PrintMail this page

hommel

chordophone

The hommel is a stringed instrument consisting of an oblong sound box with a set of melody strings and a set of accompanying strings, both stretched longitudinally from one end to the other. The melody strings are tuned in unison and are stretched over a fretboard. Traditionally they are pressed onto the frets with a small stick, and plucked with a plectrum. Since the 1970's, however, the hommel has also been played with the fingers. The accompanying strings are used as open strings, always sounding the same chord or drones.

This remarkably big hommel is a copy of an exceptional instrument that, sadly, did not survive the First World War. The original was kept in the municipal museum in the Ieper (Ypres) Meat Hall, whose contents were completely destroyed by German fire bombs at the end of November 1914.

The original was spotted in the museum of Ypres in 1865 by the Flemish music historian Edmond Vander Straeten (1826-1895). In 1868 he devoted a brochure to the instrument: Le Noordsche Balk du musée communal d'Ypres. This was the very first publication on the hommel in Flanders. Apparently, Vander Straeten had never come across a hommel before, as he called it a Noordsche Balk ('Nordic beam'), a name which he had doubtless borrowed from Dutch music historians like Klaas Douwes (1668-1722) and Jacob Wilhelm Lustig (1706-1796). In Flanders the instrument is usually called an epinet, pinet or spinet (from the French espinette or épinette), and also vlier, blokviool and a dozen other local terms.

The original instrument was offered to the museum of Ypres by Father Ferdinand Van de Putte (1807-1882), who was the parish priest of neighbouring Boezinge from 1843 to 1858. He told Vander Straeten that the instrument had been used in the past for accompanying church singing, Vander Straeten mentions that the label in the museum said that the instrument was two centuries old, which means that it was made around the middle of the 17th century. It was possibly the oldest extant hommel from the Southern Low Countries.

This copy was made for César Snoeck (1834-1898), a notary from Ronse (East Flanders Province), and a passionate collector of musical instruments, who jokingly said he suffered from musicorganopathie. Snoeck was a good friend of Edmond Vander Straeten's. It was undoubtedly thanks to Vander Straeten that he got to know the hommel from Ypres. Consequently, the copy must have been made between 1865 and 1898. After César Snoeck's death his collection - then the biggest private collection of musical instruments in the world - got spread over the musical instrument museums of Berlin, Saint Petersburg and Brussels. Thanks to the sponsoring of the entrepreneur Louis Cavens, the Brussels museum was able to acquire Snoeck's Low Countries collection of 471 instruments, accessories and parts in 1908. Apart from this instrument (inventory number 2905), the collection also comprised two other hommels (inventory numbers 2906 and 2907).

According to the catalogue of Snoeck's collection of Dutch and Flemish instruments, published in Ghent in 1903, this hommel was an exact copy of the instrument kept in the municipal museum of Ypres. But is this copy really reliable? In his brochure Edmond Vander Straeten compares the original instrument with the description of the Noordsche Balken by Klaas Douwes. Vander Straeten only sees one difference: Douwes's Noordsche Balken have three or four strings, while the instrument from Ypres has eight strings: three melody strings and five accompanying strings. However, just like all other known European hommels from the 17th and 18th centuries, Douwes's Noordsche Balken have a purely diatonic tone scale (to be compared with the white piano keys), whereas the copy is fully chromatic (white and black keys). If the original instrument had indeed been chromatic, Vander Straeten would have noticed it. Moreover, he counts 21 frets on the original, as opposed to 29 on the copy. The drawing illustrating the study also shows exactly 21 frets.

This drawing was made during Vander Straeten's visit to Ypres by a local artist with the name of Böhm. Vander Straeten calls it impeccable. That is a bit exaggerated, as the distances between the frets are not rendered realistically: an instrument with such a fretboard  would simply be unplayable. Strikingly, the frets on the drawing are all equally long while the copy has seven longer frets, which continue under two or more accompanying strings. Which one - drawing or copy - gives us the best idea of the original instrument, thus remains the question.

According to Edmond Vander Straeten hommels were played with two quills, one to press down the strings, and one to pluck them. Father Van de Putte specified that the plectrum was a crow-quill.

In its design this hommel shares many features with other extant hommels from the Low Countries dated before 1900, such as the scrolled pegbox with lateral tuning pegs, and the six pointed star motif of the four soundholes, here cut out in brass plate. Another big (134 cm) hommel, donated to the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Dunkirk around 1840-1850, has a similar double bulge around two soundholes With its exceptional length of 151 cm this copy of the hommel from Ypres is by far the biggest in Europe.

Media
Images: 
hommel
hommel
hommel