Probably *timpan* and almost certainly *cruit* denoted, at least in
many contexts, instruments of the lyre family; i.e., chordophones whose
strings lay in a plane more or less paralleling that of the soundboard.
Additionally, the strings of the lyre emanate from a more or less common
point, usually slightly off the soundboard. Hence, the lyre family encom-
passes instruments ranging from the kithara of classical antiquity to
the modern guitar, and also includes the familiar orchestral bowed strings
as well as earlier bowed lyres such as the Estonian talharpa and the
Confusion arises from the way in which terms once tended to be applied
much more loosely than they currently are. Even as recently as the early
20th century, scholars were referring to the talharpa and the crwth as
"bowed harps," when they actually are lyres. *Timpan* and perhaps also
*cruit* sometimes denoted harps which, in contrast to lyres, have strings
that lie in a plane roughly perpendicular to that of the soundboard, and
the strings emanate FROM the soundboard.
Many iconographic representations of both lyres and small harps
to which *timpan* and *cruit* were applied in various locals and times
can be found on the high crosses of Ireland.
Finally, there are the ZITHERS. Like the lyres, they have strings
paralleling their soundboards. However, their strings normally are
spread across most of the breadth of their soundboards, rather than
emerging from a common point. Also, like harps, zithers tend to have
numerous strings, whereas lyres normally have a small number (3, 4, or
6, most commonly; some earlier forms from classical antiquity had as
many as 12). It is important to remember, however, that the number of
strings is not ever the most important factor or even a primary one.
By the way, the piano is an example of a KEYED ZITHER.
J. MARSHALL BEVIL
On Wed, 15 Jun 1994, Cliff Moses wrote:
> Andi Wolfe asks:
> I would like information regarding the triompa'n. Is this an
> Irish version of the hammered dulcimer??? If so, then I have the following
> 1. Is the instrument diatonic?
> 2. American hammered dulcimers generally are strung with 12/11 treble/base
> strings or 15/14 diatonic. Some of the more modern instruments are 16/15
> and are partially or fully chromatic. How do these configurations compare to
> their Irish equivalents?
> 3. I think Derek Bell of the Chieftans plays this instrument. Who are some
> other Irish musicians that also play the triompa'n.
> 4. How do you pronounce it?
> Seamus added the further note that the correct spelling is tiompan.
> There was a legendary instrument in Ireland called the tiompan. It was,
> however, not a hammered dulcimer type of instrument. The confusion possibly
> comes from the fact that there was an instrument in Europe called the tympan
> which was a hammered dulcimer. Tympans were used around the 1600-1700's in
> France at least, and probably elsewhere. The one I have seen was about the
> size of a small 12/11 (notation significant only to dulcimer players).
> The only knowledge of the tiompan comes from a few pieces of Irish literature
> which describe or allude to various aspects of the instrument. The
> descriptions are not totally consistant, and none of them describe the
> complete instrument.
> The earliest reference is found in Aisling Oengusso (The Dream of Aengus)
> which dates to the 8th or 9th century. English translation is:
> [He saw] A tiompan in her hand, the sweetest that ever was.
> She played music to him. He slept to it [i.e., its sound]
> >From other references it was clearly a stringed instrument, with metal
> strings (gold, silver, or bronze), sweet sounding. They were probably made
> of wood and often decorated with silver or bronze. One source describes it
> as having a thin wooden frame. Where reference is made to the number of
> strings, it is three. In one reference, it appears that there may have been
> tune and drone strings and could have been plucked or bowed. It begins to
> sound more like a "mountain dulcimer" than a hammered dulcimer.
> The tiompan and the cruit are often mentioned together in the ancient
> literature, and one author suggests they were the only types of stringed
> instruments in common use in medieval Ireland, fiddles not having appeared
> until the 17th century.
> To give an indication of the social rank of tiompan players, the order of
> seating at the table in the Assembly Hall at Tara was given in The Yellow
> Book of Lecon as placing cruit and tiompan players between the horsemen and
> judges after which came the doctors of letters, their nominated successors,
> the chidf poets, and the second grade poets. As high ranking musicians,
> cruit and tiompan players were entitled to the shoulders of the pig, as also
> were the master wrights, deer-stalkers, fifth-rate poets, and champions.
> The last reference to tiompan was by Thomas Dease, Bishop of Meath, (1622-
> 1650) and a famous tiompan player. The bishop laments in a poem:
> Big fires on the floors, the sound of tiompans and harps,
> Since these have gone, Ireland is a desert.
> The reference suggests this indicates the decline of the tiompan must have
> coincided with that of the harp, only it became obsolete before the harp.
> With regard to the hammered dulcimer in Ireland, there apparently were only
> two significant older players in the 20th century: John Rea, from Co. Antrim,
> and Andy Dowling, from Clonmeen Erroll, Co. Loais. Additionally there have
> been a few dulcimer players in Antrim over the years.
> John was given a dulcimer by his father in 1924; he was about 4 or 5
> at the time. The rest of the family were fiddle players, but it seems there
> were no little fiddles around, so John got a dulcimer. There were a lot of
> deep-water sailors in the area and it is presumed that some of them
> introduced the dulcimer to northern Ireland. John died in the early 1980's I
> believe, having made two record albums of Irish traditional airs and dance
> Andy Dowling bought his "from a Jew man in Dublin" also in the early
> 1920's. Andy died just a few years ago at the age of 91. I visited Andy
> Dowling in 1989. Wonderful man, lived alone in the house where he was born.
> Sort of a regional historian. He was also a poet and a playwright. He
> played mostly for his own enjoyment in the later years, but he and Charlie
> Byrne (the bodhran maker) used to go to the fleadh together every year.
> Currently there are a few dulcimer players in Ireland, but no major players
> that I know of.
> I'm not sure why Derek Bell calls his dulcimer a tiompan. I asked him once
> back stage about it, how it was tuned etc., but he was rather non-
> There are a lot of hammered dulcimer players who play Irish music, but there
> are very few that try to be Irish musicians on the hammered dulcimer, i.e.,
> really attempt the play in the Irish style. Karen Ashbrook is probably the
> most notable person who currently plays the hammered dulcimer in the Irish
> style. She has published a very good book which is available from Oak
> Publications. She is teaching the class on Irish Hammered Dulcimer during
> Irish Week at the Augusta Festival this summer at Elkins WV. Write if you
> want more information.
> Best regards,
> Cliff Moses
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