Friday, September 05, 2014

Psalmodikon -- misc. notes on resonance strings (resonanssträngar)

UPDATE Sept. 26 (or thereabouts). Word comes from Keill Tofters, who is writing a book about Esbjorn, that the instrument would be tuned like a nyckelharpa: "Gällande stämning av resonanssträngar tror jag att man (som när vi stämmer resonanssträngar på nyckelharpa) försöker stämma dem i oktavens alla toner. Då medljuder resonanssträngar. Om man spelar t.ex. tonen G på spelsträngen, så medljuder den resonanssträng som är stämd i G. På detta sätt får man starkare och vackrare ton." My translation (with a hat tip to Google): "The current tuning of sympathetic strings , I think that (as when we tune resonant strings to the nyckelharpa) we try to tune them in all the octave tones. Then sound (vibrate) the sympathetic strings. If you play for example the note G on the string board, so the resonant string tuned in G sounds with it. In this way, you get stronger and more beautiful tone."

While I have edited my estimates below of how many strings there are on the instrument (with incorrect guesses stricken out and the correct number inserted after it and underlined), I don't want to change my speculation about alternative tunings, especially those that might be derived from the hummel; the museum descriptions I turned up had anywhere from three to 14 sympathetic strings, and I think the instruments with fewer than five to eight strings would have to be tuned to fifths and octaves like a hummel -- or American dulcimer. But I am now completely satisfied that Pastor Esbjorn would have tuned his psalmodikon to a chromatic scale as Tofters suggests.

A mystery: Lars Paul Esbjorn's psalmodikon in the Jenny Lind Chapel is set up with a playing string over the fretboard at the center of the instrument and what look like eight or nine 10 unfretted strings at the side of the fretboard (see picture below). One of them, I believe, could have been double-stopped along with the melody string as a drone. But the rest of them look like a player wouldn't be able to reach them with a bow, so they must have vibrated sympathetically like the resonance strings on a Swedish nykelharpa or a Norwegian hardingfele.

So here's the mystery: How could you tune the psalmodikon so you wouldn't be retuning all nine 11 (counting the melody) strings every time you changed keys?

Esbjorn's psalmodikon in Jenny Lind Chapel, Andover, Ill.

Psalmodikons with extra strings weren't all that uncommon in Sweden, judging from the descriptions of the 19th-century instruments on display in Swedish museums, but apparently they weren't standardized, either. It seems to me, from what I've read of Stig Wallin's "Schwedische Hummel," that the Swedish instruments were influenced by the box zithers formerly played in Sweden. So that suggests one possibility -- was the psalmodikon tuned in fifths and octaves like a hummel?

But there's a psalmodikon in a museum in Uppsala that may have belonged to Johan Dillner (provenance uncertain, tho') that looks to me like it may have been keyed like a nyckelharpa. If so, could the resonance strings have been tuned to the notes of a scale? That's how a nyckelharpa is tuned.

My best guess is that different makers would have approached the problem differently, modeling their drones or resonance strings after whatever instruments they were familiar with. The instruments described below have anywhere from four to 16 resonance strings. But it's only a guess.

At any rate, I've been Googling around about psalmodikons, hummels and nyckelharpas lately. My unedited notes follow in Swedish and English (or what passes for English in Google's translation utility) in italics … all of which, taken together, raise as many questions as they answer.

Wikipedia (Swedish) has the basics:

"Ett psalmodikon är ett musikinstrument som utgörs av en långsmal resonanslåda med en till tre strängar spända över en greppbräda mellan ett strängstall och en snäcka. Kallas ibland för psalmonika. I Gagnef, Dalarna, finns fler exemplar med tre stämskruvar - dock monterades ibland två strängar av för att förenkla inlärningen. Avancerade modeller kan ha upp till 12 bordunsträngar." [A psalmodikon is a musical instrument consisting of a narrow resonance box with one to three strings taut over a fretboard between a string and a stable shell . Sometimes referred to psalmonika . In Gagnef , Dalarna , there are more copies with three tuners - however sometimes mounted two strings to facilitate learning. Advanced models can have up to 12 drone.]

And an English-language Wikipedia page at" (note spelling with a "c") has a footnote that seems to describe the Esbjorn pslamodikon almost to a T: " Francis William Galpin (1937). A Textbook of European Musical Instruments: Their Origin, History and Character. Williams & Norgate, Limited. - The Norwegian and Swedish Psalmodikon, of somewhat the same outline, was introduced by Johan Dillner (c. 1810) for accompanying the Church hymn-singing; it has one melody string of gut and eight sympathetic strings of metal." I don't think they were that standardized, though. Certainly the ones I've seen described in museums (see below) have anywhere from 5 to 11 or 12 strings.

Interesting that the playing string would be gut and the bourdon strings metal. Why would that be?

The Swedish Wikipedia page notes, BTW, that, "Instrumentet var även populärt vid husandakter i hemmen och bland kringresande predikanter" (The instrument was also popular at husandakter in homes and among itinerant preachers.). "Husandakter" would be home services, by my translation, or conventicle prayer meetings held in someone's home.

DigitaltMuseum has pix of Dillner's psalmodikon in Upplandsmuseet in Uppsala

Pix can be enlarged on DigitaltMuseum webpage (Creative Commons)

Thumbnail history of Dillner and detailed description of the instrument in the museum at Uppsala:

Psalmodikon. Experimentmodell av trä. Ljust brunbetsat och på kortsidorna svartbetsat trä. Resonanslåda med plats för 16 resonanssträngar, tre tonsträngar. Däröver fästes med haspar på sidorna en träklaviatur med tangenter av björk, vissa svartmålade. Påspikad bräda med klistrad lapp för tontecken. Avbalkningsbrädan försedd med metallklamrar och med nottecken i blyertsskrift. Svartmålade stämskruvar. Ljudhål dels S-formade dels hjärtformade. På fastklistrad pappersetikett på sidan står skrivet med bläck: "av Prosten Dillner / Östervåla / Anno 1800". [Psalmodikon. Experimental Model of wood. Bright brunbetsat {brown stain} and the short sides black stained wood. Resonance Box with space for 16 sympathetic strings, three strings. Above that is fastened with hasps on the sides with a träklaviatur {wooden keyboard} keys of birch, some black painted. Påspikad [nailed to] board with sticky patch tontecken {tone characters, e.g. A, B, H, C, D, etc.?} Avbalkningsbrädan {partition board} fitted with metal staples and with musical notes in pencil writing. Black Painted tuners. Sound hole partly S-shaped partly heart-shaped. On the glued paper label on the page is written in ink: "The dean of Dillner / Östervåla / Anno 1800".] Provenance is missing, however: "Uppgifter om proveniens sakanas."

That superstructure reminds me of the keys on a nykelharpa, so I Googled around to see how the sympathetic, or resonance strings, are tuned on that instrument.

Nyckelharpa. -- American Nykelharpa Association has this:

In the most common configuration, the resonance strings are tuned up the scale starting at G# for the lowest sounding string, located nearest the C playing string, and up to G for the highest sounding string, located nearest the A playing string. So the twelve resonance strings sound G#, A, Bb, B, C, C#, D, Eb, E, F, F#, G from low to high.
Also a page on tuning the playing strings and a PDF file that covers both.

Hardingfele. Karin Løberg Code of Hardanger Fiddle Association of America has detailed information on traditional tunings. The regular tuning, used for 81 percent of tunes transcribed in Norsk Folkemusikk - Hardingfeleslåtter (NFMHS) is: a.d'.a'.e" for playing strings and [(b).d'.e'.f#'.a'] for the sympathetic strings.


  • Could Esbjorn's psalmodikon, with its eight resonance strings, have been tuned to a C major octave -- sort of like a nyckelharpa?

  • Or was it tuned to octaves and fifths like a hummel?

It has seemed to me, and Stig Walin more-or-less confirms in "Die Schwedische Hummel," that as psalmodikon makers branched out from the very simple box zither that Dillner describes in his books, they were influenced by the hummels that were still being played in parts of Sweden during the early 1800s. Certainly the overall shape of the instruments shows that influence. Could the drone strings have been tuned like a hummel, too?

If Walin says anthing about how the drones were tuned, I haven't found it. But here's what he says about the psalmodikon in general terms:

Um 1830 begann der unglaublich schnelle Siegeszug des Psalmodikons über das Land.1 Das Instrument wurde von den mächtigen Erweckungsbewegungen der 40er Jahre und der folgenden Jahrzehnte in Gebrauch genommen. Trotzdem aber hätte sich das Tonwerkzeug nie so schnell ausbreiten können und wäre bei der tra­ ditionsverbundenen Landbevölkerung nie zu sofortiger Anwendung gekommen, wenn nicht der Boden von dem verwand­ ten älteren Zithertypus Hummel so gut vorbereitet gewesen wäre. Als ein belieb­ tes Werkzeug einer rein profanen Musik­ pflege (einschliesslich des Tanzes) muss­ te die Hummel vielerorten als schwer sündbelastet betrachtet und deshalb bei­ seite gestossen oder einfach zerstört wor­den sein,2 um statt dessen vom Psalmo­ dikon ersetzt zu werden,3 das von An­fang an ein Instrument für Gottesdienst und Hausandacht war. [Around 1830 began the incredibly quick triumph over the Psalmodikons the areas.1 The instrument was of the mighty revivals of 40's and the following decades taken in use. but still the Tonwerkzeug [sound, i.e. music, tool] would have never been so fast can spread and would be at the traditionsverbundenen [tradition-bound] rural population never come to immediate application , if not the ground would have been so well prepared by the pretext th older zither type Hummel . As a tool to ANY tes a purely secular music care (including dance ) must te the Hummel have been in many places considered as serious sin burdened and therefore joined in page or simply destroyed by 2 instead of Psalmodikon , 3 which was from the beginning a tool for worship and prayer house .]

Stig Walin, Die Schwedische Hummel: Eine Instrumentenkindliche Untersuchung. Stockholm: Nordiska Museet, 1952. Ethnomusicology

Interesting tangent (at least to me): Bourdon is the French word for bumblebee!


Some details about home services I haven't seen elsewhere from Swedish history of psalmodikon in Wikipedia:

Instrumentet började användas i Danmark under 1820-talet, och spreds sedan till övriga Norden och Baltikum. Mest känt är prästen Johan Dillners (1785–1862) psalmodikon från 1830, som användes i en del av Sveriges fattigaste församlingar i stället för orgel. Dillner använde psalmodikonet för att lära ut de nya melodierna i Haeffners koralbok, och gav ut dem i siffernotskrift 1830 (Melodierna till Swenska Kyrkans Psalmer, Noterade med ziffror, för Skolor och Menigheten). Han sade att han kunde lära vem som helst att hantera ett psalmodikon på bara två timmar. Instrumentet var även populärt vid husandakter i hemmen och bland kringresande predikanter. Under senare delen av 1800-talet ersattes oftast psalmodikonet av orgelharmoniet. [The instrument was first used in Denmark during the 1820s , and then spread to the other Nordic countries and the Baltic states. Most famous is the priest Johan Dillner (1785-1862) psalmodikon 1830 , which was used in some of Sweden's poorest parishes instead of organ. Dillner psalmodikonet used to teach new songs in Haeffners koralbok , and published them in numerical notation, 1830 ( The melodies to Swenska hymns , quoted by ziffror , for Schools and the congregation ) . He said he could teach anyone to manage a psalmodikon in just two hours . The instrument was also popular at husandakter in homes and among itinerant preachers. During the latter part of the 1800s was replaced mostly psalmodikonet of the harmonium.]

Cf. the description of the lay readers' conventicle in Moberg's "The Emigrants" ...

Misc. descriptions of psalmodikons in museums (w/ varying numbers of bourdon strings -- all translations, such as they are, by Google):

  • Malmö Museums. Psalmodikons, string zither, with long, narrow resonance box made of wood. Fingerboard with 30 bands, melody string missing, with 11 sympathetic strings. The resonance box has a round and two crescent-shaped sound hole. Waisted rim at the round sound hole in the wider part of the resonance box.
  • Kulturen Lund. Notes: KM 23594th Psalmodikons m. strings fr. V. Karaby, Harjagers hd. conn. by Blecker, Lund. 10:00 With sympathetic strings. String Games and Stable missing.
  • Musik- och Teatermuseet, Stockholm 16:23:31&str= 1 melody string 16 inner resonance strings Rectangular corpus of neck-like upper part.
  • _________________. Flared sides, botten.1 melody string 4 outer sympathetic strings, possibly internal resonance strings.
  • Upplandsmuseet Psalmodikon av ljust lackat träslag med mörkare fläckar, förmodligen av bets. Avbalkningsbräda med vissa partier svartmålade. Metallklamrar åtskiljer varje avbalkningsdel. Ristade tontecken. Ovan dessa ristade notbokstäver. Stämskruvar svartmålade. Endast melodisträngen (av tarm) är bevarad, men strängfästen visar att tolv resonanssträngar funnits. Stall saknas. Ett runt ljudhål och två halvrunda ljudhål. [Psalmodikons of brightly painted wood with darker spots , probably beet . Avbalkningsbräda with some parts painted black . Metal brackets separating each avbalkningsdel . Carved tontecken . Above these carved notbokstäver . Tuners painted black . Only the melody string ( of gut) is preserved , but the string mounts shows that twelve sympathetic strings existed. Stall missing. A round sound hole and two half- round sound hole.] From Hälsingland. Pix show tuners at end like Esbjörn's in Jenny Lind Chapel.

But my original hunch, for what it's worth, is that the bourdon strings would have been tuned like a hummel, since a lot of Swedish psalmodikons look like their shape is influenced by the hummel.

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