Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Lyres' Club

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Lyres' Club

Article excerpt

Christopher Nogy's Passion for Medieval Instruments

ON FEBRUARY 24, 2014, Christopher Nogy joined Joshua Foer onstage at the Institute Library in New Haven, Connecticut, as part of the ongoing series "Amateur Hour," in which various tinkerers, zealots, and collectors discuss their obsessions. Nogy builds medieval musical instruments such as lyres, harps, and rebecs at his home shop in Benton County, Arkansas. He bases his creations on thousand-year-old instrument fragments. The conversation that follows was recorded live and has been edited for brevity and meaning.

JOSHUA FOER: So, what is this harp-like cheeseboard of an instrument that you've been plucking so beautifully?

Christopher NOGY: This is a member of a family of instruments called the lyre. It's a psaltery. The reason that it's not a harp is that it actually has a bridge, and the strings do not emanate directly from the soundboard. More importantly, the class of lyre is the Anglo-Saxon medieval lyre, and this one is my interpretation of a Scottish lyre from approximately the early ninth century.

When you say "your interpretation," what do you mean? How do we know that an instrument like this existed in the ninth century? Because, I imagine, it's made out of wood, it wouldn't have lasted for very long.

We have a real problem knowing that any of these instruments actually existed, because what we've found are fragments that identify it as the instrument. In history, there have only been three complete instruments found.

There are only three complete lyres?

Correct. There are somewhere in the upper thirties of fragmentary pieces found in various digs all over the place. The first complete lyre was found under the floorboards at St. Severins Church, but it was destroyed by bombing during World War II. Another one was discovered in Oberflacht, Germany. This one was very dry and very brittle, so it was preserved in alcohol. In World War II, when the Russians came through, they drank all the alcohol and it fell apart. So all we had were the photographs and the dusty remains of the instrument. The third one was found under the corner of the Hohner harmonica factory in the Black Forest in Germany. One of the construction workers accidentally put his foot through the floor, and when they shined a flashlight down there they found an Alemannic Germanic prince's grave. And in that grave was a nearly perfectly preserved instrument, which is now on display in Germany. And it is so perfect that we can even still see tool marks on it. We know what kinds of tools were used to make it. We know what kinds of techniques were used to make it. It still has four of its six tuning pegs. The only part that's missing is the tailpiece, and that's because we're still not sure if they even had them. We just put them on because it's traditional and easy for us.

How many people are there in the world who can put on their business card, "I make lyres"?

That make medieval lyres? There are five big names. A couple of folks play around on the fantasy side of things and build lyres, but they're not historically accurate. And then there are people who build violins and who have occasionally built a lyre because someone asked them to, but that's not a thing they do.

If there are only three lyres in the entire world that have been preserved, how do we know that the way you just performed this is how one of these instruments was performed?

Of the thirty-seven fragments, we have enough pieces of various parts of these instruments that we know what their parts were made of. The Trossingen lyre-the extant example right now-is a beautiful piece that we can measure. Half of making an instrument's sound is what it was made out of and how it was put together. So if we build exactly to the materials and dimensions, all we have to do is figure out what it was strung with and how it was strung. And we know in that time period that the two major string materials were horsehair and catgut-sheep intestines. …

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