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.


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THESE words, which are found about a dozen times in the Old Testament, are, with only one exception, rendered "cymbals" in our version.  This name fully describes the form' of the instrument, for cymbal comes direct from the Greek κύμβαλον (cymbalum), which in turn comes from κύμβος (cymbus), a hollowed plate or basin.


Now, although there are in use among most nations a large number of varieties of this instrument, differing in size, yet there are only two having any broad distinction in form. Of these, the one was almost identical with our modern soup-plate (having a somewhat larger rim); the other had a hollow commencing at the very rim, and terminating in an upright handle, giving it the appearance of a hollow cone, surmounted by a handle.

Both sorts were in use among the Assyrians. The comparatively flat cymbals were played by bringing the right and left hands, each of which held one plate, sharply together at right angles with the body. Of the conical-shaped cymbals, one was held stationary in the left hand, while the other was dashed upon it vertically with the right hand. Fig. 85 shows an Assyrian in the act of striking this last-mentioned form of the instrument. Sculpture also shows people striking the flatter instruments in the manner above described.

The ancient Egyptians also used cymbals made of copper, with a small admixture of silver. Most fortunately a pair of these was discovered in the tomb of a priestly musician named Ankhape, close by his mummied body.  These are given in Fig. 86.  The perforation in the top is, of course, for the purpose of passing a loop of cord through as a handle. A leather strap is used for this in modern instruments. These ancient specimens are about five inches in diameter, and are said to be almost identical, both in form and size, with those used in Egypt at the present time.



In two sorts are evidently pointed out:

Praise Him upon the loud cymbals;
praise Him upon the high-sounding cymbals.


Bearing this in mind, it is very interesting to find that the Arabs have two distinct varieties, large and small; for the "loud cymbals" of the Psalmist would certainly be of a larger diameter than the "high-sounding" cymbals.  In the Prayer-book version of this Psalm, the real distinction between these two species is unfortunately not made plain:

Praise Him upon the well-tuned cymbals;
praise him upon the loud cymbals.

The Arabs use their large cymbals in religious ceremonies, but the smaller kind seem to be almost limited to the accom­paniment of dancers. In India, instruments of this class are called talon. There is also a smaller species called kintal. The Bayaderes dance to the tal.

The Turks, as would be expected from their early origin amongst the table-lands of central Asia, inherit a system of music chiefly founded on that of the ancient Persians. They have always excelled, not only in the use of instruments of percussion, but also in their construction. From the fact that the foot-guard of the Sultan were formerly called Janissaries, music chiefly consisting of a combination of the sounds of instruments of percussion has been called "janissary music." The efforts of Frederick II. to obtain genuine music of this sort for German use are well known. Turkish cymbals still hold a high value, and are manufactured in that country in very large quantities, for exportation westward.

Gongs, though perhaps less strictly musical instruments than cymbals, must be classified with them, and many nations celebrated for the manufacture of one are equally famous for producing the other.

The Chinese and Burmese, for instance, use both cymbals and gongs, the latter being sometimes suspended on cords in a series of different sizes, so as to produce their national scale when struck in succession. Fig. 87 shows a specimen of Indian cymbals;

Fig. 88, one from Burmah. The joining together of the two plates by means of a cord does not appear to have been at any time a common custom in Europe.

The Greeks and Romans, by whom cymbals seem to have been shaped strictly in accordance with what the name implies— hollow hemispheres of metal, used them in the rites connected with the worship of Bacchus, Juno, and Cybele. But, as has happened in other cases, the name cymbal has been in the most extraordinary way applied to instruments of a totally different construction. The Italians, at one period, called a common tambourine by this name, and even went so far as to apply it to the dulcimer! We have in a previous article traced the growth of a dulcimer through various stages, till it reached the form of a harpsichord; the reader, therefore, will not be astonished to find, at a later date, "cymbal" used for harpsichord. But this is not all. As the pianoforte was the direct offspring of the harpsichord, the pianoforte part in a full score is to this day sometimes marked cembalo, or "the cymbal part." It seems to be a matter for much regret that musicians should feel bound, by habit or fashion, thus to perpetuate a title which is not only unmeaning, but absolutely incorrect. It is difficult to understand in what respect the dulcimer was thought to bear any resemblance to cymbals. Some say that because it was struck with hammers, it might with justice be called an instrument of percussion; but it is more probable that the peculiar clang caused by hitting wire strings with little wooden mallets, gave some fanciful resemblance between the "ringing" tone of both instruments. In modern military bands, cymbals are used as of old; a plate being held firmly in each hand by a leather thong, and by swinging the hands together the plates clash. In modern orchestras the instrument is generally used thus: one plate is horizontally fixed (rather loosely) on to the top of an upright drum; with his left hand the player holds the other plate, and with his right hand a drumstick. Thus, not only can one performer play both instruments simultaneously, but the tone and clang of the cymbals are much intensified by being in close connection with the vibrating skin and frame of the drum.


Cymbals, in a somewhat unexpected manner, came to be associated with the tambour. For as they became reduced in size it was found possible to insert several pairs inside the rim of the tambour, so that their clatter should either join the rhythmical beating of the tambour, or be heard alone when the tambour is held by one hand, and made to swing rapidly from side to side, a diameter being its axis.

These "petites cymbales" were occasionally fixed to the thumb and forefinger of both hands, which were then clapped together, as shown in Fig. 89. Hence they came to be called castanets, from their similarity to the old toy— hardly worthy of the name of a musical instrument, although it was used with dancing— which consisted of chestnuts attached to the fingers (as in Fig. 89), and beaten together; the words chestnuts and castanets both being derived from castanea (Lat), and κάστανον (Greek), the name of the tree.

But in process of time, pieces of ivory or mother-of-pearl were substituted for chestnuts. Hence the bones which we see rattled between the fingers of supposed negroes are dignified with the name castanets, and can in some sense trace their pedigree to the ancient cymbals. Hence, too, we get an explanation of the old word nakers or nackers, which was applied to castanets by Chaucer, and used commonly at a later period. Evidently it alludes to the material of which they were made, nacre being the French, and nacar the Spanish for "mother-of-pearl." Very small cymbals have occasionally been used in the modern orchestra. Berlioz, who gave so much attention, and devoted so much talent, to the increasing of the resources of a band, used, in a symphony, a pair not bigger than the palm of the hand, and tuned them at an interval of a fifth apart. It should be stated that in playing cymbals, not only in Europe, but in Asia, it is not usual to strike them edge against edge, as the Assyrian appears to be doing with his conical cymbals in Fig. 85, but to make one plate only partially overlap the other.  If the former method be adopted, the vibrations of the plates are very liable to destroy each other, owing to the extent of the contact of the two surfaces ; if the latter, the plates have more "play" when in vibration.

In the Holy Scriptures the use of cymbals is solely confined to religious ceremonies— the bringing back the ark from Kirjath-jearim (i Chron. xv.16, 19, 28); at the dedication of Solomon's Temple (2 Chron.v.13); at the restoration of worship by Hezekiah (2 Chron.xxix.25); at the laying the foundation of the second Temple (Ezra iii.10); and at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem (Neh..27). This would lead us to suppose that cymbals were not commonly used as an accompaniment to dancing among the Jews. Certain Levites were set aside as cymbalists, as described in i Chron.xvi.42, and elsewhere. They are mentioned in Ezra iii.10, as being used with trumpets (khatsotsrah) only, but in most other instances are described as being used with harps and other Hebrew instruments. There is deep meaning in the allusion of St. Paul to this instrument in i Cor.i.1. Inasmuch as it gives out a shrill and clanging sound (κύμβαλον ἀλαλάζον), and is incapable of being tempered or tuned so as to form ever-varied chords with those musical instruments which surround it, it too well illustrates the hollowness and emptiness of character which, while making noble professions with the tongue, lacks that gift of charity which, if it truly glowed in us all, would soon attune all the discords of this world into such a sweet harmony as were worthy of heaven itself. It is a pity that ἀλαλάζον should in this fine passage have been translated "tinkling," a word now used to describe any trifling, petty jingle; it should have been "clanging " or "clashing " cymbal.


The one instance, before alluded to, in which the word tseltslim has been translated otherwise than by the word "cymbals," occurs in Zech.xiv.20, where it is rendered by "bells:"

In that day shall there be upon the bells of the horses, HOLINESS UNTO THE LORD.

The margin here has another reading—"upon the bridles of the horses," but if the word be understood in a musical sense or not, it can in no way be considered as badly rendered by "bells." For the Eastern custom of having little plates of metal attached to the caparisons of horses so as to produce a jingling noise, is well known. And if these plates had a circular indentation, they would be little cymbals; and if the indentation should be made deeper, and the rim be gradually bent into a circular outline, a little bell is the result. This gradual change of metal plates into bells is interesting and important. The indentation of cymbals would be found to add to their vibrating power and sonority, and as this indentation became exaggerated, nothing would be more probable than that they should eventually be formed into half-globes. This form, as has been before remarked, is actually to be found in Roman and Greek sculpture. Then again, in course of time, these half-globes or, as they might be truly called, these hemispherical bells, would be found to be shrill and noisy in tone. Then again would naturally follow the experiments, as made in Europe, of moulding the rim slightly out-turned, and thickening its metal. Here at last we have a real bell with the so-called sound-bow, or thick lip. But here it should be observed that Europe is the birth-place of modern bells; they seem not to have existed as musical instruments until the Middle Ages. Of the bells of the Bible, therefore, we have but little to say. They were mere accoutrements, not capable of being arranged so as to produce the consecutive sounds of a musical scale.  The care bestowed upon their form and construction, particularly in Holland and Belgium, led to the casting of those rich and mellow-toned instruments whose sounds ever stir deep emotions in us, whether of joy or sorrow. England was not slow to adopt so appropriate and useful an addition to her many church towers, and learnt to make use of them in a way even now imperfectly understood on the Continent— namely, that of hanging them on the axis of a wheel, and ringing them by a complete swing. The most ancient bells yet discovered are found not to be castings, but to consist of a plate of metal, bent round, and rudely riveted where the edges met. Bells, then, are closely allied to cymbals, but when mentioned in ancient authors, are not to be looked upon as musical instruments. The Assyrians used them, as did the ancient Chinese, and not a few have been found in Irish bogs, or in the drift. If, then, the "bells on horses" were not little cymbals, they were not more than toy-bells, such as are to be often heard in our own country lanes, when the miller's team is lazily led along under the autumn sun, warning any wagoner coming in an opposite direction to draw near the hedge and allow a free passage. Phaghamon is the name used in Exod.xxviii.33, for such bells on the priests' garments:

And beneath upon the hem of it thou shalt make pomegranates of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet round about the hem thereof; and bells of gold between them round about: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, upon the hem of the robe round about. And it shall be upon Aaron to minister: and his sound shall be heard when he goeth in unto the holy place before the Lord, and when he cometh out, that he die not.

In Exod.xxxix.25, we read—

And they made bells ... as the Lord commanded Moses.

These are the only two passages in which phaghamon occurs.