Thursday, April 1, 2010

Visions of the Hammered Dulcimer and Its Heirs

The hammered dulcimer was a popular medieval instrument throughout much of the Holy Roman Empire. At first it was regarded as a kind of psalterium, but the difference was that the method of setting the strings into vibration was by the use of hammers, as opposed to plucking. Thus two distinct families of instruments arose, whose divergence depended upon tone quality resulting from the differing methods of string vibration. The hammered dulcimer eventually evolved into the pianoforte, and then the piano. But there is some evidence that it was also seen at the time it first appeared as a harbinger of the use of drums in worship.

John d’Avignon, mid-thirteenth century Schoolman who taught at Paris during the period of the introduction of the hammered dulcimer, provided Rome with this remarkable opinion and prediction, which received the Papal imprimatur by Alexander IV in 1257 and was thereupon officially catalogued by the Catholic Congregation of Divine Worship. The translation, which is out of print, is that of Sister Mary O’Priehs (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1934).

There is no question in my mind, Your Holiness, that the introduction of the hammered dulcimer into our worship settings will lead us to a blessed increase in holiness in the generations to come. Well-meaning Franciscans have been consistently opposing its use for worship, due no doubt to its novelty. But I must respectfully disagree, and urge you, Father, to do the same. The hammered dulcimer is as harmless as a dove, and hath as much beauty, for its musick. It reacheth the heart, and as such, doth the work of Him who like a dove entered the womb of the blessed Virgin herself.

And my meditations upon the possibilities for its future have brought me much joy, which I am compelled to share: I see visions of greater and more majestic pianofortes to come, beating out their musick with aplomb, to speak with even greater earnestness to the human heart. I envision also greater beatings with more forceful hammers, upon drums and cymbals of various sizes, all at once: hammers worked by the hands and by the feet, and all to enliven the heart at worship. I foresee drummers drumming upon them with great dexterity and speed, all to bring joy and the thrill of faith to the ears and hearts of the people at worship. I see dancers dancing to these beating drums, not in wantonness as the Franciscans might suppose, but forsooth with all their might before the LORD, as did King David himself. I dream of a day, Father, in which the shackles of stilted worship are removed from our weary limbs, and we are freed at last to sing a new song unto the LORD!

I beg your indulgence, and if my request is too forward for you, I shall recant anon. Only if thou wilt consider it, I shall be pleased to have known so. Do not resist the hammered dulcimer, Holy Father. It rocketh my soul.

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