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Cithara

CITHARA (Assyrian chetarah; Gr. ; Lat. cithara; perhaps Heb. kinura, kinnor), one of the most ancient stringed instruments, traced back to 1700 B.C. among the Semitic races, in Egypt, Assyria, Asia Minor, Greece and the Roman empire, whence the use of it spread over Europe. The main feature of the Greek kithara, its shallow sound-chest, being the most important part of it, is also that in which developments are most noticeable; its contour varied considerably during the many musical ages, but the characteristic in respect of which it fore-shadowed the precursors of the violin family, and by which they were distinguished from other contemporary stringed instruments of the middle ages, was preserved throughout in all European descendants bearing derived names. This characteristic box sound-chest (fig. 1) consisted of two resonating tables, either flat or delicately arched, connected by ribs or sides of equal width. The cithara may be regarded as an attempt by a more skilful craftsman or race to improve upon the lyre (q.v.), while retaining some of its features. The construction of the cithara can fortunately be accurately studied from two actual specimens found in Egypt and preserved in the museums of Berlin and Leiden. The Leiden cithara (fig. 2), which forms part of the d'Anastasy Collection in the Museum of Antiquities, is in a very good state of preservation. The sound-chest, in the form of an irregular square (17 cm. × 17 cm.), is hollowed out of a solid block of wood from the base, which is open; the little bar, seen through the open base and measuring 2 cm. (1 in.), is also of the same piece of wood. The arms, one short and one long, are solid and are fixed to the body by means of wooden pins; they are glued as well for greater strength. W. Pleyte, through whose courtesy the sketch was revised and corrected, states that there are no indications on the instrument of any kind of bridge or attachment for strings except the little half-hoop of iron wire which passes through the base from back to front. To this the strings were probably attached, and the little bar performed the double duty of sound-post and support for strengthening the tail-piece and enabling it to resist the tension of the strings. The oblique transverse bar, rendered necessary by the increasing length of the strings, was characteristic of the Egyptian cithara, [1] whereas the Asiatic and Greek instruments were generally constructed with horizontal bars resting on arms of equal length, the pitch of the strings being varied by thickness and tension, instead of by length. (For the Berlin cithara see Lyre.)

The number of strings with which the cithara was strung varied from 4 to 19 or 20 at different times; they were added less for the purpose of increasing the compass in the modern sense than to enable the performer to play in the different modes of the Greek musical system. Terpander is credited with having increased the number of strings to seven; Euclid, quoting him as his authority, states that "loving no more the tetrachordal chant, we will sing aloud new hymns to a seven-toned phorminx."

What has been said of the scale of the lyre applies also to the cithara, and need therefore not be repeated here. The strings were vibrated by means of the fingers or plectrum (Gr., from , to strike; Lat. plectrum, from plango, I strike). Twanging with the fingers for strings of gut, hemp or silk was undoubtedly the more artistic method, since the player was able to command various shades of expression which are impossible with a rigid plectrum. [2] Loudness of accent and great brilliancy of tone, however, can only be obtained by the use of the plectrum.

Quotations from the classics abound to show what was the practice of the Greeks and Romans in this respect. The plectrum was held in the right hand, with elbow outstretched and palm bent inwards, and the strings were plucked with the straightened fingers of the left hand. [3] Both methods were used with intention according to the dictates of art for the sake of the variation in tone colour obtainable thereby. [4]

The strings of the cithara were either knotted round the transverse tuning bar itself (zugon) or to rings threaded over the bar, which enabled the performer to increase or decrease the tension by shifting the knots or rings; or else they were wound round pegs, [5] knobs [6] or pins [7] fixed to the zugon. The other end of the strings was secured to a tail-piece after passing over a flat bridge, or the two were combined in the curious high box tail-piece which acted as a bridge. Plutarch [8] states that this contrivance was added to the cithara in the days of Cepion, pupil of Terpander. These boxes were hinged in order to allow the lid to be opened for the purpose of securing the strings to some contrivance concealed therein. It is a curious fact that no sculptured cithara provided with this box tail-piece is represented with strings, and in many cases there could never have been any, for the hand and arm [9] are visible across the space that would be filled by the strings, which are always carved in a solid block.

Like the lyre the cithara was made in many sizes, conditioned by the pitch and the use to which the instrument was to be put. These instruments may have been distinguished by different names; the pectis, for instance, is declared by Sappho (22nd fragment) to have been small and shrill; the phorminx, on the other hand, seems to have been identical with the cithara. [10]

The Greek kithara was the instrument of the professional singer or citharoedus and of the instrumentalist or citharista , and thus served the double purpose of (1) accompanying the voice - a use placed by the Greeks far above mere instrumental music - in epic recitations and rhapsodies, in odes and lyric songs; and (2) of accompanying the dance; it was also used for playing solos at the national games, at receptions and banquets and at trials of skill. The costume of the citharoedus and citharista was rich and recognized as being distinctive; it varied but little throughout the ages, as may be deduced from a comparison of representations of the citharoedus on a coin and on a Greek vase of the best period (fig. 4). The costume consisted of a palla or long tunic with sleeves embroidered with gold and girt high above the waist, falling in graceful folds to the feet. This palla must not be confounded with the mantle of the same name worn by women. Over one shoulder, or hanging down the back, was the purple chlamys or cloak, and on his brow a golden wreath of laurels. All the citharoedi bear instruments of the type here described as the cithara, and never one of the lyre type. The records of the citharoedi extend over more than thirteen centuries and fall into two natural divisions: (1) The mythological period, approximately from the 13th century B.C. to the first Olympiad, 776 B.C.; and (2) the historical period to the days of Ptolemy, A.D. 161. One of the very few authentic Greek odes extant is a Pythian ode by Pindar, in which the phorminx of Apollo is mentioned; the solo is followed by a chorus of citharoedi. The scope of the solemn games and processions, called Panathenaea, held every four years in honour of the goddess Athena, which originally consisted principally of athletic sports and horse and chariot races, was extended under Peisistratus (c. 540 B.C.), and the celebration made to include contests of singers and instrumentalists, recitations of portions of the Iliad and Odyssey, such as are represented on the frieze of the Parthenon (in the Elgin Room at the British Museum) and later on friezes by Pheidias. It was at the same period that the first contests for solo-playing on the cithara and for solo aulos-playing were instituted at the 8th Pythian Games. [11] One of the principal items at these contests for aulos and cithara was the Nomos Pythikos, descriptive of the victory of Apollo over the python and of the defeat of the monster. [12]

The Pythian Games survived the classic Greek period and were continued under Roman sway until about A.D. 394. Not only were these games held at Delphi, but smaller contests, called Pythia, modelled on the great Pythian, were instituted in various provinces of the empire, and more especially in Asia Minor. The games lasted for several days, the first being devoted to music. To the games at Delphi came musicians from all parts of the civilized world; and the Spaniards, at the beginning of our era, had attained to such a marvellous proficiency in playing the cithara, an instrument which they had learnt to know from the Phoenician colonists before the conquest by the Romans, that some of their citharoedi easily carried off the honours at the musical contests. The consul Metellus was so charmed with the music of the Spanish competitors that he sent some to Rome for the festivals, where the impression created was so great that the Spanish citharoedi obtained a permanent footing in Rome. Aulus Gellius (Noct. Att.) describes an incident at a banquet which corroborates this statement.

The degeneration of music as an art among the Romans, and its gradual degradation by association with the sensual amusements of corrupt Rome, nearly brought about its extinction at the end of the 4th century, when the condemnation of the Church closed the theatres, and the great national games came to an end. Instrumental music was banished from civil life and from religious rites, and thenceforth the slender threads which connect the musical instruments of Greeks and Romans with those of the middle ages must be sought among the unconverted barbarians of northern and western Europe, who kept alive the traditions taught them by conquerors and colonists; but as civilization was in its infancy with them the instruments sent out from their workshops must have been crude and primitive. Asia, the cradle of the cithara, also became its foster-mother; it was among the Greeks of Asia Minor that the several steps in the transition from cithara into guitar [13] (q.v.) took place.

The cittern probably owed its popularity at this time to the ease with which it might be mastered and used to accompany the voice; it was one of four instruments generally found in barbers' shops, the others being the gittern, the lute and the virginals. The customers while waiting took down the instrument from its peg and played a merry tune to pass the time. [4] We read that when Konstantijn Huygens came over to England and was received by James I. at Bagshot, he played to the king on the cittern (cithara), and that his performance was duly appreciated and applauded. He tells us that, although he learnt to play the barbiton in a few weeks with skill, he had lessons from a master for two years on the cittern. [5] On the occasion of a third visit he witnessed the performance of some fine musicians and was astonished to hear a lady, mother of twelve, singing in divine fashion, accompanying herself on the cittern; one of these artists he calls Lanivius, the British Orpheus, whose performance was really enchanting.

Michael Praetorius [6] gives various tunings for the cittern as well as an illustration (sounded an octave higher than the notation).

During the 18th century the cittern, citra or English guitar, had twelve wire strings in six pairs of unisons tuned thus:

The introduction of the Spanish guitar, which at once leapt into favour, gradually displaced the English variety. The Spanish guitar had gut strings twanged by the fingers. The last development of the cittern before its disappearance was the addition of keys. The keyed cithara [7] was first made by Claus & Co. of London in 1783. The keys, six in number, were placed on the left of the sound-board, and on being depressed they acted on hammers inside the sound-chest, which rising through the rose sound-hole struck the strings. Sometimes the keys were placed in a little box right over the strings, the hammers striking from above. M.J.B. Vuillaume of Paris possessed an Italian cetera (not keyed) by Antoine Stradivarius, [8] 1700 (now in the Museum of the Conservatoire, Paris), with twelve strings tuned in pairs of unisons to E, D, G, B, C, A, which was exhibited in London in 1871.

The cittern of the 16th century was the result of certain transitions which took place during the evolution of the violin from the Greek kithara (see Cithara).

Genealogical Table of the Cittern.

The cittern has retained the following characteristics of the archetype. (1) The derivation of the name, which after the introduction of the bow was used to characterize various instruments whose strings were twanged by fingers or plectrum, such as the harp and the rotta (both known as cithara), the citola and the zither. In an interlinear Latin and Anglo-Saxon version of the Psalms, dated A.D. 700 (Brit. Mus., Vesp. A. 1), cithara is translated citran, from which it is not difficult to trace the English cithron, citteran, cittarn, of the 16th century. (2) The construction of the sound-chest with flat back and sound-board connected by ribs. The pear-shaped outline was possibly borrowed from the Eastern instruments, both bowed as the rebab and twanged as the lute, so common all over Europe during the middle ages, or more probably derived from the kithara of the Greeks of Asia Minor, which had the corners rounded. These early steps in the transition from the cithara may be seen in the miniatures of the Utrecht Psalter, [9] a unique and much-copied Carolingian MS. executed at Reims (9th century), the illustrations of which were undoubtedly adapted from an earlier psalter from the Christian East. The instruments which remained true to the prototype in outline as well as in construction and in the derivation of the name were the ghittern and the guitar, so often confused with the cittern. It is evident that the kinship of cittern and guitar was formerly recognized, for during the 18th century, as stated above, the cittern was known as the English guitar to distinguish it from the Spanish guitar. The grotesque head, popularly considered the characteristic feature of the cittern, was probably added in the 12th century at a time when this style of decoration was very noticeable in other musical instruments, such as the cornet or Zinck, the Platerspiel, the chaunter of the bagpipe, etc. The cittern of the middle ages was also to be found in oval shape. From the 13th century representations of the pear-shaped instrument abound in miniatures and carvings. [10]

A very clearly drawn cittern of the 14th century occurs in a MS. treatise on astronomy (Sloane MS. 3983, Brit. Mus.) translated from the Persian of Albumazar into Latin by Georgius Zothari Zopari Fenduli, priest and philosopher, with a prologue and numerous illustrations by his own hand; the cittern is here called giga in an inscription at the side of the drawing.

References to the cittern are plentiful in the literature of the 16th and 17th centuries. Robert Fludd [11] describes it thus: "Cistrona quae quatuor tantum chordas duplicatas habet easque cupreas et ferreas de quibus aliquid dicemus quo loco." Others are given in the New English Dictionary, "Cittern," and in Godefroy's Dict. de l'anc. langue franç. du IXe au XVe siècle.

(K. S.)

[1] See Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost, act v. sc. 2, where Boyet compares the countenance of Holofernes to a cittern head; John Forde, Lovers' Melancholy (1629), act ii. sc. 1, "Barbers shall wear thee on their citterns."

[2] Dialogo della musica (Florence, 1581), p. 147.

[3] The musical extracts from the commonplace book were prepared by Dr Rimbault for the Early English Text Society. Holborne's work is mentioned in his Bibliotheca Madrigaliana. The descriptive list of the musical instruments in use in England during Leycester's lifetime (about 1656) has been extracted and published by Dr F.J. Furnivall, in Captain Cox, his Ballads and Books, or Robert Laneham's Letter (1575), (London, 1871), pp. 65-68.

[4] See Knight's London, i. 142.

[5] See De Vita propria sermonum inter liberos libri duo (Haarlem, 1817) and E. van der Straeten, La Musique aux Pays-Bas, ii. 348-35O.

[6] Syntagma Musicum (1618). See also M. Mersenne, Harmonie universelle (Paris, 1636), livre ii. prop. xv., who gives different accordances.

[7] See Carl Engel, Catalogue of the Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments (London, 1872), Nos. 289 and 290.

[8] See note above. Illustration in A.J. Hipkins, Musical Instruments; Historic, Rare and Unique (Edinburgh, 1888).

[9] For a résumé of the question of the origin of this famous psalter, and an inquiry into its bearing on the history of musical instruments with illustrations and facsimile reproductions, see Kathleen Schlesinger, The Instruments of the Orchestra, part ii. "The Precursors of the Violin Family," pp. 127-166 (London, 1908-1909).

[10] An oval cittern and a ghittern, side by side, occur in the beautiful 13th-century Spanish MS. known as Cantigas de Santa Maria in the Escorial. For a fine facsimile in colours see marquis de Valmar, Real. Acad. Esq., publ. by L. Aguado (Madrid, 1889). Reproductions in black and white in Juan F. Riaño, Critical and Bibliog. Notes on Early Spanish Music (London, 1887). See also K. Schlesinger, op. cit. fig. 167, p. 223, also boat-shaped citterns, figs. 155 and 156, p. 197. Cittern with woman's head, 15th century, on one of six bas-reliefs on the under parts of the seats of the choir of the Priory church, Great Malvern, reproduced in J. Carter's Ancient Sculptures, etc., vol. ii. pl. following p. 12. Another without a head, ibid. pl. following p. 16, from a brass monumental plate in St Margaret's, King's Lynn.

[11] Historia utriusque Cosmi (Oppenheim, ed. 1617) i. 226.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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