The hammered dulcimer is quite an old instrument. There are many, many versions of its history. It’s difficult to know what’s true, what’s anecdotal, and what’s myth. Therefore, I have given myself permission to embellish my own short history based, in part, of my memory of what I read quite some time ago in the New Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
The dulcimer is thought to have originated around 1000 years ago in the Persian empire. It spread both east and west. It migrated across Europe and eventually to England. It’s presence was noted in the logs of the earliest ships to Jamestown, Virginia. The dulcimer was popular in the early part of the 20th century. It was played in Henry Ford’s dance band and was sold by mail order in both the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogues. It faded in popularity followed by a resurgence in interest in the mid-1970’s.
A few of the various names for the hammered dulcimer: (There are numerous variations on these names in other countries and cultures.)
- Hammered dulcimer – from dulce melos, Greek for sweet sound
- Cimbalom (Hungary, Romania)
- Santur (Iran)
- Santouri (Greece)
- Hackbrett (Germany) – meaning chopping board or chopping block
- Yang Qin (China)
- Salterio (Italy)
- Tympanon (France)
References: Smithsonian – one version of the history of the dulcimer.