Magyar Treasures: The Cimbalom

A gypsy ensemble in Kolozsvár, with cimbalom

Magyar Treasures: The Cimbalom

Judit Vasmatics Paolini

I first had the pleasure of hearing the distinctive sound of a cimbalom when I was visiting relatives in Hungary.  We were at a restaurant where I had a chance to listen to Hungarian folk songs and gypsy music performed by an ensemble of four or five talented musicians.  At times during the performance the violinist went from table to table, playing and delighting patrons as he performed right by their side.  By contrast, the gentleman who played the cimbalom (which looked like an ornate wooden table with some strings attached) did not have that opportunity, for his rather bulky instrument prevented such movement.  The pace and movement of a player’s hands were fascinating to watch, especially whenever the tempo of the music picked up.  Oh, the sounds emitted from this instrument were quite alluring!  In addition, that summer I was delighted to see Hungarian folk dances – the steps, movements and jumps were quite captivating.  And, the cimbalom was among the instruments that provided the lovely music which set the tone, pace and jovial mood at the outdoor theater on Margitsziget in Budapest, leaving me and so many others truly enchanted.

The cimbalom is essentially a is a kind of chordophone, a string instrument that produces sound when strings which have been stretched between two points vibrate.  Its construction consists of a sizeable, trapezoid shaped, sound box which contains groups of strings spanning across the top.  This box rests on four legs that on some cimbaloms can be detached, which is practical.  The strings are made of two types of metal: Steel is used to create the treble strings and are placed in groups of four.  However, the base strings have been fashioned by winding copper around an underlying metal, and these strings are placed in groups of three.  Normally, playing the cimbalom is performed by gently striking the strings with two beaters.

The term “cimbalom” is also used when referring to earlier forms of this instrument which were smaller.  It can also convey the folk cimbalom which differs from a concert cimbalom.

The cimbalom is very popular throughout Hungary, and is its national instrument.  In addition, it is well-liked in lands which comprise Central and Eastern Europe –  among these we find the contemporary Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine.  Furthermore, this instrument appears among the folk tunes of Eastern European Jews known as Klezmer music which evolved as Jewish people who lived in Hungary, Romania and other Eastern European countries were inspired by the various types of folk music of the region.  We must also note that this instrument is very prevalent in music of the Roma people.

The earliest depiction of a primitive chordophone appears in an Assyrian bas-relief dated around 3500 BC.  Over time the chordophone has greatly evolved, and today there are many different varieties of this instrument.  

The cimbalom has a long history as it evolved over time; however, its origin can be found as coming from the Orient and the Middle East.  The qanun, a forerunner of the cimbalom, made its early appearance in Arabia.  This instrument had a sound box containing strings fashioned of metal or gut and stretched across one or at times two bridges.  A set of mallets, forged of metal, were used to hit the strings.  This musical instrument was transported to many areas in Europe as well as the Middle East by migratory people from Asia, particularly the aggressive invaders from Mongolia and China as well as the wandering gypsies of India.  The qanun arrived in Europe around the 12th century.          

In addition, the santur from Persian lands is also related to the cimbalom and has a closer likeness to it.  Its appearance in Hungary occurred around the 13th century.

The cimbalom advanced and continued to spread throughout Europe during the 16th century and the 17th century.  The instrument was widely popular and was appreciated among audiences which also included high society.  Due to its popularity, composers were inspired to write music specifically for this instrument, including sonatas and concertos.

During the 1800s, it was produced in large numbers; there were factories even in America which produced the cimbalom.  However, over time, its popularity dwindled as did its use.  The cimbalom became a folk instrument.  Nonetheless, this instrument greatly influenced the musical world, for it affected the need for new sounds which led to a better construction of the mechanics of the piano and ultimately improving it.

When the cimbalom initially appeared in Hungary during the 15th century, it was quite different from the concert cimbalom found there today.  Most often it was played by gypsies.  In addition, it was rather small and the sound box was without legs; thus, the instrument could be placed on a table or with a strip swung over the performer’s shoulder while the player supported the box with his waist.  During the 19th century, the cimbalom’s role evolved further.  Erkel Ferenc (1810-1893) included it in his composition Bánk Bán.  This opera made its debut in 1861 in Budapest.

In 1874, Schunda József Vencel made great improvements on this instrument, and in so doing he fashioned and produced the concert cimbalom.  In creating such an elaborate instrument, he intentionally designed it so it would have the capability to perform among other instruments typically used in concerts.  At the time he was influenced by the broader goal of establishing a Hungarian national identity.  In the 19th century, there was a great drive to disassociate Hungary’s cultural characteristics from those of the Roma, for the two were often confused with each other.  Such a misperception spread abroad where the characteristics of Hungary’s folk music were conflated with those of the Roma performers who often played on the street corners in Budapest – using cimbaloms which were more common and less developed.

Schunda József Vencel designed and manufactured the first concert cimbalom in Budapest.  This newly designed instrument now had a likeness to a small piano. It was more similar in its capability in producing a varying range of pitch.  It had improved its ability in projecting dynamic tone.  In addition, the cimbalom’s weight had greatly increased because it now contained a large sound box, so that it was more aligned with that of a small piano.  Due to having an additional number of string courses, the concert cimbalom had an increased number of octaves, thus improving upon its range of pitch.  In order to give it support, four removable legs were added.  The fuller frame offered greater stability and augmented its dynamic power.  A damper pedal provided an easy transition from soft sounds to those that were louder.  Thus, these improvements elevated the cimbalom by advancing it as a musical instrument to a higher classification.

Around 1870, the cimbalom was designated as Hungary’s national instrument.  In 1897, courses were available in the instruction of this instrument at the Academy of Music.  Liszt Ferenc certainly elevated the appreciation for this instrument in 1876 when he presented it in his composition, Ungarischer Strummarsch. Kodály Zoltán (1882-1967) was very interested in Hungarian folk music and well respected as an expert in this area.  He created numerous compositions which were influenced by such music.  His folk opera Háry János, composed in 1926, was well received during its debut in Budapest; however, Kodály felt that it needed improving.  The opera, with its final revision appeared in 1927.  However, it’s interesting to note that shortly afterwards he created a concert suite inspired by the most vivacious piece from the opera – he composed the Háry János Suite, Op. 35a.  It contains six movements, with the cimbalom featured in the fifth.  So, his audiences are still delighted most especially by these Suites which in fact have often outshined the opera.

The cimbalom has also been included in numerous musical scores accompanying well known films.  We will not include this very long list.  However, one film in which this instrument can be heard is the delightfully humorous The Grand Budapest Hotel which first appeared in 2014.

Numerous changes have been made since those first made by Schunda, and the design of the cimbalom continues to improve today.  Its popularity as a concert instrument has also grown.  One can easily find countless musical arrangements which include this delightful instrument with its unique sound.

I will sit back and enjoy reminiscing of my trips to Budapest where I was so delightfully entertained.  Yes, I certainly will find a lovely melody which will bring me back to Hungary once again.

Judit Vasmatics Paolini is a former member of the Southern Connecticut State University Alumni Association Board of Directors, former lecturer at Tunxis Community College, and a member of the Magyar News Online Editorial Board.