There is an ancient family of musical instruments, basically a rustic box with just a few strings, played with a bow, and fingered in the air with the backs of the knuckles to play a tune with a continuous drone.

These instruments are found right across the North of Europe, from Finnish & Russian Karelia in the East, as far as Hudson Bay in Canada in the West.

They have different names in different places, and the regional traditions are distinctive, so it is not always easy to say exactly what is and is not related.

The history of these instruments is very unclear. Bowed instruments seem to have been introduced to Europe around the 11th century; bowing appears earlier in both the Arabic countries and Byzantium. For example the Greek lyra, a tradition that continues to the present day, is a pear shaped fiddle, which is fretted with the backs of the fingers and without a proper fingerboard. Scholars usually assume that bowing came north via the Arabs in Spain, but I wonder if this technology went straight from Byzantium to Scandinavia via the Viking trade routes. Lyra-style instruments are known from medieval Novgorod.

It is also not clear exactly which plucked instruments the bowed-lyres are most closely related to. Some people suggest connections to the Germanic round lyres, such as the famous 6th century instrument from Sutton Hoo. (this is why they are often called bowed lyres). There are also connections to the Baltic psalteries such as the kantele, and the wider families of plucked instruments stretching East.

We know that bowed-harps were played in medieval Scandinavia, as we have a lovely stone carving of a bowed-harp player from Trondheim Cathedral dating from c.1300. However the earliest surviving instruments are 19th century in date, and there are not written descriptsions of instruments and players much before the 19th century.

Bowed-harps generally seem to have been replaced by violins petty quickly as soon as they became available. This could be very late in the remote fringes of Europe, but by the end of the 19th century bowed lyres were pretty much extinct everywhere. They carried on the longest in Karelia, straddling the border between Finland and Russia, and also in Estonia. A handful of old men still remembered how to play the instrument and were recorded on wax cylinder in the 1930s.

From the mid 20th century, musician-scholars used these fragmentary remains to revive bowed-lyre playing.

Next: bowed-harp names and places...

Simon Chadwick, St Andrews, Scotland. Return to index page.
11th November 2008, updated September 2013