March 23, 2023
Blog by Thomas Lack
We are so excited to announce the Cimbalom Ensemble! A mega, 5-piece Cimbalom ensemble played in our favorite modern orchestral hall (the same hall we used for the Piano ensemble, Glockenspiel Ensemble, and many others)! A single cimbalom has a great sound on its own, and the ensemble sounds beyond cool! With a huge selection of techniques in the parts (normal beaters, staccatos, hard staccatos, strums, Bartók pizzicatos) and custom synths, the Cimbalom Ensemble is instantly and endlessly inspiring. It can fit in perfectly with intense horror music and relaxing meditation music alike! You just gotta hear it for yourself!
Many modern composers may only have experience with the cimbalom as a virtual instrument. It is certainly rare in many Western countries, but it is a common folk instrument in some Eastern European cultures, especially in Hungary. We say the cimbalom belongs to the “dulcimer” family of instruments, although there are different words for this in different places - partly because many, many cultures had their own version of a string instrument played by striking or plucking the strings.
Exploring the History and Usage of this Special Instrument
Like many instruments, the exact origins of the cimbalom or its ancestors may vary depending on who you ask. In fact, “cimbalom,” in Hungarian can be translated as “dulcimer” in English; so while we use the word to refer to a specific instrument, it could be used to refer to the whole family of instruments in different places. The modern version of the instrument we are referring to was created in Budapest by Jozsef Schunda circa 1870. But, as a dulcimer or chordophone, its predecessors stretch back much further. It shares some common ancestors with the santur and qanun, originating in the Middle East (and perhaps Southwestern Asia). Similar instruments were later imported to Europe by the Ottomans during their expansion in the Balkans.
There were smaller cimbaloms used in Hungary in the 16th century. As “folk” instruments, they were designed to be portable, including a strap somewhat akin to a modern guitar. It is still a popular instrument in that area, though it seems the larger, modern version is more popular. There are a lot of cool recordings of modern street performances from Hungary and Romania with the cimbalom in a small band. The
The modern cimbalom is a trapezoidal-shaped instrument that has metal strings stretched across its surface. The instrument usually has 125 strings and, like the piano, there are multiple strings for most notes. The musician strikes the strings with small beaters, which can be made from or coated in different materials for different tone qualities. If you have never seen a cimbalom player in action, it is absolutely worth your time! They seem to move those beaters with almost inhuman finesse and precision. Meanwhile, all we have to do is move our fingers on the keys…
The cimbalom has also inspired a lot of Western composers (“classical” music, from our perspective), dating back to the invention of the modern version in the 1870s. Franz Liszt seemed quite fond of the cimbalom, utilizing it in works such as Ungarischer Sturmmarsch. Liszt also tried to emulate the sound of a cimbalom with his Hungarian Rhapsodies for Piano. They actually sound really good on cimbalom, too. Liszt once wrote to Jozsef Schunda congratulating him on “rescuing an ancient instrument from a millennium of neglect.”
Béla Bartók, a Hungarian composer himself, used the instrument in the orchestral version of Violin Rhapsody No. 1, a piece inspired by Folk Dances (and yes, that is the same Bartók for which the Bartók pizz. is named).
More recently, the cimbalom has been a relatively common feature in film scores. It is a prominent instrument in Hans Zimmer’s score for Sherlok Holmes, and a less prominent instrument in James Horner’s score for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (you can hear the cimbalom playing the rhythmic pulse under the strings). Thomas Newmann, Howard Shore, and even John Williams have used the instrument in their scores as well.
Alexandre Desplat has used the instrument in many of his film scores, including the Academy Award-Winning score for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Given how often Desplat uses the instrument in other scores, it would have been strange had he not used it here, considering the instrument’s history. And now, thanks in part to sample instruments, the cimbalom is used in quite a few film, television, and game scores.
Of course, all of this is from our perspective. In the west, the cimbalom remains a relatively obscure instrument, so it sounds interesting practically by default. In other cultures, the instrument is not so exotic at all. It is still the national instrument of Hungary, and Romania has a prominent variant as well. The examples in film music and western classical music are fun, but I definitely recommend taking a listen to to some Hungarian Cimbalom music and Romanian Cimbalom music. Its unique sound and versatility continue to attract new players and composers alike. It certainly attracted us! We were so fortunate to be able to record an ensemble with such a cool instrument, and to be able to further transform the instrument in Soundpaint. We can’t wait to see what you can come up with, too!