13th Century Plucked Psaltery

Description

A plucked chordophone instrument called a psaltery.  Body of the instrument made of cherry, soundboard made of spruce, metal tuning pins, and nylgut strings (a synthetic simulator for natural gut strings).  The instrument will have fifteen strings.

History and Use

Plucked instruments have been around for many centuries, going back to harps and lyres of the Sumerians, Egyptians, and Greeks.   A psaltery is an instrument referred to as a plucked chordophone.  Plucked chordophones are broken down into two main categories – those with a neck and those without a neck.  Each of these categories is then further broken down into two subsets – those with strings parallel to the soundboard (such as the psaltery I am constructing) and those with strings perpendicular to the soundboard, such as harps.  This particular form of instrument first appeared in Europe around the 11th Century, and was based on the qanun, an Islamic instrument.

The shape of the instrument varies widely, from simple rectangles and triangles, to trapezoids, to the very popular “hog nose” variety.

King David Playing a Psaltery -da Santa CroceAngels Making Music-Hans MemlingMusician with Psaltery - Chartes Cathedral

The instrument is held with the “point” downward or to the side.  Care must be taken to prevent the back of the instrument from touching the player’s body, as this will deaden the sound.  The strings are plucked with either the fingers, or with a plectrum.  Plectrums can be any thin, rigid item such as a quill feather, or a thin rod of wood or metal with one end flattened.

Construction

The style of psaltery I have chosen to recreate is depicted in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, an illuminated manuscript from the second half of the 13th Century composed at the Court of King Alfonso X of Castile.  The particular illumination I am using as a reference is from Cantiga 50.

Cantigas de Santa Maria - Cantiga 50

The basic form of a psaltery is a hollow box covered with a soundboard.  The soundboard typically has one or more sound holes or carved rosettes to allow for sound to resonate from the chamber, and can have other ornamentation such as inlay work.  The strings are stretched parallel to the soundboard, as mentioned above.  The tuning pins are typically mounted in one end of the instrument, parallel with the strings.  There is a bar on the face of the soundboard to raise the strings above it.  Hitch pins are mounted at the opposite end, and again a bar is placed to raise the strings above the soundboard.

Instrument Body

I had originally attempted to create a body for the psaltery out of the lathes of walnut that I had left over from a previous project, but I was not satisfied with the construction, so I decided to create the body by hollowing out a solid piece of wood.  I chose to use a piece of 2” thick piece of cherry.  Fruitwoods have always been a wood of choice for carving, turning, and other types of woodworking due to their dimensional stability and their generally tight grain patterns.

I cut the cherry to the same size and shape as my soundboard, and then started the process of hollowing out.  This process involves drilling out a series of holes almost completely through the piece, throughout the entire area to be hollowed out.  Then a mallet and chisel are used to remove the rest of the wood.

Preparing to hollow out body of psalteryBody of psaltery hollowed outSmoothing the back of the psaltery body

I left an area 1” thick along the top (actually the bottom in this picture) and the angled side to have space for mounting the tuning and hitch pins.  The two vertical sides have a ½” thickness remaining.  There is approximately a ¼” thickness remaining on the bottom.  Once the hollowing out was completed, I used a rasp, plane, and hand scraper to smooth out all of the interior and exterior surfaces.

Soundboard

I happened to have a piece of instrument grade sitka spruce left over from a previous instrument project, and it was the perfect size for the soundboard.  One of the most prominent features of the soundboard is the rosette.  Sound holes and rosettes were constructed in several different ways.  It could be something as simple as a hole cut in the soundboard, an opening created by an intricate design of small cut or carved “piercings”, or an multi-layer construction of intricately cut parchment and carved or pierced wood.  I have chosen to do a pierced rosette.  The openings in the rosette are typically in a geometric pattern.  I worked on several different designs for the rosette.

Rosette Plans

Never having made a rosette before, I purchased some inexpensive basswood to do a mock-up of the rosette.  This would allow me to try several techniques for making the openings without risking the actual wood from the soundboard.  My first try cutting out some of the openings with small chisels ended up snapping the fine lattice.  I then fell back on some jewelers techniques for doing piercework.  I drilled small holes in the center of each area to be cut out, and then used a frame saw with a fine blade to cut the openings.  This worked much better.

Mock-Up of Rossette

Once I was comfortable with the technique for cutting the openings, I cut out the sound hole in the soundboard.  For this, I did use the fine chisels, as the frame saw I have was not large enough to fit around the perimeter of the soundboard.  I then transferred the design to the piece that was removed so I could make the rosette.

Soundboard with Rosette Cutout

I then began cutting out the openings in the rosette.  A small pilot hole was drilled in the center of each piece to be removed.  The blade of the frame saw was then threaded through the pilot hole and the piece was sawn free.  Once all the openings were cut out, I took some small jeweler’s files to clean up the sawn edges.

Rosette with Pilot HolesRosette half cut outRosette cut out

Assembly – Gluing and Finishing

It was now time to assemble the pieces.  I used hide glue for the assembly as this is what would have been used in period.  The finish I have used is Tried and True Varnish Oil.  This is a combination of varnish and linseed oil that closely approximates the finishes used in period.

The first step was to apply finish to the interior and exterior of the body, except where the glue was to be applied.  Next, the rosette was glued back into the soundboard.  I used a small circle of parchment, about 1” in diameter larger than the rosette itself and with the center cut out at the same dimension as the inner diameter of the rosette, to mount the rosette back into the soundboard.  Once the rosette was mounted, I applied finish to the inside of the soundboard, except where glue would be placed.  Next, the soundboard was glued to the body.  Once the glue had dried, finish was applied to the outer surface of the soundboard.

Finish applied to body of psalterySoundboard with Rosette Glued and Finish Applied

Glue up of body and soundboardPsaltery with Soundboard Glued

Final Assembly – Pins and Strings

The final step in the assembly process was drilling out the holes for the tuning pins and hitch pins, and then stringing the instrument.  There is some evidence for the use of metal pins in period psalteries, so I obtained a set of modern metal pins specifically for use in psalteries and zithers (a similar stringed instrument).  For strings I have used a product called nylgut.  This is a modern nylon string that approximates the properties of gut strings, but is much more durable and impervious to weather conditions.

I drilled a series of holes along the top of the instrument, approximately ½” apart, for the tuning pins.  This allowed for a total of 15 strings.  I then drilled another series of fifteen holes, approximately 1” apart, in the face of the diagonal side for the hitch pins.  I used two pieces of walnut for the bridges.  I filed small grooves in the bridges to provide a place for the strings to seat themselves when under tension.  Finally, I added the strings to the instrument.  Once the instrument was roughly tuned, I trimmed off the excess string from the tuning pins, and then gave the instrument a final tuning.

Psaltery Finished

Bibliography

Bessaraboff, Nicholas.  Ancient European Musical Instruments.  Boston, MA:  Harvard University Press for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1941

The Oxford Cantigas de Santa Maria Database – http://csm.mml.ox.ac.uk/?p=intro

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