citera are no older. It was unfortunately not possible to obtain a copy of the source, and since Sarosi's well-respected work postdates Hartman's by 50 years, it seems justifiable to consider the latter's reference inconclusive.