In China, there have been many attempts at creating variations on the cello (and bass) to fill out the string section of traditional Chinese Orchestras. The èrhú (二胡), an ancient instrument that likely originated in Central Asia nearly a millenea ago, probably has the quintessential “Chinese sound” that Westerners imagine when they think of Chinese music though I’m sure a close tie would be the sound of the gǔzhēng (古箏).
The instrument in the photo to the left is a géhú (革胡). As Brandon Voo states:
The Gehu comes in two sizes, the Da-Gehu (large) and the Diyin Gehu (bass). In a Chinese orchestra, they take the same roles as the cello and double bass in a Western symphony orchestra. The four strings of both sizes are tuned exactly like the cello and double bass and are attached to a machine head with gears.
The wikipedia article for the géhú states that it was “developed in the 20th century by the Chinese musician Yang Yusen (杨雨森, 1926-1980)” which I’ll have to confirm once I do some research but given the time frame referenced by Brandon Voo in his article regarding the changes undergoing Chinese Orchestras during the 1950s, Yang Yusen’s dates would fit in fine.
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). 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. 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, a 15th-century bowedstring instrument which is considered by many as the predecessor of the contemporary violin.
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 (奚琴), 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 theoristChen 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. Continue reading “Origins of Bowed Stringed Instruments”→