There is something quite enchanting about the silvery sound of the psaltery.
The psaltery first appeared in Europe in the 11th century and consists of a wooden box with a varied number of ‘wire’ (iron or brass) strings stretched across it. By the time of the beautifully illuminated Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs of Saint Mary), a Spanish-Portuguese royal songbook of c.1260-80, various shapes and sizes of psaltery were in evidence – rectangular, triangular, and ‘pig snout’ shaped (see left). The position of players’ hands on iconography indicates two hands working together and it is clear there was always mixed practice in plucking style: either plucked with a quill in each hand; a quill in one hand while the other played with flesh or nails; or two hands both playing with flesh or nails. Was this one musical line played by two hands for extra speed and dexterity, or two polyphonic parts being played, or perhaps right hand tune and left hand drone (which may be explained by louder quill playing the tune and quieter flesh or nail playing the drone), or a combination of all three? Like so much of mediaeval music-making, we just don’t know.
The psaltery is diatonic, that is to say it only has the natural notes of the scale (the white notes on a piano), no sharps or flats (no black notes). Medieval music was in 8 modes. This meant you created different musical moods or modes by playing an octave scale without sharps or flats by starting from and ending on D or on E etc., known as authentic modes; or by starting on one note (A, for example) but ending on another (D, for example), known as plagal modes. In a mode there were sometimes notes sharpened or flattened (to use modern terms in music), these additional or changed notes known as musica ficta, which could easily be accommodated on a psaltery by flattening or sharpening an individual string before playing. In other words, the psaltery fitted the music of the day perfectly.
The instrument was clearly very popular, appearing many times in iconography and literature. The Miller's Tale in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the 14th century, not only mentions the psaltery but also names two tunes, Angelus Ad Virginem and The King’s Note, that were played on it.
One might have thought, with the onset of the renaissance in the 15th century, with its increasing musical sophistication and increasing use of accidentals (sharps and flats) used only in some parts of the music (so some b notes may be flat and some natural, for example), that the diatonic psaltery would have fallen out of use. While it’s true there is no renaissance music written specifically for it, the psaltery did continue to be played and even developed technically. This is evidenced by the painting of King David, usually depicted playing the harp, by Venetian painter Girolamo da Santacroce in the first half of the 16th century. Girolamo has King David playing a large psaltery with fingers, and the instrument has clearly evolved to suit renaissance music: visible under the strings and near the tuning pegs are graded pieces of wood, near enough to the strings for them to be pressed onto the wood (which is eminently more practical when playing with fingers rather than quills). The only explanation for this is to allow the strings to be ‘fretted’ up a semitone, thus keeping diatonic stringing but allowing fully chromatic playing.
It is worth noting that the bowed psaltery is a modern instrument, created in the 1890s by a German school teacher as a musical learning aid for children. This is not the only nor the earliest evolution of the psaltery: take the idea of a quill plucking a wire, then add keys to activate the quills, and you have the family of harpsichord, virginal and spinet; then attach hammers instead of quills to your keys, and use steel strings instead of iron wire, and you have an instrument that can play in a range of volumes, a forte piano (= loud soft), the modern piano.
Psaltery playing La Quinte Estampie Real, France, c.1300