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Link to this year's index by clicking here.

Musical Instrument Museum, Part 15

The Czech Republic has one of the best-deserved but perhaps least-recognized reputations among the instrument-making traditions of Europe. Early in the 18th century, large numbers of Bohemians and Moravians from the region migrated throughout Europe, taking their skills across the continent. Czechs were distinguished makers of stringed instruments such as the viola d'amore (shown here) — and their violins rivaled those of Italy and Germany.

If you look carefully, you'll notice that this instrument has a set of primary strings that are played with a bow and a set of secondary strings that vibrate sympathetically, resulting in a particularly sweet and warm sound. In one reference that I found, violinist Hélène Plouffe mentioned that it takes much longer to tune a viola d'amore but that it is worth the trouble.

The rise of capitalism and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century fostered dynasties of Czech brass wind manufacturers such as that of the Bohemian maker Vaclav Frantisek Cerveny. His workshop won many medals at international competitions, surpassing competitors in Vienna and Paris. For over 300 years, Czech instruments have been played throughout Europe and beyond.

Poland's musical reputation grew as its mazurka and polonaise dances became significant elements in music and society throughout Europe. Interestingly, on display (and shown here) is a syrena or mouth organ. In Polish, "syrena" means mermaid or siren, known for her alluring singing.

Most of us think of this instrument as a harmonica and dismiss it as a child's tool until we recognize that many musicians who are primarily known as singers or performers on another instrument also have recorded and performed harmonica solos. Names include Bruce Springsteen, Donovan, Taj Mahal, Mick Jagger and Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, Huey Lewis of Huey Lewis and the News, John Mayall, Peter Green of (the original) Fleetwood Mac, Roger Daltrey of The Who, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, and Richard "Magic Dick" Salwitz of The J. Geils Band. Billy Joel famously plays the harmonica, in addition to his piano, on his signature song, "Piano Man". includes the harmonica throughout the piece. John Lennon played harmonica on early hits as "Love Me Do", "Please Please Me", "I'll Get You" and "I Should Have Known Better" and in his solo career on songs such as "Oh Yoko!".

The dudy (bagpipe) accompanied the earliest mazurka dances — but later ensembles consisted of violin, drum and a foot accordion (pictured here). I would have loved to have seen a video or demonstration of how the latter is played — because, to me, it is not entirely obvious.

Given Slovakia's location in central Europe, the country's music has been influenced by the folk music of Hungary, Poland, Romania and beyond. Pictured here is a ninera AKA wheel fiddle (sometimes called a hurdy gurdy). It produces sound by a crank-turned rosined wheel rubbing against the strings. The wheel functions much like a violin bow, and single notes played on the instrument sound similar to a violin. Melodies are played on a keyboard that presses tangents (small wedges, usually made of wood) against one or more of the strings to change their pitch. Like most other acoustic string instruments, it has a sound board to make the vibration of the strings audible.

If you would like an entertaining demonstration of this instrument, click here.

More than 200 different types of folk music instruments are found in Slovakia. The largest group includes an array of flutes, including the remarkable fujara (shown here on the right side of the exhibit), an unusually large flute originally played by shepherds for recreation. The fujara's distinctive voice results from overblowing the flute to produce harmonious overtones that create a multilayered throaty sound.

When Romania was dominated by the Ottoman Empire from the 14th through the 19th century, many new ethnic groups came into the region, including Turks, Tartars, Roma, Greeks, Armenians and Jews — each playing some form of Turkish Ottoman music. The Roma were most often the professional musicians — and as they moved out into the country, they embraced the music of the villages. Roma bands playing violins, rafted pipes (shown here), a small lute and the hammered dulcimer (shown below) developed the new traditional music of Romania.

The hammered dulcimer comes in various sizes, identified by the number of strings that cross each of the bridges. A 15/14, for example, has two bridges (treble and bass) and spans three octaves. The strings of a hammered dulcimer are usually found in pairs, two strings for each note (though some instruments have three or four strings per note). Each set of strings is tuned in unison and is called a course. As with a piano, the purpose of using multiple strings per course is to make the instrument louder, although as the courses are rarely in perfect unison, a chorus effect usually results like a mandolin.

The hammered dulcimer derives its name from the small mallets that players use to strike the strings, called hammers. Hammers are usually made of wood (most likely hard woods such as maple, cherry, padauk, oak or walnut).

Hungary's earliest folk music is rooted in the original Magyars, whose music merged with that of neighboring cultures. Roma ensembles, hired as tavern entertainment, spawned popular professional violin and cimbalom (pictured below) orchestras. You may note the resemblance to the hammered dulcimer above and, indeed, they are related — the cimbalom being the larger cousin. The cimbalom is closer in size to a piano and thus is more fitting in an orchestral setting. If you click here, you can view a video of Ion Miu, "the Godfather of the Cimbalon". Interestingly, he both strikes the strings with a "hammer" but also plucks them when he wants a particular sound.

Shown here are three samples of a citera or plucked zither. In the past, as well as today, the Hungarian zither is characterized by an extraordinary diversity in shape. Since it was not a very complicated instrument, most zithers were home-made or supplied by skillful makers.

The player plays the melody on the tune strings which stretch above the fret (bunds, cotas), while plucking the other strings (cue strings, guest strings) occasionally or continually in accompaniment. When playing quickly, one does not always pluck every cue string, but uses only those which are closer to the tune strings. The cue strings give a simple accompaniment (bordun) to the melody, and make the sound more colorful. Their rhythmic plucking – eventually holding down (toning down) – strengthens, enhances the rhythm and make it tenser.

You will likely recall that I have shared photos of Russian balalaikas in a previous issue of LAHP (if you would like to refresh your memory, click here) but the one shown here is a work of art compare to those plebeian examples.

Vasily Andreyev, the father of the Russian folk-instrument movement, is credited with standardizing the balalaika and domra instrument families. In 1888, he founded what became the national folk orchestra, for which he arranged traditional melodies. Although these melodies are distinctly Russian, echoes of the Western symphonic model and Neapolitan mandolin-strumming technique are evident.

The garmon is a kind of Russian button accordion, a free-reed wind instrument. It has two rows of buttons on the right side, which play the notes of a diatonic scale, and at least two rows of buttons on the left side, which play the primary chords in the key of the instrument as well as its relative harmonic minor key. Many instruments have additional right-hand buttons with useful accidental notes, additional left-hand chords for playing in related keys, and a row of free-bass buttons, to facilitate playing of bass melodies.

Until the coming of Soviet rule in 1917, highly trained blind minstrels wandered from fairs to marketplaces performing Christian tunes and epic poems on kobza (show here) or lira (hurdy-gurdy). The kobza is actually a Ukrainian folk music instrument of the lute family — a relative of the Central European mandora. The term kobza however, has also been applied to a number of other Eastern European instruments distinct from the Ukrainian.

To be continued...

Life is good.

B. David

P. S., All photos and text © B. David Cathell Photography, Inc. — www.bdavidcathell.com