THE MUSIC OF THE BIBLE - With an account of the Development of Modern Musical Instruments from Ancient Types. By John Stainer, M.A., MUS. DOC.MAGD, COLL., OXON. New Edition. - Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co.: LONDON, PARIS & NEW YORK. 1882. (ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.) - Prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram, 2005.


HOME | Contents | sabeca | psanterin | dulcimers | psanterin: history | dulcimer: development | You tube logo american dulcimer | >>

Sabeca is one of the instruments mentioned as being used in the well-known band of Nebuchadnezzar, as described in Dan.iii.5. It was, therefore, not a Hebrew but a Babylonish instrument. It is most unfortunately translated "sackbut" in our version. This is to be regretted, because not only does sackbut possess no relation whatever to sabeca, but also it is itself a word the meaning and application of which is surrounded with much obscurity. The sackbut of Europe was certainly a kind of bass trumpet, in fact, a trombone. The idea of having a sliding tube inside a trumpet, so that its length could be altered in order to produce different sounds, and consequently different series of overtones, seems to have existed in very early times. The Chinese, whose conservatism in art throws an air of antiquity over even their modern productions, possess instruments of this class. In chap.viii. will be found illustrations of some of these Chinese trumpets which the player has the power of shortening or elongating at will. This would be the simplest form of sackbut or trombone. But, although we have before this given warning of the danger likely to arise from attempting to describe instruments from the derivation of their names, it is impossible to disregard that meaning when it is very obvious and almost undisputed. Now the root sac, signifying a pouch or bag, runs through a vast number of languages— Hebrew, Arabic, and most of the European languages dead or now used. There is also, according to some, a root boog in Arabic, and buk in Hebrew, meaning a "trumpet" or "pipe." There is a great temptation, therefore, to jump to the conclusion that a sackbut must have been a bagpipe, especially as the German name for a bagpipe is Sackpfeife, which looks, and is, a very near relation to sackbut; and, moreover, it seems difficult to account for the application of such a term as bag-trumpet to a trombone, an instrument which is but very slightly, if at all, unlike a trumpet in the general form of its outline. The fact, however, remains unshaken that the European sackbut was a trombone, the word being used in the same sense in many languages, as, for instance, in old French saqueboute, and in Italian, sacabuche : The reader must forgive this digression on a word which, as has been remarked, ought not to have found its way into our translation of the Book of Daniel. The sabeca, then, which is not a sackbut, is generally identified with the σάμβυξ or σαμβύκη, sambuca ; a harp known to the Greeks and Romans as an ingredient of Oriental luxury. They were evidently played upon by men as well as by women, as a player on the sambuca is a σαμβυκισρής or σαμβυκίστρια, sambucistus or sambucistria . But, granting that the sabeca was a sambuca, the question is, what was a sambuca ? Two answers are given. One, that it was a very small harp of high pitch; the other, that it was a large harp with a great many strings. Both statements may be true of different periods of its existence. That the term was once applied to a small trigon (possibly when made of elder-wood, sambucus) is unquestionable; but there are also authors who have identified it with many instruments of a far more important development.

 It is more probable, therefore, that it was a large and powerful harp, of a rich quality of tone. Some have thought it very similar to, if not identical with, the great Egyptian harp, and have considered the next illustrations (Figs. 29, 30) as representations of it. [For other examples of such instruments the reader is referred to the Appendix to F. von Drieberg's Wörterbuch der Griechischen Musik, (Berlin, 1835.)]

It will be well, perhaps, to state here what were the instruments mentioned in Dan.iii.5, 7, 10, 15. They were

  1. keren, the cow-horn (σάλπυγξ);

  2. mashrokitha, pan's-pipes or small organ (σῦρυγξ);

  3. kithara, the lyre, or guitar (κιθάρα);

  4. sabeca, the large harp (σαμβύκη);

  5. psanterin, the dulcimer (ψαλτήριον);

  6. symphonia, the bag-pipe (συμφωνία).

In the succeeding chapters an account of each of these instruments will be found. top


The consideration of this instrument will lead us into much that is interesting. The psanterin, pesanterin, or phsanterin (Dan.iii.5, 7, 10, 15), has been translated in the Septuagint by the word ψαλτήριον (psaltermi ), psalterium, and although rendered "psaltery" in the English version, in all probability is the dulcimer. Perhaps no instrument has undergone less changes, or been of more widespread use, than the dulcimer. When, therefore, in our own villages we have seen the itinerant rustic musician place one on a table or stool and rap out a merry tune, we have really seen an exact counterpart of the instrument which was used in that terrible ordeal when the true God-worshippers had, at the peril of a fiery death, to pronounce their sublime belief in an unseen God, in opposition to the grovelling veneration of wood, stone, or gold; and when they boldly stood forth, a mere handful of righteous men, in the midst of a mighty idolatrous nation. One can hardly realise the awfulness of the scene, the intense anxiety on all faces, when, as the music broke forth, a signal for all to bend to the golden image, those three children stood unmoved, upright. When the sounds of harps, trumpets, and bagpipes gathered on the ear, to which these simple dulcimers added their share, how every eye must have been strained to catch a glimpse of those strange believers in the Unseen!

The custom of causing a loud crash of musical sounds to accompany any tragic scene has survived amongst many savage nations, torture and executions being not unfrequently accompanied by the noisiest attainable music.

It must be carefully borne in mind that the word ''psaltery" is generally used as a translation of nebel, but no confusion need arise if it be remembered that mention of the psanterin is only to be found in Dan. iii. 5, 7, 10, 15. That the word "psaltery" should have been somewhat loosely used by the learned translators of the Bible is not surprising when we remember that the verb ψάλλω (psallo) signifies "to play upon a harp or lute," that ψάλτης (psaltes) is a male harpist, and ψάλτρια (psaltria) a female harpist. And, moreover, so thoroughly is this class of words connected with harp or lute playing, that the very title of the Book of "Psalms" is given to it because it is a collection of songs to be sung to the accompaniment of a harp or lute. And still more, in ecclesiastical Latin psallere not unfrequently means "to sing the Psalms of David." Psanterin is unquestionably connected with the Chaldee santeer ; but Villoteau, quoted by Fetis, goes on to say that the Egyptians would affix to it the article pi, making it pisanteer ; and, again, that the Assyrians would suffix in, making the whole pisanterin ; whence psanterin or phsanterin. Villoteau is, however, wrong, for on the authority of a sound Semitic scholar I am enabled to say that there is no Assyrian termination in, and that in the transfer of the word from the Greek to the Chaldee, I and n would be interchanged, and the termination ion would either be converted into in or be dropped out altogether; also as the compound letter ps (ψ) is not represented in Arabic, the word would become santerin or santeer, perhaps more properly written santyr. The mention, in the above-named quotation from the Book of Daniel, of several other instruments whose Chaldee names have a very similar sound to their Greek translations— namely, keren (κέρας), cornet; kithros (κιθάρα), harp; and especially symphonio, (συμφωνία), bag-pipe— forces us to believe that these names were actually borrowed from the Greek. The intercourse between Asia and Greece, through Phoenicia, would be sufficient to account for this. But, on the other hand, it seems very remarkable, if the above supposition be correct, that the orchestra (as we should term it) on such an important' ceremony in Babylon should consist entirely of foreign instruments. The arguments on both sides are to be found in many of our best critical commentaries on the Bible.

The word psalterion is, as before remarked, formed from psallo, which is a strengthened form of ψάω (psao), which signifies "to touch on the surface, stroke." To many of our readers an apology may be necessary for entering into such well-known details; but it is felt that to some, into whose hands this little book may chance to come, such information may not be uninteresting or useless. A word derived from this ψάω has been aptly used for the twitch which a carpenter gives to a coloured or chalked string when he wishes it to leave a mark. This is highly suggestive of the action of lute or harp playing; it is not strange, therefore, that when used in a musical sense, the word should imply plucking with the fingers, as opposed to striking with a plectrum or style, which latter was as common or more common a practice among the ancients than the former.


Our word "dulcimer" seems on good authority to have been derived from the Italian, perhaps from the old word dolcimela, which is connected with dolcin. Now dolcin is a kind of hautboy ; but it must not be thought that any relationship whatever to the hautboy was suggested by the title "dulcimer." [See also in chap.ix. an account of the association of the word cymbal (cembalo) with the dulcimer.] This is but one more proof of the utter confusion which is to be found in the application of musical terms; or rather, perhaps, suggests the intimate connection which has existed between all phases of musical history. The word dolcin survives to this day in the catalogues of the registers or stops in old German organs, appearing as dolcan, dulcan, dulcian, or dulzian, and signifying generally either a deep hautboy or high bassoon. From this source we get our dulciana, the name of the lovely soft-toned stop invented by old Snetzler, the builder of many fine organs in different parts of England. The Spanish have the exact counterpart of this word in their dulcaynas, mentioned in Don Quixote, where deep-toned hautboys are evidently meant, and where they are ascribed to a Moorish origin. Dulciana is, however, not wisely applied to Snetzler's organ-stop, as it consists of flue, not reed pipes.

The earliest form of the dulcimer was of the rudest description, probably a flat piece of wood, generally four-sided, either rectangular or with two converging sides, having strings attached to fixed pins on one side, and to movable tuning-pins on the other. Then, in process of time, the simple flat piece of wood was found to be capable of conversion into a resonance-box, and the dulcimer became a genuine string-instrument constructed without a neck, because, inasmuch as the strings were hit with little hammers held in the hand, the long neck became a useless limb.

Then, again, the strings would be made, on the inner side of the pins, to pass over a bridge, either as a continuous bridge running parallel to the converging sides, or as separate movable bridges under each string. Then, again, in order to produce a greater volume of tone, more than one string came to be allotted to one note, several strings, perhaps as many as three or four, tuned of course in unison, being grouped to each note. In nearly all cases the instrument has been played upon by little hammers, one being wielded by each hand of the performer. The German name of the dulcimer, hackbret (chopping-board), is eminently expressive of the position and action of the player. It is important to note that the Italian name of the instrument is salterio, because this word connects the Greek ψαλτήριον with the modern European instruments. By some strange fatality the translators of the Authorised Version have dragged in the word "dulcimer" as a translation of symphonia (συμφωνία), and not of psalterion ; so the last three instruments mentioned in our version are these: sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer; whereas they should read, harp (sabeca), dulcimer (psanterin), bag-pipe (symphonia).


Fig. 31 illustrates a Chinese dulcimer, called by them yang-kin. It is played with two little sticks; the strings, which are of brass, are very thin. On this instrument, Carl Engel (to whose learning and persevering research the public interest in these subjects, which culminated in the valuable collection at South Kensington, is mainly due, and to whom we are indebted for kind permission to make sketches from his loan exhibition) remarks; "The resemblance of the yang-kin to our dulcimer, and to the santir of the Arabs and Persians, is very remarkable, and suggests various conjectures."

The kin, another Chinese instrument, which is of a long oblong shape, with a curved belly, has been improperly called the scholar's lute, because it was the favourite instrument of Confucius. When played, it is, like the dulcimer, placed on a table; but, unlike the dulcimer, the strings are twanged with the fingers, instead of being struck with hammers or sticks; and, also, the strings are made to produce several notes by being pressed down by the fingers at given points, or; as we technically term it, by being stopped.

The Japanese have instruments called goto or koto, which are of the dulcimer class; that shown in Fig. 32 is a taki-goto, made of bamboo, having movable bridges which of course enable a performer to tune it to several distinct successions of intervals or scales.

Some are played with the plectrum, others twanged with the tips of the fingers. The strings, thirteen in number, are of carefully-twisted silk. To this instrument the Chinese tsang or tche bears a remarkable resemblance, not only in shape, but in having movable bridges.

The next illustration (Fig. 33) is a santir of Georgia, of very elegant construction, being made of wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl. It has twenty-five sets of wire strings, four strings tuned in unison making up each set.

The handsome instrument depicted in Fig. 34 is an Italian dulcimer or salterio of the middle of the last century. The comparison of this with that shown in Fig. 33 will lead to the most interesting results.

One more illustration will be given, and then it is hoped the reader will have had sufficient proof of the connection between the salterio of Europe, derived from psalterium, and the santir of the East, derived from psanterin (Fig. 33 showing the santir. Fig. 34 the salterio).

The next illustration (Fig. 35) is that of the dulcimer of Benares. This specimen is in the Indian Museum. An instrument of a very similar shape and appearance, and having the tuning-pins arranged in the same way, is the kanoon, which Engel says is a favourite instrument with the ladies of Turkey. Its strings are of gut, and are twanged with a plectrum of tortoise-shell pointed with cocoanut-shell. An Egyptian instrument of similar construction, called also ckanoon, has been described by Lane. The Hindoos have a kind of santir  which they call sar mudal. It is worthy of remark that the early English dulcimer was called sautrie or sawtry, an evident corruption of "psaltery." Allusions to this in old writers are sufficiently numerous. 

Chaucer, in describing the charms and accomplishments of Nicholas, the Oxford cleric, and the furniture of his room, says :—

And all above there lay a gay sautrie, On which he made on nightes melodye So swetely that all the chambre rong; And Angelas ad Virginem he song.

Fortunately a contemporaneous account of this instrument is to be found in Bartholomasus De Proprietatibus Rerum, written originally in Latin, and translated in 1398. It is given by Hawkins as follows :—

De Psalterio

The sawtry highte Psalterium, and hath that name of psallendo, syngynge; for the consonant answeryth to the note thereof in syngynge. The harpe is like to the sawtry in sowne. But this is the dyuersytee and discorde bytwene the harpe and the sawtry: in the sawtry is an holowe tree, and of that same tree the sowne comyth upwarde, and the strynges ben smytte downwarde and sownyth upward; and in the harpe the holownesse of the tre is bynethe... Stringes for the sawtry ben beste made of laton, [Laton or latten, a mixed metal, pinchbeck.] or elles those ben goode that ben made "of syluer."

The old citole (cistella, a little chest) seems only to have differed from the sawtry in that its strings were twanged with the finger-ends. top

But instruments of the dulcimer family are not only interesting to us as being used over such a wide geographical area, and among nations of such various types, but also as being the forerunner of that most useful, as it is too one of the most beautiful, of modern instruments—the pianoforte. Imagine a dulcimer the hammers of which are made to strike by means of keys, or cloves, and a miniature, pianoforte is the result. There seems to be some doubt as to whether a system of keys was first applied to the organ or to a stringed instrument. The leap from a dulcimer to a pianoforte would have been immediate, if the first instruments with keyboards had hammers wherewith to strike the strings. But the form which these early keyed-stringed instruments took was that of the clavicytherium, or keyed cithara, a small oblong box containing strings which, when the keys were pressed down, were plucked by quills. The tone produced in this manner has been aptly described as "a scratch with a sound at the end of it." Yet this peculiar twang, though not always similarly produced, was not only borne with, but delighted in, from about the twelfth century to the beginning of the eighteenth—a most lasting popularity. The clavichord, clarichord, or monochord, which was a successor of that first attempt, the clavicytherium, was, though a vast improvement on its predecessor, of a comparatively clumsy construction, its chief characteristic being that a brass pin at the end of the key not only set the string in vibration, but by resting against it portioned off the part which was to vibrate. Much information is given on the subject of this instrument in Dr. Rimbault's valuable work on the History of the Pianoforte. But clumsy as this system seems to us, the clavichord held its own till the time of J. S. Bach, that marvellous man whose instinctive mastery of the art of music has made his works the treasure-house of all accomplished musicians to this day, albeit he was born in 1685! His son, C. P. E. Bach, played on one to Dr. Burney. But in the meantime the upright pin striking and resting against the string had been superseded by a quill plectrum, as in the clavicytherium, the quill being placed in a small wooden frame called a jack, in such a manner, that as the jack rose, the quill plucked the string; but as it fell again, the quill passed by the string, and remained ready for another stroke. In all instruments of this kind bits of cloth were used as dampers, that is, stopped the vibration of a string when the key was allowed to rise, just as is the case in a modem pianoforte.

The virginal and spinet were two instruments of this class, the first so called because the favourite of ladies, or, as some say, in compliment to Queen Elizabeth; the latter from the resemblance of the quill plucker or plectrum to a thorn (spina). They seem to have differed from each other only in shape, the former being made oblong, the latter three-sided, or the shape of a harp lying down. An engraving of both is given (see Figs. 36 and 37).

These were to be in time ousted by the cembalo, or harpsichord, which included many improvements, such, for instance, as the covering the striking part with leather, the formation of two rows of keys, mechanical contrivances for causing each key to play the octave above, or octave below, its own sound.

On the cases of all instruments just described, our fore­fathers were wont to bestow much decoration. Sometimes, as the lid was thrown open for the performer, its inner side disclosed an elegant oil painting, a landscape, or symbolical figures. Many were very richly inlaid with various woods, or even with precious stones. In this utilitarian age we pride ourselves (a little too much, perhaps) on giving consideration to the tone, and disregarding the appearance of the case.

The harpsichord is by no means to be despised as a musical instrument; for although vastly inferior in quality and quantity of tone to a grand pianoforte, it possesses a remarkable power of variety, and can be either bright and sparkling, or rich and sonorous in sound.

On such an instrument did Handel practise, or while away his time, or perchance draw out the threads of some of his grand conceptions. The fact that the pianoforte did not at first receive sufficient public favour to enable it to displace the harpsichord, accounts for the overlapping of the history of the two. The highly-finished harpsichord was, no doubt, superior to the tentative pianoforte: we can therefore fully sympathise with the public feeling of that day.

It will, it is hoped, have been observed by the reader that the word psaltery in its classical sense of a harp, is quite a justifiable translation of the Hebrew word nebel, but in its modern sense (associated with the Italian salterio) it is a more proper translation of psanterin—a dulcimer. That ψαλτήριον (psalterion) should have been used in the Septuagint for both "nebel" and "psanterin" is much to be regretted. But, as before remarked, its use as a translation of "psanterin" is limited to the Book of Daniel.