minstrel: appalachian dulcimers...again

Brett and Karen Williams brettwi at ix.netcom.com
Tue Dec 23 22:19:04 PST 1997

William and Scianna Augustine wrote:
> A friend of mine has an Appalachian dulcimer, and asked me if it could
> be considered a period instrument. I remember some discussion on that
> point over this list several months ago, but have deleted the pertinent
> references. Would someone out there help me answer her query?
> Many thanks,
> --Scianna

This is what I wrote both to the Rialto and to the list on two separate

I have played the fretted dulcimer in an SCA period-ish style since
1980. I've done a little research, but not with any real diligence.  My
tablature collection is what I'd term redaction of period music (lute
tablature 'translated' to dulcimer-appropriate arrangements, for
example) rather than true period music. My feeling is that despite the
fact that most of the instrumental music I play is unquestionably
period, the style (e.g. the arrangment for the questionably period
dulcimer) upon which it's played is *not*. . . and the instrument (an
American dulcimer) is a modern form of a period instrument.

It's my personal belief that there is no documentably period music
extant for the medieval form of this zither. If I'm wrong, I'd be
delighted to discover otherwise!

Be that as it may, the earliest documentation I've run across for a
period *form* of the American dulcimer/zither is as a marine trombone
and/or monochord. They lack the drone strings distinctive to the
American fretted dulcimer, though. Concerning my suspicions as to the
origin of the American fretted dulcimer: when idly leafing through a
stack of dulcimer instruction books about 18 months ago I ran across a
small black and white photograph of an old (very old) epinette des Vosge
(sic?) held by a Virginia museum that had been collected in Appalachia--
provenance undisclosed in the book I was leafing through.  Alas, I did
not write down the museum's name at the time and have since not been
able to find the book again. I'm inclined to say that the American
instrument probably evolved from an epinette or hummel well after the
SCA's period of interest.

In the Spring, 1979 issue of Dulcimer Players News, Volume 5, Number 2,
there is a small article by Neal Hellman that talks chattily of the
music of the spheres based on an illustration from Robert Fludd's "The
History of the Macrocosm" (1617). The woodcut says:
"TRACTATVS.I.LIB.III, Hic suerum monochordum mundanum cum suis
proportionubus, consonatniis & intervallis exactuis composuimus, cujus
motorem extra mundum esse hoc modo depinximus." (typos mine!)  His
bibliography cites Robert Fludd, _Utriusque Cosmi Historia_, Frankfort
(1619), and Ammann, P.J., "The Musical Theory and Philosophy of Robert
Fludd", _Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes_, 1967, pp.

My personal problem with Fludd's woodcut is that the artistic rendering
of the monochord itself is suspect; the nut and bridge positioning seem
to be backwards in relationship to the spacing of the instrument's
intervals! Why is the first stopped fret next to the nut rather than the
bridge? I don't see that it's really practical to have plucking or
strumming going on next to the bridge, close to the tuning peg...

The article concludes with a modest little advertisement for a
poster-size reprint of the Fludd woodcut, so my suspicion is that
Hellman's article was more of a plug for the poster sale rather than a
disinterested intent to pass along knowledge. On the proverbial third
hand, Neal is an interesting man and a wonderful dulcimer player.


written 2/96

>I have seen documents that conclude the fretted dulcimer gets 
>its roots from a 18th century instrument (the name escapes me
>now) which was developed in Germany. According to this
>research there is no grey area about the fretted dulcimer;
>there is no record of them prior to the 18th century ancestors.
>If you have evidence to the contrary, I'd love to know where to
>look it up. 

That all depends on one's model for its ancestors. If one goes back to
the root of the zither family, there's the monochord-- used by
Pythagoras 5th Century BCE to set the scale intervals Western music is
based upon. Is there any conclusive proof that the scheitholt (Germany),
hummel (Low Countries/Belgium), langeleik/langspil 
(Sweden/Norway) and/or epinette des Voges (France) suddenly sprang into
the peasant population of so many Western European countries
spontaneously in the 18th Century? Is it likely that it didn't evolve
from *something*? Since we're talking about a peasant instrument, I'm
cynically unsurprised there's not a lot of documentation out there that
proves or disproves its origin and chronology.

Until Jean Ritchie started touring in the 1950's, the zither and its
many cousins were utterly unknown in the British Isles. She said that
the English, Irish and Scots pretty much greeted her with delighted
surprise ("What in the world is *that*?), whereas on the continent
people nodded at her dulcimer and said that their old folk had something
a lot like that back on the wall at home. The French epinettes she saw
were strung with brass wire.

I happened to be in a music store about a week ago (buying a new
dulcimer, long sad story omitted of a stolen instrument with a happy
ending) and leafed through one of the fretted dulcimer instruction books
while I was waiting for the shop to install a set of strap buttons. In
one of 'em (I don't remember which one), a number of pictures of very
old epinettes and scheitholts (date unknown or unasserted) found in the
Appalachians is displayed, and the current location of same is
mentioned-- a museum in Virginia, I think. That night was very clouded
in emotion and I was looking very quickly. The author asserted the
theory that the Appalachian fretted dulcimer evolved from these
instruments. I view this author's assertion as very weakly supported by
concrete fact other than the obvious ones of existence of the old

Michael Praetorius' Syntagma Musicum (1619) has an illustration
depicting the 'music of the spheres' showing a single stringed
instrument that looks remarkably like a straight-sided dulcimer
(epinette or langspil if you will) merely lacking the 'drone' strings.
Where did Praetorius' woodcut artist get his model? When did the frets
on the scheitholt, etc. get extended into the drones, and why, since the
predominant playing style ignores those drone notes? I don't know that
there are conclusive answers to these questions.

So, I believe the dulcimer is about as period to the Society's purposes
as a steel or nylon strung guitar. It is capable of producing period
music, just like a nylon-strung harp or nylon-strung 'classical' guitar.
A form of it was around in period, but the proof is inconclusive.

end of semi-rant (sheepish smile)


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