The Story of the Hummel (German Scheitholt)

Article excerpt

The Story of the Hummel (German Scheitholt). By Wilfried Ulrich. English Translation by Christa Farnon. (Materials Pertaining to the Everyday History and Folk Culture of Lower Saxony, vol. 42.) Cloppenburg: Mu - seumsdorf Cloppenburg and Nieder - säch sisches Freilichtmuseum, 2011. [180 p. No ISBN. i22.] Music examples, illustrations, appendix, bibliography, index.

Although the hummel has been around for at least 500 years, its status as a "beggar" or amateur instrument has caused its history and the instrument itself to be largely neglected. While similar types of plucked and struck stringed instruments, such as the long-necked lute and kithara, can be relatively easily traced back to antiquity, the exact origins of the hummel are less clear. Those trying to do research on the hummel will find a scant paragraph in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and the instrument is not usually given even a cursory description in most music history textbooks. The most information one might hope to find on the hummel is on the similar, though organologically distinct, Appalachian dulcimer. Unfortunately, its early history is at best a mere footnote. Therefore, because research on the hummel is sparse, any sort of family tree needs to be pieced together through the few written accounts of the instrument. Fortunately, The Story of the Hummel by Wilfried Ulrich provides quite possibly the most comprehensive history of the instrument to date. While the title suggests a light narrative on the instrument, the book is in fact a detailed historical, organological, and structural study of the hummel. The reader will first be impressed by the abundant iconographic depictions, photos of extant instruments, ample footnotes, and brief instructions for performing hummel tablatures. The book culminates in an impressive 43-page appendix of photographs and detailed dimensions of a variety of hummels. The details provided in the appendix alone are enough reason for any library to add this book to its organology collection.

As a luthier, Wilfried Ulrich brings valuable insight into the construction and re construction of period hummels. He frequently conveys a deep understanding of how the instrument should function, and he is adept at honing in on the practical issues that might escape the average scholar. His technical knowledge of how the fingerboard relates to various temperaments and tuning, as well as his understanding of string action, are very useful when considering how extant instruments may have been altered over time. Specifically, easily forgotten technical points, such as fret placement or knowledge of which woods may degrade over time, often provide insight to issues that are not always apparent. In one example, Ulrich points out a hummel on which he discovered that the fret board must have been replaced because its tuning neither matched typical temperaments nor the fret spacing typical on a fretted instrument. In another instance, he provides a case in which the time-honored practice of using iconography to discern performance practices should not be trusted. He notes that the painting "The Frisian Muse of Music" by Carl Gehrts represents a stylized or staged depiction of the instrument. The painting depicts a woman holding a hummel while performing; however, Ulrich points out that not only would holding the instrument preclude using a table as a large sounding board, but also that the position of the strap that held the instrument would too severely limit the performer's hand position (p. 54).

The Story of the Hummel provides an account of the least studied years during which and geographical locations where the hummel was used. For example, rather than giving a detailed account of the Appalachian dulcimer, Ulrich focuses on the earliest examples of the instrument in Norway, Germany, Lusatia, Hungary, and the more modern versions found in East Asia. He also traces the various incarnations of the instruments such as the hummel, hommel, scheitholt, huemmelke, and langeleik. …

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