bout the Lyre
The lyre is differentiated from other stringed instruments by the two arms that attach its crossbeam to its resonator body. The pair of arms give the lyre its roughly trapezoidal or rectangular form, whereas harps are triangular. Lyres are further differentiated from harps in that their strings run parallel to the soundboard. Most lyres are played by plucking the strings with the fingertips or strumming them with a plectrum. However, during the tenth century A.D. the lyre began to be played with a bow.
Lyres were used by many of the great civilizations of antiquity. They are depicted in Sumerian artwork from 3000 B.C. Amazingly, several lyres from this era were found in the royal cemetery at Ur. They now reside in the British Museum in London, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, and the National Museum in Baghdad. (Tragically the lyre in Baghdad was badly damaged during looting in 2003. Its gold and silver plating was stolen and its body was broken.) They are each between three and four feet long, making them larger than more recent lyres. (This is not surprising as it is common for instruments to be reduced in size as they evolve.) The sound boxes of three of the lyres are trapezoidal and are designed to look like the body of an ox. In fact a carving of an ox head is placed at the top end of the instruments. They are also highly ornamented and have inlays and gold and silver plating. The arms supporting the crossbeam are not of equal length. The arm that is farthest away from the player is longer than the closer arm. The lyres had as few as eight to as many as eleven strings. These were wrapped around the crossbar and knotted. A small stick was inserted into the wrapping and knot of each string. By putting pressure on the stick the string could be tuned. The instrument was played with both hands, in a fashion similar to a harp. Later Sumerian lyres were smaller and could be played while being carried.
The lyre was also used by the Egyptians. The instrument is first found during the New Kingdom period from 1580 to 1090 B.C. During the fifteenth century B.C., during the reigns of the Egyptian Pharaohs Thutmosis and Amenophis, Egypt conquered parts of southwest Asia. The Egyptians adopted many aspects of culture from the conquered regions including new instruments such as the lyre. Egyptian lyres had rectangular soundboxes and asymmetrical arms. They were held with the strings parallel to the ground and the side of the instrument facing down. A performer would strum all of the strings with a plectrum and mute select strings with the other hand. This manner of performance has been used on lyres into the Middle Ages. Egyptian lyres had an even greater variety in their number of strings than Sumerian ones. Some instruments had as few as five strings, while others had fourteen strings. On some instruments the strings were attached to a distinct box that was connected to the soundboard.
The Jews also played the lyre. Unfortunately no instruments survive. Worse yet, creating depictions of men could be construed as creating an idol for worship. In ancient cultures it would have been exceedingly rare for an instrument to be illustrated in the absense of an illustration of a person. For this reason no illustrations of lyres were created by Jews. Our knowledge of the Jewish lyre comes from the Pentateuch. The lyre was known as the kinnor. It is the first instrument mentioned in the Bible and is the instrument of King David. Early translations of the Bible identify the instrument as a kithara. The Vulgate translates the instrument as the cithara. It was later erroneously translated as the harp. The Talmud requires that the strings be made from sheep gut. The kinnor was used to accompany singing and was used in the temple. It was plucked with a plectron, although sometimes it was played with the fingers. Flavius Josephus, a Roman historian, noted that the kinnor had ten strings. The instrument was used to play joyful songs. It was not used during the Babylonian exile, thus the psalms mention that they suspended their kinnorim on the willows, as they could not sing the Lord's song in a strange land.
There were two types of lyres in ancient Greece. The first was called the kithera, and the second was known as the lyra. The kithera had a large sound board that was made from wood. It sides were curved, unlike the roughly rectangular lyres from Egypt and Summeria. When it was played it was held vertically or leaned towards the player like a harp. It was the instrument of Apollo, bards, and professional musicians. Homer refers to this instrument as the phorminx or kitharis.
The lyra was smaller and lighter than the kithera. Its body was made from a turtle shell or a wooden bowl. The soundboard was made from animal skin. The arms were made from antlers or wooden sticks. Although it was more primitive than the kithera, it was introduced to Greek culture after the kithera. The lyra was angled away from the musician when it was played. It was an instrument of amateurs or novices.
The strings of the kithera and of the lyra were originally made from hemp. Gut strings were eventually adopted. Other changes in the instruments included the number of strings that were used. Writings and illustrations from the ninth century B.C. indicate that lyres had three or four strings. As time went on, more strings were added. Eighth century lyres had three to five strings. By the fifth century lyres had up to twelve strings.
Lyres were commonly tuned pentatonically, without semitones. An example of such as tuning is EGABD. The chromatic notes were obtained by pressing on the string to increase its tension. The instruments were played in one of three fashions:
- strumming all of the strings with a plectron that was held in the right hand while the left hand dampened select strings
- plucking strings with the fingers of the left hand and intermittently strumming all of the strings with a plectron that was held in the right hand
- plucking strings with the fingers of both hands
Lyres were used to accompany song and dance, as well as to play purely instrumental music.
From ancient Greece we now turn to the Dark Ages. Like the kithera, Saxon lyres were made from wood. They differed in that the body and arms of the Saxon lyres were made from a single piece of wood, and their sides were roughly parallel. Saxon lyres were also much more slender and shallow than the kithera, being only about eight inches wide and slightly more than an inch deep. Despite their length of more than two feet, they were very portable. Many of the instruments had straps to help hold the instrument during performance or transport. Most Saxon lyres had metal ornaments on their arms, which may have also served to help to secure the crossbar or soundboard. One major innovation of the Saxon lyre was its tuning pegs. This marked a major advance from the methods used by the Greeks, such as levers used to raise the crossbar. The tuning pegs were arranged in a row on the crossbeam. They functioned just like the pegs of violins, by rotating the peg, the tension on the string could be increased or decreased.
It is thought that most Saxon lyres had six strings. They were likely adopted the tuning of a hexachord, which corresponds to the first six notes of a major scale. Thus, if the lowest string was tuned to C, the remaining strings would be tuned, D, E, F, G, and A.
Fragments of several Anglo-Saxon lyres survive. These were found in various locations including Sutton Hoo, Snape, Morning Thorpe, Bergh Apton, Taplow, Abingdon, Scole, Prittlewell, Trossingen, Oberflacht, Cologne, Kerch, and Hedeby. Most of these are just small fragments. For example, all that remains of the Hedeby lyre is the crosssbar and six tuning pegs, and only the bridge and tuning peg remain from the Scole lyre. The Trossingen lyre is the best preserved and is almost entirely intact. These lyres date from 500 A.D. to 1000 A.D. There are also several illustrations of Saxon Lyres. One of the best is found in Durham Cathedral Library Ms B. II. 30, fol. 81v. It depicts King David playing a lyre which looks remarkably similar to the Trossingen lyre. Another depiction of King David with Lyre is found in London, British Library, MS Cotton Vespasian A. i, f. 30v-31.
Another type of lyre is depicted in French manuscripts beginning around 900 A.D. Unlike Saxon lyres, these instruments had curved sides, giving them an hourglass shape. Some of them also had center posts that are similar to the fingerboard of a violin. The left hand would reach around the post and finger the strings from the front of the instrument. They also differed from Saxon lyres in that they could have as few as four strings. Over the course of the Middle Ages a preference for stringed instruments were curved sides developed. However, it is important to note that these new lyres did not supplant the older parallel lyre in all localities.
One of the major innovations in sound production occurred around the beginning of the second millennia A.D. This was the discovery that the bow could be used to produce sound with stringed instruments. It is thought that this use of the bow came from central Asia. Such bows were commonly strung with horse hair, and continue to be to this day. The use of bows quickly spread to Europe, the Middle East, India, and China.
Bows were used with many preexisting string instruments, including the lyre. By the eleventh century the lyre was usually played with a bow. Over the course of the Middle Ages the number of strings on the lyre was reduced from six to three.
During the Middle Ages the Vielle became the predominant bowed instrument. By the Renaissance the lyre was all but abandoned in most parts of Europe. However, there were a few localities that continued to use lyres. These include Wales and Finland. The Welsh lyre is known as the crwth. It was known as the crot or cruit in Ireland. It has a roughly rectangular shape that tapered slightly towards the top crossbar. At some point the instrument was given a fingerboard like a violin. It also shared the violins' arched back. In addition to its four main strings, the crwth commonly had a number of drones which were placed to one side of the main strings. The bridge of the crwth functions like a bridge and a soundpost. One side of the bridge rests on the top of the instrument. The other side passes through a hole in the top and rests on the back of the instrument. On some instruments both sides of the bridge rest on the back of the instrument in a fashion similar to the kemenche.
The lyre was an important part of the musical culture in Scandinavia. There is a depiction of a lyre on a stone from Larbro Kallstede in Gotland, Sweeden that dates from the the sixth century A.D. Several bridges from lyres have also been found in Broa in Halla Parish, Birka in Uppland, and Gerete in Fardhem parish. They are made from amber, antler, and bronze. There are also numerous depictions of lyres in Scandinavian artwork throughout the Middle Ages. These suggest that the plucked lyres were still used in this region into the fourteenth century, several hundred years after this manner of playing went out of fashion in other parts of Europe. The tradition of using bowed lyres has survived to this day. In Estonia the lyre is known as the talharpa or tagelharpa. The instrument takes the form of a rectangle. They are approximately two feet long and range in width from six to eight inches. Talharpa usually have three or four strings. The bowed lyre of Finland is known as the jouhikke. Like Anglo-Saxon lyres it is carved from a single piece of wood and have parallel sides. However, jouhikko are narrower, usually not exceeding six inches in width, and are deeper, sometimes as deep as three inches. The bottom of the instrument usually tapers to a point like a spade. The jouhikko has two or three strings that are made from horse hair.
The talharpa pictured on this page was built by Michael Berger, and is a rather crude first attempt at such an instrument. It is nearly six inches wide and slightly more than two inches deep. It is not based on an historical example and features modern components including a tailpiece from a five string violin, and a bridge from a violin, and tuning pegs from a zither.
The bowed lyre pictured on this page was built by Larry W. LaBounty.
Page Design Copyright 2010 Michael Berger
Clip Art Copyright 2002 Dover Publications