Origins of Bowed Stringed Instruments

Sambuugiin Pürevjav of Altai Khairkhan playing a morin khuur near Centre Georges Pompidou in 2005.

The Wikipedia entry for the Byzantine lyra states this about its history:

The first recorded reference to the bowed lyra was in the 9th century by the Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih (d. 911); in his lexicographical discussion of instruments he cited the lyra (lūrā) as the typical instrument of the Byzantines along with the urghun (organ), shilyani (probably a type of harp or lyre) and the salandj (probably a bagpipe)[5]. The lyra spread widely via the Byzantine trade routes that linked the three continents; in the 11th and 12th centuries European writers use the terms fiddle and lira interchangeably when referring to bowed instruments[6]. In the meantime, the rabāb, the bowed string instrument of the Arabic world, was introduced to Western Europe possibly through the Iberian Peninsula and both instruments spread widely throughout Europe giving birth to various European bowed instruments such as the medieval rebec, the Scandinavian and Icelandic talharpa, and the Celticcrwth. A notable example is the Italian lira da braccio[6], a 15th-century bowedstring instrument which is considered by many as the predecessor of the contemporary violin[2][7].

While it’s never a good idea to take Wikipedia as the final say about any topic, it’s usually a great starting point for research.  Being adequately sourced helps, obviously.   The entry for the Chinese erhu states that:

The erhu can be traced back to instruments introduced into China more than a thousand years ago. It is believed to have evolved from the xiqin (), which was described as a foreign, two-stringed lute in Yue Shu (樂書, yuèshū, lit. book of music), an encyclopedic work on music written by music theorist Chen Yang in the Northern Song Dynasty. The xiqin is believed to have originated from the Xi people of Central Asia, and have come to China in the 10th century.

Bowed strings seemed to have originated as a whole in the Middle East and/or Central Asia–regions of the world that share a lot of overlapping cultural ties–and then spread West and East into Europe and Asia.

Meaning that there are bowed string traditions in the world that predate the Western traditions by a few centuries.  The irony being that after the Cairo Congress in 1932 (as well as the subsequent follow ups) the formal re-introduction of Western bowed strings have resulted in the replacement of many of the native instruments with European violins, violas, cellos and basses.

Kayhan Kalhor (a member of Yo-Yo Ma‘s Silk Road Project) talks a little bit about the history of the kamancheh (video below), especially into the 20th century and some of the issues surrounding the influence of Western music and Western instruments.  Things like the introduction of the fourth string and steel strings (rather than silk ones) in imitation of the Western violin and how with the introduction of the violin at the end of the 19th century nearly everyone who would have otherwise become kamancheh players chose the violin instead as it was “fashionable, it was Western, it was chic.”

He started on the violin as there were no kamancheh masters where he lived but after hearing Ostad [Ali-Asghar] Bahari (on the television) he bought his own kamancheh as started learning on his own until he could find teachers to teach him.  As Kalhor explains, he was a master and played kamancheh all his life and never switched to violin–he “held on”–essentially becoming the link between the old tradition and rising generations of younger kamancheh players (this has also happened with the Swedish Nyckelharpa).

The video below is Ostad Ali-Asghar Bahari on kamancheh and Jamshid Shemirani on zarb.

What’s most remarkable about a majority of the world’s bowed string instruments is the fact that nearly all are played upright, like the cello.  It is only in the European countries that a vertical rather than horizontal arrangement evolved.  Also, while the range of most of these world fiddles fits either into the violin or viola registers, the tuning is more often than not closer to the viola or cello.

The Wikipedia entry for the Morin Khuur (see image above) states

Even though the morin huur does not own a long history,[4] its direct predecessor Chuurqin has a long history. In Tang dynasty (600s~800s), when the ethnic Mongols were still a branch of Shiwei people, there appeared to be records of huqin. In Northern Song dynasty, when the Mongols are forming, horse-tail huqin (馬尾胡琴) appears.[5] Since then, the chuur fiddle has been separated from general huqin till now.

Which could possibly place the origin of bowed strings even further back (and further North) but who really knows in the end?  Obviously, I would like to know.   And while this is one of my pet research projects, I’ve been so overwhelmed by the wealth of bowed stringed instruments the past few years, that I’ve hardly had an opportunity to collect my thoughts about a possible history of them and their evolution.

I hope to start doing that here at my blog.


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