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A typical cistre by Deleplanque


Although today it is virtually unknown, the cistre ou guitarre allemande was a popular plucked instrument in France (and the Low Countries too) in the decades leading up to the Revolution in 1789. Instruments and music first appeared in the 1760s (see *) but by the 1790s the cistre was in decline.

Examples of this attractive instrument in its various forms (and with variant spellings), survive in museums and more than thirty collections of music were published for it in just twenty years. It is music for amateurs: mainly dances and opera tunes, and many songs with cistre accompaniment. There are sonnates too, for cistre with a second part (obligé ), usually a simple accompaniment for a violin or sometimes a second cistre.

The cistre is tuned to an A major chord and much (but not all) of the music for the instrument is in just two keys: A major and D major. Perhaps the limited number of keys and the simplicity of music for the instrument - and the simplicity of the music of that era - has led to its almost universal neglect today.

Despite its limitations it's a fascinating instrument. Like the English guitar (which was popular in Britain at this time), the cistre has wire strings and a chordal tuning which gives it a pleasing, ringing sound. But unlike the the English guitar, the tuning of the cistre is not fully chordal. The basic tuning is: E-A-d-e-a-c#'-e'. The texture of cistre music is different from the English guitar which is (in most cases) more like a single-line, melody instrument.

The Spanish guitar was also played in France at the time and the guitar then had five courses of strings tuned like the top five strings of the modern classical guitar. Although many songs with Spanish guitar accompaniment were published, the cistre seems to have been much more popular for amateurs to play solo pieces (as well as the many songs with cistre accompaniment).

Many cistres (sometimes described today as arch-citterns) had extra bass strings. A typical 'arch-cittern' has two pegboxes. The first pegbox has eleven pegs for the typical seven-course configuration of four pairs of strings and three single, bass, strings. The second pegbox often has five pegs for for five more basses, making a twelve-course instrument.

The music of the time as it is represented in compositions and settings for the cistre is also distinctive. It could not be more different from the elusive music of the French Baroque period. The era in which the cistre flourished is an era of simplicity and clarity. Some of the tunes of the time are familiar today as nursery rhymes. Here is a very typical, simple dance tune. But there are more sophisticated and ambitious compositions and arrangements too (see music).

* The Victoria and Albert Museum (London) has a cistre-like instrument with a lute-shaped body and ten tuning pegs. The accompanying notes describe it,surprisingly, as French and from 1757.

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