of the lyre-guitar’s high melodic, harmonic and timbre capabilities,
the instrument is not at present broadly known. Only
few models preserved in museums or in the private collection exist.
The specific type I brought back from the past is a unique
copy of a lyre-guitar built by luthier Gennaro Fabricatore,
at the beginning of the XIX century.
My instrument has been manufactured in Rome in 2003
by Gerardo Parrinello, luthier.
The story is unique and quite charming: a neoclassic
shape instrument, the lyre-guitar was at the highest of its fame
in Paris in the first twenty years
of the XIX century; that moment was decisive to
the evolution of the guitar.
The name itself “Lyre-guitar” is enough to give light
to its origins: the shape is that of the Greek lyre
whit the addition of the guitar neck where the ancient lyre had
only strings stretched between the side-bar and the bridge.
Byzantine mosaic: Orpheus that tames the animals with the sound of the Lyre
About the half of XVIII century in France an instrument appeared that preceded the making of lyre-guitar, usually called: French lyre. The instrument had 7, 8 or 9 strings and a neck interrupted towards the soundboard. The choice to use an interrupted neck was taken to upset the minimum the shapes of the antique lyre. This was an instrument difficult to be played for the proximity between the lateral arms and the keyboard. An besides it had a weak sound and it was meant for the accompaniment only. No link can be established between the two instruments.
1785 - by Charles (luthier in Marseille); Musée de la Musique, Paris
At the end of the century the lyre-guitars appeared: they were more comfortable to play and their sound was stronger.
The lyre-guitar cult grew from the end of the XVIII to the first
of the XIX century as an infatuation for Greek antiquities,
very fashionable then among the noble classes in
The instrument was adopted by the emerging middle class after the
Revolution and during the Napoleonic period it
spread troughout Europe.
«Here was a musical instrument which did not follow the
natural evolution of music itself, nor was it created by the whim
of invention of artisans in search of improved acoustical attributes
or instrumental potentialities. The idea was to create an instrument
which looked pretty and provided a visual accessory to help ladies
of fashion to assume the gracious pose of Greek “kithara” players. This visual likeness became a potent ingredient of the
culture of the upper classes. Its cult was created
by an infusion of a style which derived its inspiration from classical
literature and art. The lyre-guitar came into its own at about the
same point in time which is usually associated with the birth of
the so-called “classical” six-string guitar. Its history
is thus intimately linked with that of the guitar proper».
(Matanya Ophee, Soundboard, 1987 )
In the neoclassic period this fad for antiquities
embraces art, architecture, painting and music. A true fashion
for “classic style” spreads, the uses and customs
follow the best examples of the past, mainly those of the Greek
and Roman worlds: the guitar becomes a lyre-guitar recalling the
look of the Greek lyre.
The Graces and Venus dance in front of Mars - A. Canova - 1798
«The lyre-guitar becomes quickly popular, it is “dazzling,
shining meteor”: it was the symbol of an instrument
used to revive the evening performances of the “parisian
salons” with an ancient mythological, pastoral and
fable-like touch». (Mario Torta)
We are in Paris, in the first two years of the
XIX century, likely around 1780 when Pierre Charles Mareschal,
famous French luthier shaped the ancient lyre-guitar naming at “Anacreontic-lyre” drawing inspiration from the Greek poet Anacreonte who lived between
the VI and V century b.C.
Anacreonte become a symbol of the poetic movement that in the middle
of the XVIII century revived the Greek mithologic litterature, the
love for Arcadia and the golden age exalted by Anacreonte, Archiloco, Alceo and Saffo Greek lyrists,
which were the distinctive features of Anacreonte’s poetry.
The instrument became so popular that it was considered a status-symbol,
which could not be missing in a noble family (also Maria Antonietta, Empress of Austria, played the
lyre-guitar…!). In that convivial environment of high
society salons, the instrument was associated with the “gentle sex”: it was an instrument
thought to be played mostly by women because of its graceful shapes.
In that epoch, many famous painters portrayed women in an ancient Greek costume, playing the lyre-guitar
(for instance, Jean Dominique Ingres painted Luciano Bonaparte’s family individuals, among which
a lady with a lyre-guitar).
The Luciano Bonaparte family - J. D. Ingres - 1815
In “acoustics”, it is possible to obtaine
whit lyre-guitar a full and concentrated sound different from the
one of the contemporary “romantic guitar”.
Even the keyboard is quite different: the length
is the same as the number of keys but while in the guitar the joint
between neck and board coincides with the 12th
key, in the lyre-guitar coincides with the 19th.
Thus it is possible to exploit better the whole length of the keyboard
as no board hampers the fast motion of the left hand beyond the
On the other side the left hand is not completely free as on the
lyre-guitar for the presence of the arm underneath the keyboard: it is wise to favour with the mouvements
of the player the shape of the instrument arm.
Of course, a young girl's tiny hand moves better...!
Here is why to facilitate the left hand movement in the following century we will find lyre-guitars called “half-lyre”, without the lower arm but also void of their historic
and musicological meaning.
The instrument I'm playing
now has a wide fir soundingboard and flamed
maple bottom and side bands.
The keyboard is in ebony with 19 metal keys and
has 63 cm diapason: the arm endings are connected
through a decorative brass bar, to resemble better the original
The central sound hole and the two on the side obtained in the arms
are half-moon shaped: the same ornamental decoration
is in the headstock case.
There were several kinds of lyre-guitar in different shapes often
with neoclassical decorations: the arms could be
curved as in the lyre-guitar or look like ancient imperial
columns topped by facing eagle heads or very ornated
capitals. The headstocks might
look like imperial crowns, family coat-of-arms,
Greek-romanic style embellishments.
The board was often decorated in any possible way: inlays, mythological
scenes, floral drawings...
Almost all the instruments had at the bottom a more or less decorated
pedestal to allow an elegant support on the floor.
As the lyre-guitar may obtain a remarkable sound,
besides being at its best with a soloist repertoire, is fit to play
in cameristic ensembles, to accompany voice, as a duo with a violin
or a flute, in a trio with voice and violin or flute and even to
play with a string orchestra.
The original and sophisticated repertoire includes
very expressive music by important composers in XIX century.
Ferinando Carulli, Matteo Carcassi, Mauro Giuliani, Francesco Molino,
Fernando Sor, Salvador Castro de Gistau, Pierre Jean Porro, Etienne
Jean Battista Pastou, Antoine Marcel Lemoine, Alois Franz Simón
José Molitor… compose for lyre-guitar.
«The expressive horizon of this music is strongly related
to the convivial, amiable, joyful disposition of the music at the
XVIII century end. In the texts there is a constant reminder to
stereotyped love situations or pastoral scenes and overall there
is a tender and emotional feeling typical of the corteous style
of the XIX century middle years». (Mario Torta)
About 1815 the instrument destination begins to
desappear from the front page of the method books. The instrument
wanes or best it is “not fashionable” by the half of the century to give again life to the guitar.
The high musical quality project I present owes
its originality to the rediscovery and revaluation of a forgotten instrument and repertoire. Until now, despite the
lyre-guitar’s incredible artistic and historical value, it
has not been contemplated by the general public and often by musicians