1902 Encyclopedia > Lyre


LYRE. Of all musical instruments the lyre has been the most associated with poetry, the recitations of Greeks having been accompanied by it. Yet the lyre was not of Greek origin; no root in the language has been discovered for lyra [Greek], although the special names bestowed upon varieties of the instrument are Hellenic. We have to seek in Asia the birthplace of the genus, and to infer its introduction into Greece through Thrace or Lydia. The historic heroes and improvers of the lyre were of the Aeolian or Ionian colonies, or the adjacent coast bordering on the Lydian empire, while the mythic masters, Orpheus, Musasus, and Thamyris, were Thracians. Notwithstanding the Hermes tradition of the invention of the lyre in Egypt, the Egyptians seem to have adopted it themselves from Assyria or Babylonia.

To define the lyre, it is necessary clearly to separate it from the allied harp and guitar, both, as far as we have record, instruments of as great antiquity. In its primal form the lyre differs from the harp, of which the earliest, simplest notion is found in the bow and bowstring; while the guitar (and lute) can be traced back to the typical " nefer" of the fourth Egyptian dynasty, the fretted finger-board of which, permitting the production of different notes by the shortening of the string, is as different in conception from the lyre and harp as the flute with holes to shorten the column of air is from the syrinx or Pandean pipes. The frame of a lyre consists of a hollow body or sound-chest (echeion). From this sound-chest are raised two arms (pecheis), which are sometimes hollow, and are bent both outward and forward. They are bound near the top by a crossbar or yoke (zugon, zugoma, or, from its having once been a reed, kalamos). Another crossbar (magos, hypolyrion), fixed on the sound-chest, forms the bridge which transmits the vibrations of the strings. The deepest note was the farthest from the player; but, as the strings did not differ much in length, more weight may have been gained for the deeper notes by thicker strings, as in the violin and similar modern instruments, or they were tuned with slacker tension. The strings were never of wire, the drawing of which was unknown to the nations of antiquity, but of gut (chorde, whence chord). They were stretched between the yoke and bridge, or to a tailpiece below the bridge. There were two ways of tuning: one was to fasten the strings to pegs which might be turned (collaboi, collopes) ; the other was to change the place of the string upon the crossbar; probably both expedients were simultaneously employed. It is doubtful whether he chordotonos meant the tuning key or the part of the instrument where the pegs were inserted. The extensions of the arms above the yoke were known as kerata, horns.

The number of strings varied at different epochs, and possibly in different localities,—four, seven, and ten having been favourite numbers. They were, as already said, used without a finger-board, no Greek description or representa-tion having ever been met with that can be construed as referring to one. Nor was a bow possible, the flat sound-board being an insuperable impediment. The plectrum, however (plektron), was in constant use at all times. It was held in the right hand to set the upper strings in vibration (krekein, krouein to plektro) ; at other times it hung from the lyre by a ribbon. The fingers of the left hand touched the lower strings (psallein).

FIG. 1 - Chelys, from a vase in the British Museum, where also are fragments of such an instrument, the back of which is of shell.

With Greek authors the lyre has several distinct names ; but we are unable to connect these with anything like certainty to the varieties of the instrument. Chelys (chelus, "tortoise") may mean the smallest lyre, which, borne by one arm or supported by the knees, offered in the sound-chest a decided resemblance to that familiar animal. That there was a difference between lyre and cithara (kithara) is certain, Plato and other writers separating them. Hermes and Apollo had an altar at Olympia in common because the former had invented the lyre and the latter the cithara. Perhaps the lyre and chelys on the one hand, and the cithara and phorminx
on the other, were similar or nearly identical. Apollo is said to have carried a golden phorminx. But lyre has always been accepted as the generic name of the family, and understood to include all varieties. The large lyre was supported by a strong ribbon slung over the player's shoulder, passing through holes beneath the yoke in the arms of the instrument, and caught by the player's left hand, the ends hanging in a sash-like fashion. This cithara, or, it may be, phorminx (phormingx, "portable lyre "), is frequently, by the vase painters, delineated as so held,—the plectrum, attached by another ribbon, being represented, when not in use, as pendent, or as interlaced between the strings.

FIG. 2.—Cithara or Phorminx, from a vase in the British Museum. Best period of Greek art.

Passing by the story of the discovery of the lyre from a vibrating tortoise-shell by Hermes, we will glance at the real lyres of Egypt and Semitic Asia. The Egyptian lyre is unmistakably Semitic. The oldest representation that has been discovered is in one of the tombs of Beni Hassan, the date of the painting being in the 12th dynasty, that is, shortly before the invasion of the shepherd kings. In this painting, which both Rosellini and Lepsius have reproduced, an undoubted Semite carries a seven or eight stringed lyre of fan-shaped form. The instrument has a four-cornered body and an irregular four-cornered frame above it, and the player carries it horizontally from his breast, just as a modern Nubian would his kissar. He plays as he walks, using both hands, a plectrum being in the right. This ancient lyre, dating 2000 B.C., exists to this day in a remarkable speci-men preserved in the Berlin Museum (fig. 3), and is found again in form as well as in manner of holding in the Assyrian lyre of Khorsabad. During the rule of the shepherds the lyre became naturalized in Egypt, and in the 18th dynasty it is frequently de-picted, and with finer grace of form. In the 19th and 20th dynasties the lyre is sometimes still more slender, or is quite unsymmetrical and very strong, the horns surmounted by heads of animals as in the Berlin one, which has horses' heads at those extremities. Prokesch copied one in the ruins of Wadi Haifa, splendid in blue and gold, with a serpent wound round it. The Egyptians always strung their lyres fan-shaped, like the modern Nubian kissar. Their paintings shew three to eight or nine strings, but the painters' accuracy may not be unimpeachable; the Berlin instrument had fifteen. The three-stringed lyre typified the three seasons of the Egyptian year—the water, the green, and the harvest; the seven, the planetary system from the moon to Saturn. The Greeks had the same notion of the harmony of the spheres.

FIG. 3.—Egyptian Lyre now at Berlin. Drawn by Permission of Director-General Schöne.

There is no evidence as to what the stringing of the Greek lyre was in the heroic age. Plutarch says that Olympus and Terpander used but three strings to accompany their recitation. As the four strings led to seven and eight by doubling the tetrachord, so the trichord is connected with the hexachord or six-stringed iyre de-picted on so many archaic Greek vases. "We cannot insist on the accuracy of this representation, the vase painters being so little mindful of the complete expression of details ; yet we may suppose their tendency would be rather to imitate than to invent a number. It was their constant practice to represent the strings as being damped by the fingers of the left hand of the player, after having been struck by the plectrum which he held in the right hand. Before the Greek civilization had assumed its historic form, there was likely to be great freedom and independence of different locali-ties in the matter of lyre stringing, which is corroborated by the antique use of the chromatic (half-tone) and enharmonic (quarter-tone) tunings, pointing to an early exuberance, as in language when nations are young and isolated, and perhaps also to an Asiatic bias towards refinements of intonation, from which came the chroai, the hues of tuning, old Greek modifications of tetrachords entirely disused in the classic period. The common scale of Olympus


remained, a double trichord which had served as the scaffolding for the enharmonic varieties.

We may regard the Olympus scale, however, as consisting of two tetrachords, eliding one interval in each, for the tetrachord, or series of four notes, was very early adopted as the fundamental principle of Greek music, and its origin in the lyre itself appears sure. The basis of the tetrachord is the employment of the thumb and first three fingers of the left hand to twang as many strings, the little finger not being used on account of natural weakness. As a succession of three whole tones would form the disagreeable and untunable interval of a tritonus, two whole tones and a half-tone were tuned, fixing the tetrachord in the consonant interval of the perfect fourth. This succession of four notes being in the grasp of the hand was called sullabe), just as in language a group of letters incapable of further reduction is called syllable. In the combination of two syllables or tetrachords the modern diatonic scales resemble the Greek so-called disjunct scale, but the Greeks knew nothing of our categorical distinctions of major and minor. We might call the octave Greek scale minor, according to our descend-ing minor form, were not the keynote in the middle the thumb note of the deeper tetrachord. The upper tetrachord, whether starting from the keynote (conjunct) or from the note above (disjunct), was of exactly the same form as the lower, the position of the semitones being identical. The semitone was a limma (leimma), rather less than the semitone of our modern equal temperament, the Greeks tuning both the whole tones in the tetrachord by the same ratio of 8 : 9, which made the major third a dissonance, or rather would have done so had they combined them in what we call harmony. In melodious sequence the Greek tetrachord is decidedly more agreeable to the ear than the cor-responding series of our equal temperament. And although our scales are derived from combined tetrachords, in any system of tuning that we employ, be it just, mean-tone, or equal, they are less logical than the conjunct or disjunct systems accepted by the Greeks. But modern harmony is not compatible with them, and could not have arisen on the Greek melodic lines. The conjunct scale of seven notes


attributed to Terpander, was long the norm for stringing and tuning the lyre. When the disjunct scale


the octave scale attributed to Pythagoras, was admitted, to preserve the time-honoured seven strings one note had to be omitted ; it was therefore customary to omit the C, which in Greek practice was a dissonance. The Greek names for the strings of seven and eight stringed lyres, the first note being highest in pitch and nearest the player, were as follows:—Nete, Paranete, Paramese ; Mese, Lichanos, Parhypate, Hypate ; or Nete, Paranete, Trite, Paramese; Mese, Lichanos, Parhypate, Hypate,—the last four from Mese to Hypate being the finger tetrachord, the others touched with the plectrum. The highest string in pitch was called the last, neate : the lowest in pitch was called the highest, hypate, because it was, in theory at least, the longest string. The keynote and thumb string was mese, middle ; the next lower was lichanos, the first finger or lick-finger string ; trite, the third, being in the plectrum division, was also known as oxeia, sharp, perhaps from the dissonant quality which we have referred to as the cause of its omission. The plectrum and finger tetrachords together were diapason, through all; in the disjunct scale, an octave.

In transcribing the Greek notes into our notation, the absolute pitch cannot be represented ; the relative positions of the semitones are alone determined. We have already quoted the scale of Pythagoras, the Dorian or true Greek succession :—


Shifting the semitone one degree upwards in each tetrachord, we have the Phrygian


Another degree gives the Lydian


which would be our major scale of E were not the keynote A. The names imply an Asiatic origin. We will not pursue further the much debated question of Greek scales and their derivation ; it will suffice here to remark that the outside notes of the tetrachords were fixed in their tuning as perfect fourths,—the inner strings being, as stated, in diatonic sequence, or when chromatic two half-tones were tuned, when enharmonic two quarter-tones, leaving respectively the wide intervals of a minor and major third, and both impure, to complete the tetrachord. (A. J. H.)

The above article was written by A. J. Hipkins.

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