In Armenia, it’s known as a santir, in France a cymbalum, in Greece a sandouri, in Latvia a cimbole, in Vietnam a tam-thap-luk, and in Russia a tsymbaly. But a tsymbaly is generally regarded as the Ukrainian version of the cimbalom or hammer dulcimer. If you’ve ever been to a traditional Ukrainian wedding, in a rural area of Canada for instance, you may have heard this instrument, classified as a chordophone (instruments using stretched, vibrating strings) or a box zither in a trapezoidal shape. The strings are commonly grouped in twos to sixes tuned in unison; it’s played by striking the strings with two wooden hammers or beaters. The instrument in various regions may come with different style boxes and hammers, as well as differing arrangements of strings and tones.
The tsymbaly is said to have first been documented in 17th century Ukraine although some sources trace its beginnings there to the 9th century. A small multi-stringed chordophone appears in an Assyrian bas-relief from 3500 B.C. and the santur came from Persia to Europe during the Crusades. Roaming gypsy musicians helped spread the popularity of the cimbalom in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when both folk and concert versions were developed.
The folk version was easy to construct in small villages, requiring only wood, piano wire and metal for tuning pegs. The musician could suspend his instrument from a strap around the neck, anchoring it at the waist to play standing up.
A Hungarian in the 1870s is credited with creating the much larger concert version that comes with four legs and includes a damping pedal with strings that have a range of four octaves. According to Reference.com, a member of the Hungarian Royal Opera orchestra published the first textbook for a concert cimbalom in 1889.
You can hear performances on You Tube of the Ukrainian tsymbaly although the instrument, under the cimbalom name, is also featured in compositions by such classical composers as Stravinsky, Liszt and Bela Bartok. Contemporary composers, Elvis Costello and Frank Zappa included, have used it in their music. You may catch the cimbalom sound occasionally in some film scores, for example, in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings: Two Towers.” It’s even been used in performances by the Blue Man Group.