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Byzantine lyra

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Byzantine lyra

Byzantine Lyra
Βυζαντινή Λύρα
Earliest known depiction of lyra in a Byzantine ivory casket (900 – 1100 AD). (Museo Nazionale, Florence)[1]
String instrument
Other names Byzantine lyra, lira, lūrā, Rum Kemençe, medieval fiddle, pear-shaped rebec
Hornbostel–Sachs classification 321.321–71
(Necked bowl lute sounded by a bow)
Developed 9th century AD
Related instruments

The Byzantine lyra or lira (Greek: λύρα) was a medieval bowed string musical instrument in the Byzantine Empire. In its popular form the lyra was a pear-shaped instrument with three to five strings, held upright and played by stopping the strings from the side with fingernails. Remains of two actual examples of Byzantine lyras from the Middle ages have been found in excavations at Novgorod;[2] one dated to 1190 AD.[3] The first known depiction of the instrument is on a Byzantine ivory casket (900–1100 AD), preserved in the Palazzo del Podesta in Florence (Museo Nazionale, Florence, Coll. Carrand, No.26).[1] Versions of the Byzantine lyra are still played throughout the former lands of the Byzantine Empire: Greece (Politiki lyra, lit. "lyra of the City" i.e. Constantinople), Crete (Cretan lyra), Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria, Republic of Macedonia, Croatia (Dalmatian Lijerica), Italy (Calabrian lira) and Turkey.


The first recorded reference to the bowed lyra was in the 9th century by the harp or lyre) and the salandj (probably a bagpipe).[4] The lyra spread widely via the Byzantine trade routes that linked the three continents; in the 11th and 12th centuries European writers use the terms fiddle and lira interchangeably when referring to bowed instruments.[5] In the meantime, the rabāb, the bowed string instrument of the Arabic world, was introduced to Western Europe possibly through the Iberian Peninsula and both instruments spread widely throughout Europe giving birth to various European bowed instruments such as the medieval rebec, the Scandinavian and Icelandic talharpa. A notable example is the Italian lira da braccio,[5] a 15th-century bowed string instrument which is considered by many as the predecessor of the contemporary violin.[6]


From the organological point of view, the Byzantine lyra is in fact an instrument belonging to the family of bowed lutes; however, the designation lyra (Greek: λύρα ~ lūrā, English: lyre) constitute of a terminological survival relating to the performing method of an ancient Greek instrument. The use of the term lyra for a bowed instrument was first recorded in the 9th century, probably as an application of the term lyre of the stringed musical instrument of classical antiquity to the new bowed string instrument. The Byzantine lyra is sometimes informally called a medieval fiddle, or a pear-shaped rebec, or a kemanche, terms that may be used today to refer to a general category of similar stringed instruments played with a horsehair bow.


The Byzantine lyra had rear tuning pegs set in a flat peg similarly to the medieval fiddle and unlike the rabāb and rebec. However, the strings were touched by the nails laterally and not pressed from above with the flesh of the finger such as in the violin. The lyra depicted on the Byzantine ivory casket of Museo Nazionale, Florence (900 – 1100 AD) has two strings and pear-shaped body with long and narrow neck. The soundboard is depicted without soundholes and as a distinct and attached piece, however this might be due to stylistic abstraction. The lyras of Novgorod (1190 AD) are closer morphologically to the present bowed lyras (see gallery): they were pear-shaped and 40 cm long; they had semi-circular soundholes and provision for three strings.[3] The middle string served as a drone while fingering the others by finger or fingernail alone, downwards or sidewards against the string, for there was no fingerboard to press them against: a method which gives the notes as clearly as the violin and remains normal in lyras both in Asia as well as on present bowed instruments in post-Byzantine regions such as the Cretan lyra.[3]

In use today

The lyra of the Byzantine empire survives in many post-Byzantine regions until the present day even closely to its archetype form. Examples are the Politiki lyra (i.e. lyra of the Polis, or City, referring to Constantinople) (Greek: πολίτικη λύρα) also known as the Classical Kemenche (Turkish: Klasik kemençe or Armudî kemençe) from Constantinople, used in today's Turkey and Greece, the Cretan lyra (Greek: κρητική λύρα) and the one used in the Greek islands of the Dodecanese, the gadulka (Bulgarian: Гъдулка) in Bulgaria, the gusle in Serbia and Montenegro, the Calabrian lira (Italian: lira Calabrese) in Italy, and the Pontic lyra (Greek: ποντιακή λύρα; Turkish: Karadeniz kemençe) in the Pontic Greek communities, that existed (or still exist) around the shores of the Black Sea. The gudok, a historical Russian instrument that survived until the 19th century, is also a variant of the Byzantine lyra.

Similarly to the lyras found at Novgorod, the Cretan lyra, the Gadulka, the Calabrian Lira and the Greek lyras of Karpathos, Macedonia, Thrace and Mount Olympus are manufactured from a single wood block (monoblock), sculpted into a pear-shaped body. The slightly rounded body of the lyra is prolonged by a neck ending on the top in a block which is also pear-shaped or spherical. In that, are set the pegs facing and extending forward. The soundboard is also carved with a shallower arch and has two small semi-circular, D-shaped soundholes. The Cretan lyra is probably the most widely used surviving form of the Byzantine lyra, except that in Crete instrument-making has been influenced by that of the violin. Currently, numerous models tend to integrate the shape of the scroll, the finger board and other morphology of some secondary characteristics of the violin.

The modern variants of the lyra are tuned in various ways: LA–RE–SO (or a–d–g, i. e. by fifths) on the Cretan lyra; LA–RE–SO (or a–d–g, where SO [=g] is a perfect fourth higher than RE [=d] rather than a fifth lower) in Thrace and on Karpathos and the Dodecanese; LA–LA–MI (a–a–e, with the second LA [=a] an octave lower), in Drama; MI–SO–MI (e–g–e, i. e. a minor third and a major sixth) on the gadulka; LA–RE–LA (a–d–a, a fifth and a fourth) on the Classical Kemenche.



  1. ^ a b Butler 2003
  2. ^ The city Novgorod (or Holmgård) has been a major station on the trade route from the Baltics to Byzantium
  3. ^ a b c d Baines 1992, p. 109
  4. ^ Kartomi 1990, p. 124
  5. ^ a b Encyclopædia Britannica 2009
  6. ^ Arkenberg 2002


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