Gittern

Name: Gittern.
Type: Chordophones > Composite > Lutes.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.322.6
Country: Many.
Region: Western Europe.

Description: The gittern was a relatively small gut stringed bowl-backed instrument. It first appeared in literature and pectoral representation during the 13th century in Western Europe; in which this includes Iberian Peninsula, Italy, France and England. The name of this instrument changed by way in language based on where the gittern was played.

It was also called the guiterna in Spain, guiterne or guiterre in France, the chitarra in Italy and quintern in Germany. A popular instrument with court musicians, minstrels, and amateurs, the gittern is considered ancestral to the modern guitar other instruments like the mandore, bandurria and gallichon.

Etymology: The gittern had faded so completely from memory in England. Identifying the instrument proved problematic for 20th century early music scholarship. It was assumed the ancestry of the modern guitar was only to be discovered through the study of flat-backed instruments. As a consequence, what is now believed to be the only known surviving medieval citole was until recently labelled a gittern.

In 1977, Lawrence Wright published his article The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A Case of Mistaken Identity. in issue 30 of the Galpin Society Journal; with detailed references to primary historical source material revealing the gittern as a round-backed instrument – and the so-called ‘Warwick Castle gittern’ [a flat-backed instrument] as originally a citole.

Wright’s research also corresponded with observations about the origins of the flat-backed guitarra made by the 16th century Spanish musicologist Juan Bermudo. With this theoretical approach it became possible for scholars to untangle previously confusing and contradictory nomenclature. Because of the complex nature of the subject, the list and links below should assist in further reading.

History: From the early 16th century, a vihuela shaped and flat-backed guitarra began to appear in Spain and then later in France in coexistence with the gittern. Although the round-backed instrument appears to have lost ground to the new from which gradually developed into the guitar familiar today, the influence of the earlier style continued.

Examples of lutes converted into guitars exist in several museums, while purpose-built instruments like the gallichon utilized the tuning and single string configuration of the modern guitar. A tradition of building round-backed guitars in Germany continued to the 20th century with names like gittar-laute and Wandervogellaute.

Up until 2002, there were only two known surviving medieval gitterns, one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the other in the Wartburg Castle Museum. A third was discovered in a medieval outhouse in Elbląg, Poland.

Construction: The back, neck and pegbox were likely carved from a single piece of timber. Occurring less rarely in the 15th century. The body was formed around system of tapered ribs. Unlike the sharp corner joining the body to the neck seen in the lute, the gittern’s body and neck either joined in a smooth curve or straight line. The sickle, or occasional gentle arc pegbox, made an angle with the neck of between 30-90 degrees. Unlike the lute, most pegboxes on gitterns ended in a carving of a human or animal head.

Most gitterns were depicted as having three courses [total of six pared strings] or more commonly four courses [total of eight pared strings]. There are also references to some five course gitterns in the 16th century. Although there is not much direct information concerning gittern tuning, the later versions were quite possibly tuned in fourths and fifths like the mandore a few decades later.

Frets were represented in a few depictions mainly Italian and German, although apparently absent in most French, Spanish and English depictions. The gittern’s sound hole was covered with a rosette, a delicate wood carving or parchment cutting, similar to the lute.

Citations: Bibliography: The Encyclopedia of Music. New York: Hermes House, 2002 P. 118 ;  The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments [2nd Edition] “Quinterne [quintern]” ; Tyler, James [January 1981]. “The Mandore in the 16th and 17th Centuries” [PDF]. Early Music. 9 ; Meucci, Renato. “Da ‘chitarra italiana’ a ‘chitarrone’: una nuova interpretazione”. Enrico Radesca da Foggia e il suo tempo: Atti del Convegno di studi, Foggia, 7-8 Aprile 2000. pp. 30–57. ISBN 978-887096347-2 ; Tyler, James; Sparks, Paul [1992]. The Early Mandolin. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 1–7. ISBN 0-19-816302-9 ;

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