Stringed Instruments – Sabeca And Psanterin

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 the application of which are surrounded with much obscurity. The sackbut of Europe was certainly a kind of bass trumpet, in fact, a 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 an interpretation which at first sight seems obvious and undisputed : for 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 ; and there is also, according to some, a root boog in Arabic, and buk in Hebrew, meaning a ” trumpet ” or ” pipe.” Hence arises the great temptation 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 as if it were a near relation to “sackbut.” On the other hand it is difficult to account for the application of such a term as ” bag-trumpet ” to a trombone, an instrument which differs very slightly, if at all, from 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 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 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.

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

They were (1) keren, a horn ; (2) mashrokitha, pan’s-pipes or small organ ; (3) kithara, a lyre ; (4) sabeca, a triangular harp (5) psanterin, a psaltery ( aXT pLov) ; (6) synphonia, a bagpipe (avµkwvia). In the succeeding chapters an account of each of these instruments will be found.


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 (psalterion), psalterium, and although rendered ” psaltery ” in the English version, it may have been a dulcimer. Perhaps no instrument has undergone less changes, or been of more widespread use, than the dulcimer. When, there-fore, 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 a modern counterpart of the instrument which was used in that terrible ordeal when the faithful 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 psalteries” 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 (psallo) signifies ” to play upon a harp or lyre,” that (psaltes) is a male harpist, and (psaltria) a female harpist. And, moreover, so thoroughly is this class of words connected with harp- or lyre-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 lyre. 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 Fétis, 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, 1 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 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, horn ; kithros, lyre ; and especially symphonia, 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 (psao), and signifies to touch on the surface, to 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 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 lyre 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 oboe ; but it must not be thought that any relationship whatever to the oboe was suggested by the title ” 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 oboe or high bassoon. From this source we get our dulciana, the name of the lovely soft-toned stop invented by Snetzler, the eighteenth-century 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 oboes 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 stringed 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 extension.

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 is now 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 (Fig. 31), as this word connects the Greek 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, and not of psanterin ; so the last three instruments mentioned in our version are these sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer ; whereas they should read, harp (sabeca), psaltery or dulcimer (psanterin), bagpipe (sylnphonia). Fig. 32 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 (by whose learning and persevering research the public interest in these subjects, which culminated in the valuable collection at South Kensington, was aroused) has said : — ” 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 sound-board, is improperly called the scholar’s lute,” because it was the favourite instrument of Confucius. When played it is, like the dulcimer, placed upon 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 same class ; that shown in Fig. 33 is a sono-koto, made of kiri-wood, having movable bridges which of course enable a performer to tune it to several distinct successions of intervals or scales. It is played with ” plectra ” (tsumé) fixed on the finger-tips of the right hand, while the left hand, by pressing the sounding string on the other side of the bridge, produces sharps, grace-notes, and ” tremolo ” effects. The long 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. 34) is a santir of Georgia, of very elegant construction, being made of wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl. It has twenty-three sets of wire strings, three strings tuned in unison making up each set.

The handsome instrument depicted on page 55 is an Italian dulcimer or satterio of the middle of the 18th century. The comparison of this, with that shown in Fig. 34, 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. 31 showing the salterio, Fig. 34 the santir).


The Indian specimen illustrated on the next page (Fig. 35) is the sar mundal of Benares. An instrument of a similar shape and appearance, and having the tuning-pins arranged in the same way, is the kanoon, which Engel says is an especial favourite 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 like construction has been described by Lane (Modern Egyptians, ch. xviii.). The Hindoos call the sar mundal the ” hundred-stringed Vina.”

It is worthy of remark that the early English instrument 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 student, and the furniture of his room, says :

And all above there lay a gay sautrie, On which he made on nightes melodie So swetely that all the chambre rong : And Angelus ad Virginem he song.”

Fortunately a contemporaneous account of this instrument is to be found in Bartholomus’ De Proprietatibus Rerum, written originally in Latin, and translated in 1398. It is given by Hawkins (History of Music, ch. Ix.) as follows :


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, or elles those ben goode that ben made of syluer.”

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 forerunners 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 claves, 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 been provided with ” falling ” hammers wherewith to strike the strings.

But the clavichord, clarichord, or monochord, which was apparently the first attempt, had as its chief characteristic a brass pin or tangent at the end of the key which 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 well-known work on the history of the pianoforte.* And simple 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.

Another 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 13th century to the beginning of the 19th—a most lasting popularity.

The quill was placed into a small slip of wood, 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. Bits of cloth were used as dampers—that is, they stopped the vibration of a string when the key was allowed to rise, with the same result as in a modern 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. Engravings of both are given (see Figs. 36 and 37).

These were to be in time rivalled by the cembalo, or harpsichord, which included many improvements, such, for instance, as 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 the instruments just described, our forefathers were wont to bestow much decoration. In many examples, when the lid was thrown open for the performer, its inner side disclosed an elegant oil-painting, a landscape, or symbolical figures. Some 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 (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.


(1.) Vitruvius (De Architecturâ, Book 6) informs us that in shape the sambuca was triangular and of true geometrical form : Andreas of Panormo, quoted by Athenaeus (Book xiv., ch. 33), says that it was like a ship and a ladder combined. If therefore we take the triangular instrument so frequently represented in Assyrian sculpt re (Fig. 28) as the earlier model of the sambuca, it is very probable that the substitution of tuning pegs (Fi, 8) for sliding loops on the vertical rod gave to later writers the idea of a ladder, while the horizontal and hollow resonator suggested the boat or ship. There is no reason to think that the instrument was necessarily made of elder wood, as, from its Greek and Latin names, has been stated. The ni in sambuca is merely a phonetic insertion, which often occurs in words derived from other languages. The original is sabeca, in Syrian sabka. Dr. Stainer is right in thinking that, as time progressed, it received a greater elaboration : the lyrophoenix or Phoenician lyre was an improved sambuca, and the addition of a rigid support between the top of the vertical rod and the end of the resonator may have suggested the well-known triangular-framed harp (trigon).

(2.) Dr. Stainer has throughout this chapter lost sight of the marked difference between the mediæval psaltery and dulcimer. Although so similar in shape and construction, the psaltery was plucked by the fingers or swept by a plectrum, whereas the dulcimer is struck by small hammers. In the Assyrian carvings the use of the plectrum with the triangular harp (sabeca) is clearly seen (Fig. 28) ; but no ancient representation of the true psaltery—an instrument in which strings are stretched over and across a soundbox—is as yet forthcoming, much less that of a dulcimer. Engel’s ” Assyrian dulcimer ” (Music of the most Ancient Nations, p. 44) is in reality a triangular harp of the kind already described, but ” improved ” by a recent European restorer in his attempt to mend the cracked condition of the ancient slab on which it appears. The true psaltery seems to have originated in Northern or in Eastern Asia, for it is seen in the Chinese kin and tche, for, which a remote antiquity is claimed, and also in the koto (Fig. 33), the national instrument of Japan. The dulcimer is represented in China only by the yang-kin or ” foreign kin ” (Fig. 32), a name which shows that it is considered a recent importation : it is said, from Italy. The Indian svarmandala or sar mundal (Fig. 35) and the popular Asiatic kanoon are still plucked by the fingers or by little plectra, and are therefore psalteries ; whereas the Persian santir and that of Georgia (Fig. 34) are now struck with small curved sticks, as dulcimers. It seems probable therefore that the instrument in which the strings are struck, and which requires a stronger framework, first came into use in Western Asia, as far as we know about the eighth or ninth century of our era : it was popularised in Europe by the Crusades, and its sweet tone won for it the epithet doucemelle (dulce melos), whence its present name is derived. It was also called the cembalo or cymbal from the similarity of its sound and manner of playing to the bell-chimes called cymbals (cf. Chapter ix., Supplementary Note (I) ). In France the title tympanon was given to the dulcimer because it was struck ; but in Italy the name of its predecessor was retained, though qualified as the salterio tedesco or the ” German ” psaltery.