psaltery being played click on image for psaltery sound (140kb wav) 
or here for same in mp3 format

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O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

"And al above ther lay a gay sautrie, 
On which he made a-nyghtes melodie 
So swetely that all the chambre rong; 
And Angelus ad virginem he song...."
-Chaucer, The Miller's Tale

The psaltery (psalterion, saltere, sauterie, Psalterium, Psalter, salterio) is an ancient instrument seen in many forms. Early versions were simply a wooden board with gut strings stretched between pegs. The strings were plucked with fingers or by plectra (the name might have derived from the Greek psallein meaning plucked with fingers). Later instruments included the hollow box or soundboard with soundholes and metal strings. The player performed with the instrument on the lap or on a table, or in front of the chest held with a strap around his neck if movement was needed.

psalteryThe name of psaltery entered Christian literature in the 3rd century B.C. translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint where, in the Psalms, nebel was translated psalterion. Thus, Nebuchadnezzar's idolatrous ensemble included the Aramic psantria. Notice, also, that the book of Psalms has also become known as the Psalter (or psalterium), from the hymns sung with this harp. 

Southern Europe, influenced by Moorish Spain, preferred the trapezoidal psaltry with three or four strings to a note. Northern psalteries tended to be triangular or wing-shaped and single or double-strung. Like most other instruments of the time, the psaltery had no specific repertory, but was used to play whatever music the occasion demanded. It was referred to frequently in lists of musicians and instruments and in the art of the time. The psaltery was widely used until about 1500, but could not cope well with the chromaticism of the Renaissance, so was used less as time passed. It is thought that the psaltery evolved into the harpsichord, zither, and other instruments.

psalterystatue of psaltery being played He kiste hire sweete and taketh his sawtrie,

And pleyeth faste, and maketh melodie.

Chaucer, The Miller's Tale


Musica Antiqua's psaltery is by Keleshek.




Additional Resources:

  • S. Virdung: Musica getutscht (Basle, 1511/r1970)
  • M. Agricola: Musica instrumentalis deudsch (Wittenberg, 1528/r1969)
  • M. Praetorius: Syntagma musicum (Wolfenbuttel, 1618)
  • M. Mersenne: Harmonie universelle (Paris, 1636/r1963)
  • F. W. Galpin: Old English Instruments of Music (London, 1910)
  • C. Sachs: The History of Musical Instruments (New York, 1940)
  • A. J. Hpkins: 'Psaltery', Grove 5
  • A. Buchner: Hudebnf nastroje od praveku k dnesku [Musical instruments through the ages] (Prague, 1956)
  • R. Stevenson: Spanish Music in the Age of Columbus (The Hague, 1960)
  • H. H. Drager and M. Wegner: 'Psalterium', MGG
  • F. Harrison and J. Rimmer: European Musical Instruments (London, 1964)
  • R. Roberts: Musical Instruments Made to be Played (Leicester, 1965)
  • J. Rimmer: Ancient Musical Instruments of Western Asia in the Brittish Museum (London, 1969)
  • C. Page: 'Biblical Instruments in Medieval Manuscripts' Early Music, (1977) 299
  • M. Remnant: Musical Instruments of the West (London, 1978)