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You Play a What?



First it was the euphonium, now it's the cimbalom. I suppose there are probably more than a few people out there wondering where I find these esoteric instruments. I guess I owe you all an explanation. First, a little about what the instrument is called. I was pleased to find that there is a lot more than "just" a name involved in all this. In fact, as is usually the case, the name of the instrument can tell a lot about where the instrument came from, how people were playing it, even what language they were speaking.

The instrument name for the cimbalom seems particularly tricky. Cimbalom, which I take to be the more-or-less correct English name, comes from Hungarian. It makes sense to use the Hungarian name because the modern-day instrument was developed in Budapest in the 1870s, though it was created by J.V. Schunda, an instrument-maker of Czech origin. In Czech, it is just cimbál. A cimbalom band, usually consisting of two violins, a bass, and a cimbalom, is called a cimbálová muzika in Czech or cimbálka for short. Dulcimer would be a slightly more correct English name. This denotes a family of trapezoidal zither instruments, but that name seems too general. If you're really into technical organological jargon I suppose you could say these are 'dulcimer-type hammered zithers', but that's a bit much. 'Hammered dulcimer' would tell more about how the instrument is played, but usually this name usually designates only hammered zithers in Appalachia, which are an independent group of dulcimers that is distantly related to the Hungarian types. I decided last year to call the instruments I'm looking at cimbaloms because it seemed to be the most standard and applicable term in English. My Czech cimbalom teacher was also adamant that the correct English term is cimbalom and not dulcimer. (Cimbalom comes from the same Greek root as tympanum, for example, so to me it encapsulates the idea of a resonating chamber as well as the striking method. It's also the name listed in the OED.)

There are a lot of other colorful names for instruments of similar types, like the whamdiddle (sometimes in the American Midwest) or butterfly harp (Hong Kong). One of the reasons that there are so many names is that this instrument type is very old and adaptable--all of the instruments I just listed are possibly related (albeit distantly) to either Middle Eastern or European prototypes. The instrument probably came to Asia via the silk road trade routes. So the wide presence of the instrument in America, Europe, and Asia is a good example of early globalization. In the Czech Republic, even though the modern-day instrument is related to the 'new' Hungarian instrument, the existence of dulcimer-type instruments in the Czech lands has been documented to the 15th century. Regardless of the language used to describe the instrument, it seems pretty clear that the instrument has been around in Central Europe for a long time and its history is part of a lot of places including Germany, Hungary, and the Czech lands.

Comments:

Blogger Karla said . . .

I thought the hammered dulcimer was essentially a cimbalom, versus the Appalachian dulcimer being a small plucked instrument (I even made one of these from a kit when I was about twelve, but one of the frets is slightly off).    

9:13 AM, December 06, 2005


Blogger morskyjezek said . . .

Yes, there's some confusion about that. I think that I posted with a misprint there. The Appalachian dulcimer, which is usually a four-string (?) zither that is strummed and not hammered, is a completely different instrument. As I remember there is some confusion as to why it has the apellation 'dulcimer'. This is possibly a holdover from older English when the dulce melos ("sweet song") referred to an old type of string instrument similar to the present-day "Appalachian dulcimer." It should say above that the dulcimer in Appalachia is often called hammered dulcimer to avoid confusing it with the "Appalachian dulcimer."    

2:43 PM, December 06, 2005


Blogger Karla said . . .

Generally the Appalachian dulcimers have 3 or 4 strings, although I think the courting dulcimer has two sets since each person in the couple has to be able to play. (That wasn't the kind I made when I was 12, obviously.)

You can always go back and fix errors and misspellings... at least in the blog itself. I don't think errors in the comments can be fixed.    

9:04 PM, December 06, 2005


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