Country Music News for the Country Music Enthusiast
|A Brief History of the Hammered Dulcimer
(with thanks to Pete Pickow and Sam Rizzetta)
There are many theories as to the history of the dulcimer. Some of them are contradictory, some are complete conjecture, and some are well- documented. The most confusing aspect of the hammered dulcimer is its namesake, the Appalachian, or mountain, dulcimer. The shared name seems to point to a shared heritage at some time. Actually, the mountain dulcimer is not a true dulcimer at all according to the definition of the word, which is: a member of the zither family that is played with hammers.
European and Eastern variants of the dulcimer are in evidence throughout recorded history, although the actual folk instrument that is most common today probably came to these shores intact from Britain in Colonial times.
The actual specifics of this emigration are obscured by the fact that, at that time, the instrument was not truly in widespread use but rather surviving in isolated pockets. There is still quite a vital playing tradition in certain parts of Wales and Northumbria. Interest in the hammered dulcimer continued in the United States, as evidenced by contemporary advertisements in the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogues, and by the publication of self-tutors and method books throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. In fact, the instrument enjoyed a small burst of widespread acclaim due to its being a favorite of Henry Ford, and its inclusion in "Henry Ford's Old Fashioned Dance Orchestra". In the Old World, the dulcimer experienced a strange revival in the year 1697 when a fellow by the name of Pantaleon Hebestreit invented an improved version of the Medevial instrument and called it the pantaleon. It reportedly had 186 strings and was in evidence as late as 1767 when performances were given in England by George Noel on an instrument having 276 strings. The decline of the instrument in "serious" music is evident in the fact that by the end of the eighteenth century, the term "pantaleon" had come to mean "a piano with down-striking action".
The hammered dulcimer has experienced an impressive "re-awakening" in the past decade, in part due to the influence of Sam Rizzeta, a West Virginia dulcimer maker and player. Sam is a local favorite, often seen on the traditional music tour. In addition to the increasing number of hammered dulcimer players, more and more music is being "arranged" for the dulcimer. One group, the "Classical Hammered Dulcimer Society", is working hard to transport classical works to the hammered dulcimer world.
Even the Folger Consort, a group of early music performers at the Folger Library in Washington DC, have used the hammered dulcimer in its arrangements. Workshops for all levels of hammered dulcimer players have become "standing room only". The appeal of this instrument is its flexibility and ease of play. Unlike the violin or the piano, the hammered dulcimer does not take years of practice to acquire good playing skills.
Many of the best players do not read music; rather they learn all the "tunes" by ear. Music is passed from one musician to another in this fashion. Another local player, John McCutcheon, almost always tells the story of how he learned a particular tune before he performs it. In doing this, a rich cultural history is being preserved.
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