Medieval Instruments II: Psalteries
The principle of the psaltery is simple enough: it is a box with strings stretched across it. In the Middle Ages, and even in the Cantigas, variety was the norm. There is a picture somewhere or other of a psaltery in almost any conceivable shape. (And some a little hard to believe.) The most obvious shapes are, predictably, the most common: squares, trapezoids, and triangles. Given the range of shapes it is likely that no two psalteries sounded alike unless they were made at the same time by the same maker. Let’s look at the examples from the Cantigas.
Cantiga 80 shows a very simple rectangular instrument with a large central soundhole. In each corner is either a smaller soundhole or an elaborate inlay. Both instruments are identical and the players are holding their hands in the same position, but notice the tuning crank on the far right and the strings that seem to be in courses of threes. The ordinariness of the instruments is reflected in the unadorned background and frame and the simple costumes worn. In my not-very-satisfactory color reproduction the artist seems to have settled for a basic substitution scheme in portraying the outfits. The figure on the left wears a pink saya with gold yoke and a dark green manto, or cape, while the player on the right has a dark green saya with gold yoke and pink manto. Even the frontal positions reinforce the rudimentary impression and their benches are stylized. This is noticeably one of the blandest illuminations in the manuscript and looks to be from a different hand than the majority.
Cantiga 50 portrays psalteries of not much more interest, but in a more typically extravagant setting. The instruments are semi-trapezoidal with central soundhole and three other holes (or inlays) but the players hands seem to be in slightly differing positions. The player on the left is frontal but portrayed with much more detail: he wears a noble capa (with fur collar and armhole) with gold embroidery along the margins. His companion is turned slightly toward him. He wears an overcloak with gold embroidered edges and a caperón (a detachable hood, often worn as a head covering). These two nobles are set against the characteristic coffered background of the Cantigas manuscripts.
Cantiga 70 lies somewhere between the others’ style. The background is plain but the instruments and figures are quite distinctive. The psalteries are unusual but not unique: a basic T-shape (“pig’s snout”) but with a semicircular extension at the bottom. (A similar instrument is shown in manuscript T.j.1, which has the larger number of illustrations of the stories of the miracles.) The figures themselves seem to be Jews but with distinctive capes fastened at the right shoulder and exotic Phrygian-style hats with wing-like decorations. Their origins may have been obvious to the court of Alfonso but, like so many of the unusual ethnic groups portrayed in these manuscripts, they no longer convey that information.
I have made two different psalteries for the group Alfonso X: one was in the characteristic “pig snout” form, similar to the last above, but the other was patterned after one of the most important sources for 14th century instruments: the beautiful tryptich from the Monastery of Piedra. In addition to a fine small lute, Romanesque harp, and rebab, there is an exciting triangular psaltery which I copied in 1970. There are clearly shown pins at the stepped ends in courses of three. My inlays were made from ivory, walnut, silver, and abalone. The rays were burned into the wood.
The strings are tuned by autoharp pins, readily available, while the other ends go through small holes to the far side. I originally thought to wrap them around small sticks or to have pins or nails to which they would be attached but eventually was converted by tradition. I had a Turkish kemence where the strings were wrapped around tiny rolled-up pieces of cloth to act as the ball on the end to keep them from slipping through the tailpiece hole. I thought the cloth too unsubstantial and decided on heavy sole leather: the steel strings slowly sliced through the leather. I went to the cloth and, thirty years later, it is still holding. That’s not the last time that I’ve been humbled by Tradition.
From another MS, a battle between St. Peter and the devil for the soul of a lapsed monk shows a king playing a rota.
A century earlier, this painting from the Cappella Palatina in Palermo shows the same instrument, tuning, of course.