THE PALMER ORPHARION : A RE-EVALUATION
Amongst the many prized exhibits at the Musikhistorisk Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark, is an orpharion by Francis Palmer, made in London in 1617. This instrument is one of only three orpharions to have survived, and the only one of the three to be signed and dated. It is also, along with the bandora dated 1580 by John Rose of London which is now at Helmingham Hall, one of the two extant plucked instruments from England which are contemporary with the great flowering of English lute music of the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries.
An orpharion may be described as a wire-strung plucked instrument with seven or more courses - ie. pairs - of strings, tuned and played as a lute. The instrument is characterised by having an oblique bridge and nut so that the treble strings are shorter than the bass strings, having a festooned body shape, a flat (or essentially flat) back, and fixed frets, rather than the tied gut frets as found on a lute. In addition to the three surviving examples there are various other sources of information about the instrument, including (most importantly for our purposes here) a discussion on the instrument in Syntagma Musicum, and an illustration in the related Theatrum Instrumentorum by Michael Praetorius; and a list of measurements included in the Talbot Manuscript, compiled in England by James Talbot at the end of the seventeenth century.
I shall briefly describe the Palmer orpharion.
The overall length is 1005mm long, the string length increases from 518˝ to 601˝ long, the neck length is 248˝ long on the treble, and 272mm on the bass, and the neck is 71.4mm wide at the nut and 86.2mm wide at the body join. The body length is 421mm, and the body depth is 72mm at the neck and 75mm at the bottom, both including the soundboard and back. The head is 319mm from the top to the back of the nut at the centre. The rose, made of wood and parchment, has a diameter of 100mm. There is a raised fingerboard with a total length of 318 1/2mm on the bass, and 313 1/2mm on the treble side. The body is festooned in shape, with a maximum width of 269mm.
There are only a few woods used in the instrument. The soundboard is of a type of close-grained conifer wood such as spruce, varying in thickness from 3.2mm at the bottom to 2.5mm near the neck join. There are two bands of purfling around the soundboard edge and two bands around the rose. These strips are of maple. The sides are of walnut, 1.2mm thick, inlaid with strips of maple. The neck and head are of maple, the majority of the piece used for the head is a seperate piece which has been scarf-jointed to the neck piece. There has been some question about the originality of the head but it is, as I shall discuss, original. It has a finial in the shape of a bearded man, the work being of fine quality. The back of the head has an inlaid piece of walnut. The fingerboard is of a walnut-coloured stained maple with plain maple purfling, and with inlaid brass frets which are held in place by "wedges" arranged, as occurs in citterns, by colour according to the note produced. The back is of seven alternate strips of walnut and maple, the walnut pieces being inlaid with maple purfling. The back is very slightly arched, to a maximum height of about 4mm, over its length and width.
The one part of the instrument which is clearly not original is the bridge. The bridge is both too high above the soundboard to allow the instrument to be fretted properly, and - although the shape follows that of the original very closely - has the brass saddle positioned incorrectly. The distance from the nut to the bridge should be slightly over twice the distance from the nut to fret 12 to allow for the stretching of the string as it is fretted. In this instrument the nut to fret 12 distance increases from 259 3/4mm to 302 1/2mm, which implies the string lengths should range from approximately 521 1/2mm to 607mm. The present string lengths are therefore 3mm too short in the treble and 5 1/2mm too short in the bass. Even if the bridge was of a suitable height to allow the instrument to be played at present, it would not be able to play in tune. Further evidence that suggests the bridge is not original can be seen near the bass end of the bridge where the soundboard grain shows some signs of damage, probably from having been torn when the previous bridge came unglued. This bridge was probably missing - although its original position clearly visible - when the present replacement was made.
The other part of the instrument which shows non-original work is the head. It has been suggested by Djilda Abbott and Eph Segerman, writing in the FoMRHI Quarterly in 1976, that the head is, at the least, substantially altered, and that the instrument may originally have been built as a theorboed orpharion. It is certainly true that the head has been altered, but in a manner that can be completely explained. The use of a scarf joint on the head should not be a surprise in any way. The finial is carved and would almost certainly have been sent to a specialist wood carver rather than being the work of Palmer himself. In order to use minimal wood, something which seems to have been a constant preoccupation with instrument makers, a small block would have been given to the carver, rather than a completed neck. Once the carving was complete the finial was returned to Palmer who attached the top part of the head to the remainder. There are other historical records to support such working practices in seventeenth-century England, for example in a viol mentioned in the diary of Samuel Pepys. The section of wood above the scarf joint which includes the finial is now badly worm damaged. It is not possible to determine when this worm damage took place, but it is reasonable to assume that it occured after the period the instrument was in regular use. As a result of this damage it can be seen that the top of the head broke at some stage where the top two tuning pegs went through the head. This damage was repaired, but it was clear that the peg holes would not be strong enough to support the tuning pegs, so as a result the repairer drilled two new pegholes close to the nut. These two pegholes can clearly be seen to be non-original and of much lower quality than the other holes. The end result of this work is that the number of pegs and strings are still as the original, but the peg positions are slightly transposed. It should also be mentioned that the tuning pegs themselves are replacements, no doubt dating from the same time as the head repairs.
It can therefore be shown that the instrument, although slightly altered in certain details, is essentially in its original form. It should also be pointed out that, although the above alterations can be easily determined from a personal examination of the instrument, well-known published photographs have tended to misrepresent the instrument and its condition.
Having established that the instrument is in its original form, thus being able to ignore various arguments which might be considered to detract from its importance as a document, it is important to place the instrument within some type of musical framework.
It is well-known and accepted that the orpharion was, to all intents and purposes, considered to be a wire-strung lute, and that the music played on the two instruments was interchangable. The tunings recorded by Praetorius list the orpharion with its highest note tuned to either g1 or a1, with the various lute tunings all commencing from g1.
Despite considerable debate on the size and pitch of the common English cittern of the time, there is an apparent accepted belief concerning the orpharion. In an article written in the 1974 issue of the Galpin Society Journal, Eph Segerman and Djilda Abbott proposed the existence of a "super-strong steel wire" with was essential for the orpharion, bandora, penorcon, Klein Englisch Zitterlein (or small English cittern), and various bowed instruments as the only way to reconcile Praetorius' plates with his tunings at his given pitch. This argument for the existence of the steel wire has been further refined in other articles by Segerman over the years. Segerman's view appears currently to be that it was manufacured by a Nuremberg wire drawer named Jobst Meuler from about 1580 to around 1620, and was capable of withstanding stress to allow the highest strings on the Klein Englisch Zitterlein, to play at g2 at his interpretation of Praetorius' pitch level A435, with a measured string length of approximately 335mm. This compares with normal iron wire which can safely reach no higher than c2 using the same string length and pitch level.
Perhaps on the grounds that if something is repeated often enough and not continuously challenged it eventually becomes accepted as fact, and it appears that the existence of this "super-strong steel wire" is now generally believed. Two respected writers who are critical of other aspects of Segerman's research have both implied as much in recent publications. Writing in a letter responding to Segerman in the 2000 issue of the Galpin Society Journal, the cittern maker Peter Forrester writes, quote "although a treble cittern could have been tuned to this pitch using the special wire necessary to orpharions, made by Meuler...", unquote; and in the December 2002 issue of Lute News - the Newsletter of the Lute Society - Ian Harwood writes in a letter, quote "Orpharion tuning with all-metal strings wasn’t possible until the advent of both the sloping bridge and Meuler’s strong steel wire for the trebles", unquote.
It is here that several hypothesis need some testing. The reason the "super-strong steel wire" is considered to be necessary on the orpharion is not because of the treble string lengths, but rather it has been argued that it is the only way to allow the bass strings to sound at all using the technology of the time. The problems with the bass of stringed instruments is found again and again in historical sources in the form of advice to tune the treble string as high as one dares before breaking. The higher the treble string pitch the better the bass strings can sound. Once the overspun string was developed and made widely available in the second half of the seventeenth century the bass string response was no longer a problem, but prior to then the common method of increasing the range on a wire-strung instrument was to braid or twine the string. This method was used on a variety of instruments in the sixteenth- and early-seventeenth century and was certainly essential on the orpharion.
Segerman, who in addition to being a indefatigable writer, also makes instruments and strings has found himself unable to make a string that can sound two octaves and a fifth below an iron string at normal pitch for a given length. To put this in terms of the Palmer orpharion - the bass strings, with a length of 607mm must be able to sound two octaves and a fifth below an iron string which is 521˝mm long.
Whilst I cannot comment on Eph Segerman's lack of success in doing this, my own experiments have shown that it is entirely possible using techniques which were known to instrument makers in the sixteenth- and early-seventeenth century. With a treble string length of 521˝mm the highest pitch a normal iron string can obtain, assuming a safety margin similar to that found in contemporary English virginals is e1 at A440, modern pitch, requiring a bass string to sound modern AA with a 607mm string length. Using red brass wire manufactured by Malcolm Rose with a diameter of 0.65mm, I have managed to get a twist so that a complete revolution of the wire occurs each 2.16mm. Testing the string on a monochord I have found that it can achieve the required modern-pitch low AA. The sound quality has not been tested on an instrument, and I do not have an all-gut strung lute with solid bass strings to compare it to, so I cannot make any valid assumptions about its quality. I can say that I believe a higher twist is possible, and that a heavier diameter of string could be used with a similar twist rate. Either of these possibilities would give a better sound were it desired.
In any case such further experimentation is irrelevant. What is important is that I have been able to prove that the proposed "super-strong steel wire" is not essential on the orpharion. This has implications for the whole argument concerning this wire. When it was believed to be essential for a particular instrument there could be no doubt it must have existed, but that can be shown to not be the case. Whilst it still may be the only way of reconciling the plates and tunings given by Praetorius, it opens up a further avenue to approach the problem.
It should be emphasised here that there is no evidence in any documentary source that the "super-strong steel wire" ever existed. The name of Jobst Meuler as the supposed maker of this wire came about as the result of a letter found in which he, ie. Meuler, had written to Heinrich Schultz essentially to get a letter of recommendation to continue producing his wire. All that is actually said is the wire was, in Schultz's opinion, better than anything else (ie. not produced by anyone else), and that it is not plated, which was the subject of a specific Nuremburg wire-making monopoly. There is no mention that it was able to withstand higher pitches. It should also be pointed out that the earliest reference that the late Remy Gug, writing in the FoMRHI Quarterly, found of Jobst Meuler in the Nuremburg archives was 1609, some 30 years after the proposed invention of the wire.
With no evidence to support the existence, let alone the use of this wire, is it possible to explain the discrepency between the tunings given by Praetorius and his plates? In one case, that of the much argued about Klein Englische Zitterlein, there certainly is. Praetorius twice gives the tuning of this instrument - once in his list of tunings and once in his text. The tuning given is g2, d2, a1 or bb1 and f2 from the highest course down. The stringing material is also explicitly given as steel and brass. If we are to assume, for the moment, that the treble strings did use the fabled "super-strong steel strings" at the quoted pitch levels, it would require that the third string, specifically said to be of brass, must have been able to reach a pitch of a1 or bb1. Unlike iron strings, in which the strength can be altered by drawing methods within certain usable limits, brass is strictly limited in its strength by its alloy. It has been found that the strongest alloy is essentially 70 parts copper to 30 parts zinc, which is the relationship found in the yellow brass wire produced by Malcolm Rose. It should be pointed out that in the sixteenth- and early-seventeenth century the method of manufacturing brass did not allow a guaranteed relationship as can be achieved by modern technology. Using Malcolm Rose's wire it generally accepted that the absolute limit for safety on a keyboard instrument has a c2 string length of about 285mm at Segerman's proposed A435 pitch level for Praetorius. At that pitch level the absolute highest pitch achievable by the third string of the Klein Englisch Zitterlein is a1, not the bb1 as required by Praetorius in his second tuning. Further, this figure is, as just stated, the absolute limit for a keyboard instrument. It would need to be lower for a fretted instrument using a plectrum, and is in any case about a semitone above what appears to be the maximum string length that was used in keyboard instruments in historical times. If we use that length, in which the brass strings would be only about 272mm for the A435 pitch level the highest achievable pitch for the third string would be g#1, one or two semitones below the indicated pitch. It should also be mentioned that Segerman is almost unique in believing that Praetorius' pitch level was at A435 - it is generally accepted that it was a semitone higher at approximately A460. In other words, even biasing the figures as much as possible towards Segerman's argument, it is not physically possible for the Klein Englisch Zitterlein to play at the pitch indicated by Praetorius in the text, or, simply, Praetorius was wrong!
As yet we do not have any firm information about how the plates included in the Theatrum Instrumentorum were drawn, and as more testing is done it is shown that they must be considered less reliable than previously assumed. Quite aside from the Klein Englisch Zitterlein there are other instruments which could not play at the indicated pitch levels, or even could not have existed in the proportional relationships implied by the text. It must be questioned if the rulers printed on each page can be considered as anything more than a general guide. It must also be questioned if the list of tunings should really be considered as absolute or nominal pitch levels. These questions are very closely related, for if both are to be considered correct it means that every instrument that Praetorius measured and was then engraved was originally at his pitch level - regardless of what that pitch level may have been - or that the instruments at different pitch levels were re-scaled when they were engraved. With these questions offering no simple answers and the ever-increasing list of definite errors included in the plates, it makes any absolute reliance on them methodologically unsound.
This does not, of course, refute the existence of orpharions with string lengths in excess of 520mm. The Palmer orpharion is unquestionably in excess of that, and the instrument measured by Talbot is very close in all dimensions to the Palmer. The orpharion illustrated by Praetorius has a longer string length and even allowing for some inaccuracy must still be considered as being longer than either the Palmer or Talbot instruments. Did the "super-strong steel wire" exist to explain them all, or is there an alternative argument?
In addition to these instruments it can be shown that smaller orpharions existed - the instrument in Brunswick has a treble string length of 425mm. Since it can be shown to be most unlikely that this smaller instrument was tuned to the same absolute pitch as the other examples, it is most likely that the tunings given by Praetorius should be considered as nominal tunings and nothing more. The existence of different sizes and pitches of orpharions should not surprise us, after all, it has long been known and accepted that lutes were made in different sizes.
How does this affect the Palmer orpharion?
I have previously published information on seventeenth-century English keyboard instruments which confirms the findings of Bruce Haynes who shows that a variety of pitch levels were found in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These pitch levels ranged over a major third, each separated by a semitone, from A403 to A505Hz. The research shows that no particular pitch level can be considered to have precedence over the others. It might be considered that the higher levels tend to be related to sacred music and the lower levels to chamber music, but the English virginals show a direct correlation to English organs which suggests that such an assumption is untrue. It cannot be shown if the higher levels are more to do with vocal music and the lower levels associated with instrumental music. This is possible and supported by the evidence, but cannot be tested in any rigorous manner.
Assuming that the Palmer orpharion was tuned so that the treble string had an equal safety margin to the English virginals, it has been shown above that the highest pitch level obtainable would be e1 at modern pitch. If we examine lute tunings we would assume that the nominal pitch of the highest string for a longer orpharion would be d1, something that is supported by the meantone fretting arrangement on the neck. The instrument would then be viewed at a pitch a tone higher, ie. at approximately A493Hz. The English pitch grid system does not fall on the same levels as our modern pitch groupings, being a little higher or lower, and it can also be shown that there is likely to be a slightly greater safety margin for a fretted instrument. This would suggest that the likely pitch of the Palmer orpharion was at A474Hz, with the top string tuned to d1. With the bass string I made as part of the research for this paper I believe it would be possible for the instrument to be played a semitone lower if required. The John Rose bandora has a treble string which would allow it to be tuned a tone lower so that it would be in d1 at a pitch of either A425 or A403Hz. Such an instrument as the Rose is surely the size and pitch required for the music of the broken consort.
The Palmer instrument in Copenhagen should be considered an excellent example of a large orpharion as used in England. It is likely the size of instrument was more common that a smaller one tuned to g1, as it is closer in physical size to a gut-strung g1-tuned lute. One might expect slightly larger instruments of the size illustrated by Praetorius to have also existed in England, playable at the lower of the English pitch levels. The alterations to the Palmer, although the instrument is not in a playable condition or setup, have not in any way compromised the integrity of its original form which can be accurately deduced. It is possible that any reproduction of the instrument can be strung and tuned in a manner which can now be shown be be historically valid without the need for any proposed "super-strong steel wire" or non-historically derived bass strings.
Edinburgh, July 2003