Stringed Instruments – The Kinnor

THE first instrument mentioned in the Bible is the kinnor, translated harp ” in our version. Jubal was the father of such as handle the kinnor and ugab” (Gen. iv. 21). Authorities are divided as to whether the kinnor was a harp or a lyre. There have been attempts to show that it was a trigon, or three-cornered harp, specimens of which are depicted on some Egyptian bas-reliefs, and which must have been known to the Romans and Greeks. Nicomachus mentions the trigon as having been adjusted by Pythagoras after discovering the ratios of consonant harmonics. The simplest forms of the trigon* would be as shown in Figs. 1, 2, and 3 ; and it is probable that one of the characteristics of the instrument was that there existed only two sides of wooden frame, the third side being formed by the longest string, as shown in the following illustrations (Figs. 4, 5, and 6), which are copied from tombs at Thebes and Dekkeh.

It will be observed that the instrument was not placed upon the ground, but was held under the arm, or was rested upon the shoulder (see Fig. 7). The termination of one of the sides with the head of a bird (probably a goose) would be forbidden among the Jews, who might not make an image of any animal or beast. The next illustration (Fig. 8 shows a very curious instrument in the museum at Florence.

Some authors assert that the kinnor had nine strings, others ten. The instrument had, according to Fétis, nine strings of camel-gut, but according to Dr. Jebb,f only eight strings. The latter author grounds his decision on the fact that the kinnor is associated with the word sheminith (see I Chron. xv. 21), just as alamoth is with nebel, and that sheminith is undoubtedly connected with the number 8, being rendered in the Septuagint “on the eighth.” Dr. Jebb thinks Josephus right in saying that the kinnor was played by a plectrum or small staff of quill, bone, or ivory, which the ancients often used instead of the tips of their fingers ; but Josephus is probably wrong in saying that the kinnor had ten strings and the nebel twelve, for the kinnor had not more than eight or nine strings. But David apparently used no plectrum—that is, if the words, ” David took an harp (kinnor), and played with his hand ” (i Sam. xvi. 23), are to be understood as implying that he used nothing but his hand, a somewhat forced interpretation.

But natural as was the hypothesis that the kinnor was a simple harp, to those who specially directed their attention to the instruments of the early European nations, further knowledge of Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities led to the suggestion (by Pfeiffer, Winer, and other authors) that the kinnor was, after all, a sort of guitar. This idea was combated by Dr. Kitto, who brought forward many sound reasons for believing that it was a lyre.* If this idea be correct, the kinnor may have been very similar in form, perhaps even identical with, the instruments shown in Figs. 9.

It was sometimes played in an upright position, as shown in the illustration (Fig. II). The arguments in favour of the kinnor being a lyre are based upon certain other representations, the most important of which was discovered by Sir Gardner Wilkinson* in a tomb at Beni Hassan. It is a painting representing the arrival of a company of strangers in Egypt. The discoverer suggests that these strangers are no less than Joseph’s brethren. He describes them thus : ” The first figure is an Egyptian scribe, who presents an account of their arrival to a person seated, the owner of the tomb, and one of the principal officers of the reigning Pharaoh. The next, also an Egyptian, ushers them into his presence ; and two advance, bringing presents—the wild goat or ibex, and the gazelle, the productions of their country. Four men, carrying bows and clubs, follow, leading an ass, on which two children are placed in panniers, accompanied by a boy and four women ; and, last of all, another ass laden, and two men (Fig. 12)-one holding a bow and club, the other a lyre, which he plays with the plectrum. . . . The lyre is rude, and differs a little in form from those generally used in Egypt.”

The authenticity of this unique picture, as representing the arrival of the sons of Jacob, would set the question of the shape of the kinnor at rest for ever ; but, unfortunately, it remains only a probability. At any rate, the figures portrayed are plainly Semitic.

The other representation which has been brought forward as testifying to the shape of the kinnor is a bas-relief in the British Museum, on which is shown an Assyrian in charge of captives who are playing on lyres (Fig. 13). If Layard is right in supposing these to be Jewish captives, it is certain that the kinnor was a lyre, because it was their kinnors which they mournfully hung up in the trees overhanging the “rivers of Babylon.” “We hanged our kinnors upon the willows in the midst thereof ” (Ps. cxxxvii. 2). But M. Fétis gives very good reasons for believing that these captives are not Jews, but Barabras or Berbers, for they are, he says, performing on the kissar, or Ethiopian lyre, which is depicted in Fig. 14. This illustration shows one of the specimens given by the Viceroy of Egypt to the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington. It has strings of camel-gut (as had also the kinnor), and a plectrum made of horn is used by itself, or with the fingers, or alternately, by the player. Engel says that the kissar is certainly one of the most ancient stringed instruments known.

Considering the great likeness between the outline of the kissar and the kinnor in some of the illustrations, it is not surprising that some authors have treated them as identical. There is, however, one reason why the lyres represented in Fig. 13 should not be Jewish instruments—namely, the outer part of the framework is terminated at each end with the head of a bird or snake, which, as has been before remarked, would not be found on their kinnors.

Two very elegant Egyptian lyres are depicted in Figs. 15 and 16—one from the Leyden collection, the other from that at Berlin.

The kinnor was made of wood—David made it of berosh, but it is recorded that Solomon made some of almug wood for use in the Temple (i Kings x. 12). Whatever be the exact wood signified by almug, the value of it was evidently very great.* The kinnor was one of the instruments mentioned by Laban the Syrian, as before noticed, a fact which goes far to prove its Syrian origin, although it seems to have been considered Phoenician by some of the ancients. The name is traced to a Syrian root—kinroth. The instrument was used on joyous occasions—on the bringing back of the ark (I Chron. xvi. 4—6), the account of which shows the importance attached to proficiency on the part of the performers : ” And he appointed certain of the Levites to minister before the ark of the Lord, and to record, and to thank . . . the Lord God of Israel . . . Jeiel with psalteries and with kinnors; but Asaph made a sound with cymbals; Benaiah also and Jahaziel the priests with trumpets continually before the ark of the covenant of God.” Again, in I Chron. xxv. 3, the kinnor was ordered to be used by high and important families, as an accompaniment to their prophecy. The sons of Jeduthun are mentioned as prophesying with a kinnor. It was also carried by wandering female minstrels—the ” Bayadères of to-day—whose character was bad, if one may judge from the allusion to them in Isa. xxiii. 16, where the prophet utters thoughts of indignant irony against Tyre : ” Take a kinnor, go about the city, thou harlot that hast been forgotten ; make sweet melody, sing many songs, that thou mayest be remembered.” The people under Jehoshaphat, returning with joy to Jerusalem after overcoming the Moabites, made joyful sounds with psalteries and kinnors and trumpets ” (2 Chron. xx. 28). The carrying of the kinnor by the captives in Babylon has before been alluded to. It was also the instrument which, touched by the hand of the youthful and God-beloved David, drove away the wicked spirit of Saul : ” And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took a kinnor, and played with his hand : so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him ” ( Sam. xvi. 23).

The reader will by this time have balanced the probabilities as to the nature and construction of the kinnor; and most likely he will conclude that it was either a guitar or more probably a lyre, a belief which seems to be gaining ground, on account of the aptitude of such instruments for the uses to which the kinnor was devoted.

As there is often much confusion amongst non-musicians as to the real distinction between a lyre and a lute (or a guitar) two illustrations are given, one (Fig. 17) showing a Greek music-master teaching a youth to play on the lyre, the other (Fig. 18) showing a man playing on a lute. From these illustrations it will be distinctly understood that there is nothing behind the upper portion of the strings of a lyre ; while, on the contrary, the strings of guitars and lutes are carried upwards beyond the body or resonance-box, over a piece of wood called the neck, on which is fastened the smooth piece of wood called the finger-board, because on to its surface the fingers press the strings when playing. It will be observed that a guitar and lute only vary with regard to the shape or length of the body and neck ; both instruments are of one family.

SUPPLEMENTARY NOTES.

(1.) The reasons for supposing that the Hebrew Kinnor was identical with the lyre are very strong. In the first place, the lyre is the earliest practical form of stringed instrument of which we have any representation, for it is figured on a fragment of a bas-relief found at Tell-Loh, among the ruins of the palace of an early Babylonish king, Gudea (3000-2800 B.C.), where it not only appears with eleven strings but in a shape which suggests that it was already an elaboration of a yet earlier and simpler instrument (Plate IA.). In the same way the kinnor appears in Bible history as the first and representative type of all stringed instruments. Secondly, it was always considered the national instrument of the Hebrews—the favourite of David, their greatest king and hero: for this reason the lyre—in some of its later forms—appears on Jewish coins (Figs. 43, 44, 45) as, towards the close of the Middle Ages, the Irish Harp was stamped on those of Ireland. Thirdly, the ancient Egyptian name for the lyre seems to have been Kn-an-aul, which is closely akin to the word kinnor. And lastly, in early Arabic versions of the Scriptures the Hebrew kinnor is frequently translated kissari, a transliteration of the word kithara, still surviving in the name of the Ethiopian lyre (Fig. 14).

As a generic name the word kinnor no doubt included both the primitive and the more elaborate forms of the instrument, for in Egypt more than three thousand years ago lyres were made of considerable size and power, some having from ten to eighteen strings, though it does not seem to have been so peculiarly associated with the religious ceremonies of that country as the bow-shaped harp (Figs. 23, 24, 26). Probably it was an importation from Western Asia. By the year 1400 B.C. it appears in the Minoan civilisation of Crete, for on a sarcophagus discovered at Aghia Triada it is figured in the hands of a Cretan performer with seven strings and an artistically shaped frame, whilst another man plays the double reed-pipe (Plate II.).

(2.) The difference between the lyre-form and the guitar-form is really greater than the author allows. Although Miss K. Schlesinger (Precursors of the Violin Family) has tried to show that the European guitar shape, with flexuous sides, was evolved from the kithara or later lyre-form, basing her conclusions upon a series of drawings appended, probably by an Alexandrine artist (c. 600 A.D.), to an illuminated MS. of the Utrecht Psalter, it is quite evident from discoveries in Western Asia that the typical forms of lyre and guitar were distinct before 2500 B.C. (Plate IB.), and incurved sides were known by 1000 B.C. (Plate III.). The origin of the guitar and lute is to be found in the hunting bow, to which in the first instance a gourd was attached as a resonator (cf. H. Balfour, The Natural History of the Musical Bow, 1899). In all probability the original Asiatic word from which both kithara (for the lyre-form) and kitar (for the guitar-form) are derived, was used generally for any stringed instrument in much the same . way as the Greek psalterion. A very early instance of the short-necked lute-form is provided by a pottery figure discovered by Prof. Petrie in a Goshen cemetery (Saft-el-Henna), and now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The head of the instrument is slightly recurved, and the work is said to date from the 18th to the 20th Egyptian Dynasties (c. 1500-1000 B.C.), though it is a specimen of foreign art, probably Minoan or early Greek (Plate IV.).

The first introduction of the guitar into Western Europe seems to have come through the Romans, for in the 13th century the Chitarra Latina (Guitare Latine), with its short neck and flexuous outline, which gave to us the Gittern and Cittern or Citole, was distinct from the Chitarra Morisca (Guitare Moresque), a long-necked instrument with an oval body, like those in Fig. 21, which had been brought by the Moors into Spain. Both Greeks and Romans were well acquainted with the various Guitar forms of Western Asia (such as those they called the Barbiton and the Pandoura), as extant illustrations in their works of art plainly show.