Hammered Dulcimer

Dulcimers may have originated in the Middle East, probably during the first millennium A.D. If so, the instrument could have been brought to Europe from the Middle East during the Crusades or into Spain with the Moors, or both. Then again, maybe not. Other research puts the origin near the end of the Middle Ages, in Europe, holding that the earlier medieval paintings and statues probably depict psalteries or dulcimer-like instruments without a central bridge. Psalteries are plucked rather than hammered, and in some of the old pictures and statues it is impossible to tell how the instrument is being played. Earlier 19th Century theorists, now largely discredited, put the origin in Assyria ca 800 BC, based largely on a bas-relief now in the British Museum. Whatever the historical origins, similar instruments have spread around the world. It is a direct ancestor of the pianoforte.

The Keyed Dulcimer

The dulcimer was involved in a revolution over 200 years ago, when the hammer dulcimer and the harpsichord became the immediate parents of the pianoforte. Harpsichords are not amenable to playing with dynamics. Pushing the keys harder or softer does not give you a stronger (forte) or softer (piano) sound, and pushing too strongly can damage the instrument. A dulcimer, on the other hand, is capable of playing with dynamics. Strike softly for soft sounds: strike hard for loud. Mechanizing the hammered dulcimer action and linking it to a harpsichord keyboard gives you a keyboard instrument that can play soft and loud. In Italian, that is "piano " and "forte".

A piano could be described as a mechanized hammer dulcimer operated by keys derived from a harpsichord. Thus the pianoforte is more aptly described as the "keyed dulcimer" than as an "improved harpsichord".

Toward the end of the 17th Century and beginning of the 18th, harpsichordists were complaining to instrument makers about the harpsichord's lack of dynamic responsiveness. The direct impetus for the "keyed dulcimer", from the dulcimer side was the German musician Pantaleon Heibenstreit. Pantaleon, a dulcimist, constructed a hammered dulcimer some 9 feet long with over 200 strings, and two soundboards. The instrument was also described as having two strings per course, one wire, one silk or gut. Pantaleon toured Europe in the late 1600's early 1700's; and his playing so impressed Louis XIV that the Sun King christened the instrument the "Pantaleon". The pantaleon had what the harpsichord didn't - dynamics. Heibenstreit and the "Pantaleon" were the rage of the Continent.

Bartolemeo Cristofori was a leading Italian harpsichord maker with access to the Medici music instrument collection in Florence. It is not clear whether Pantaleon ever performed in Florence, though this might have happened, and there are some vague hints that Pantaleon Heibenstreit and Cristofori may have met. Cristofori was almost certainly aware of the potential market among harpsichordists, and of Pantaleon's instrument. In the early 1700's, Cristofori came up with an keyed instrument in which hammers responsive to keys would strike the strings, instantly rebound, and strike with varying force - producing volume that varied at the will of the player. The instrument could play soft, "piano" in Italian; or loud and strong "forte". This was what many acknowledge as the first pianoforte, a "keyed dulcimer", with mechanized hammers linked to the keys, an escapement to move the hammers off the strings after striking so the strings could ring, and dampers to stop the sound when the fingers left the keys. He even used two strings per course, as did Pantaleon, and Cristofori's instrument even had a damper pedal. Voila, a keyed dulcimer.

Pantaleon eventually settled down in Germany, became Protestant court composer to Augustus the Strong, and gave up playing dulcimer (the "pantaleon") in 1733 due to failing eyesight. From '34 to his death in '50 or '51 (sources vary), he was a court choir director in Dresden. There are references to his having composed some ten orchestral suites which were lost in the Allied bombings WWII. Apparently the "pantaleon" dulcimer performances were improvisational and there seems to be no mention of them being written down.

Sic transit Heibenstreit, the dulcimist who inspired the piano.

Thought for the day - If you think of the hammer dulcimer and the harpsichord as the parents of the pianoforte, and think of a digital sampler as a child of the pianoforte, then what do you call a digital sampler playing a hammer dulcimer patch?