Contemporary Metals

Since the current revival of Wire–Strung Harps started those players wishing to try and follow the route of being as close to historical accuracy as possible have faced the problem that there are no firmly dateable examples of early wire strings for analysis. Turning to contemporary written sources has also been less than helpful as there are not that many references and many of those are contradictory and we have no way of knowing how accurate or knowledgeable about the subject the authors actually were. Therefore the following transcript of the relevant parts of an early discourse on metallurgy, apart from its mention of the wirestrung harps, will also enable the historically minded to gain an idea of how what we know today about the composition of metal compounds was not the position at the period when the instruments we are trying to recreate were first made and played.

For example, many historical references are made to the harps having ‘brass strings’, an apparently definite statement which today indicates an alloy comprising both copper and zinc with the only uncertainty being the relative proportions of each metal. However although brass had been made from before the Roman period in Britain, it is clear from the following treatise that until fairly late in the seventeenth century it was still not appreciated that it was actually an alloy of two metals rather than of, as it was put, copper and a ‘rock’ as the zinc ore was thought of at that time. Given this lack of understanding of the real composition of brass it is not very surprising that the general use of the word brass should also be somewhat indiscriminate and unreliable when applied to the harp strings, especially as the word for the alternative alloy known today as bronze does not appear in this treatise at all.

The transcripts are taken from a book with the title ‘Fleta Minor the laws of art and nature, in knowing, judging, assaying, fining and inlarging the bodies of confin’d metals’. published in 1683 by Sir John Pettus of Suffolk, One of the Deputy Governors of the Mines Royall. The work is in two parts, the first is Sir John’s English translation of an earlier work in German, (or Teutonick as he puts it), which was written by Lazarus Ercker, (died 1594), Chief prover, or assay-master general of the empire of Germany. The second part from which the following portions are taken, was described by him as ‘essays on metallick words, as a dictionary to many pleasing discourses by Sir John Pettus’.

Translations are always open to errors of interpretation, but the essays having been composed in English have more relevance to how the subject was viewed by what at that time would have been regarded as a leading expert in the subject, so far as such a person existed. The selected sections of his ‘essays’ are those which have most relevance to the subject of wire strings and have been reproduced as given in the original with two exceptions. The original line lengths have been ignored as they have no influence on meaning and so some words which in the original had been hyphenated at the line breaks are now complete. Secondly the original used the old ‘long s’, which resembled an ‘f’ which has been standardised to the modern ‘s’ in all cases.

BELL, T. Schelle, ie. sonitus, that which yields a sound, and it either comes from Belle an adverb signifying that which is pleasing to the ear, or from tunable Instruments that were used in Tempore Belli, and though by the Italians they are called Campane, upon pretence of their original, from Campania a noble region in Italy, yet we find in Exod. 28. that there were golden Bells upon Aarons Vest, which all the Versions into Latin call Tintinnabulum auri (of which the Interpreters give little account) and certainly they had little or no sound; but the metal of our bells have no gold in them, but what is casually mixt with other metals, for they are compounded of Copper, Tin and Brass, and a little Silver: sometimes the Artists or maker of these are called Bell-founders T. Glockengiesser from Gloken which we call Clock, by changing G to C and the art of mixing, making and casting them (in respect of their diversity of sounds) is of as transcending a nature as any one art or science, for the proportions of Ingredients are according to the great skill and Judgment of the Founders adequate to their various uses.

Antiently, and still, solemn Prayers are used at the casting them, and formerly they were with great Ceremony baptized, presuming that many spirits did attend them: and I remember an old sexton did affirm, That by the sound of a Passing-Bell, for one dying and dead, he could tell how many hours or days after, some other of his Parish should dy: But whether this prognosticating quality be in them, I shall not dispute, but we are certain, that the Harmony of a Consort of them, are very pleasing to musical ears; and ’tis observable, that this Art is only from Metals. l.1.c18. And not only this of Bells, but most of the choice Instruments of Musick were and still are either in the whole or in parts composed of Metals; Such as are wholly of Metals, are Trumpets, sag-bots, Cimballs (soft and triumphal) Organ Pipes, &c. such as are in part, viz. the strings of the Harp (which we now call the Irish Harp (being strung with wire) in distinction of the Welsh Harp strung with Guts-strings) also the strings of the Harpsicon, and Poliphant (which I have often heard with great pleasure, but now out of use) also the Tabaret, and the Cittern, though now of small esteem, yet was devised by Amphion, Pliny l, 7.p.187. and many others, amongst which I must not forget the Monochord or Tuba marina, whose Entrals are curiously composed of Metals, although the string, which stirs up the reverberating Spirits of the Metal, is composed of Guts, Now as Petrus Bongus hath writ a Book de sacris numeris and Jonston de sacris Arboribus (with Sculptures) I with some would write De sacris Instrumentis Musicae, with their sculptures, especially of those wherein metals are imployed, for doubtless the subject would afford excellent variety.

But besides this musical part of Metals, the word Bell is also applyed to a Glass with a round bottom and long neck, which the Chimists call a matrass glass, or long Bell.

BRASS, T. brtz. L AEs: and it is a great Error that most Writers run into, by promiscuously giving the title AEs for both Brass and Copper, as if they were the same Metals; whereas AEs or Brass is not a proper Metal, but compounded of a Metal, viz Cuprum or Copper, and Lapis Calaminaris, or Cadmie, which is a mineral, and from the mixture of these two, Brass is made, as may be seen in Erckern, lib. 3. c 28. which in T. is called Galmay. Now there is of this Calamin two sorts, Natural as in the third Book; and Artificial, l. 4.c. 8. f.7. made of the dregs of Metals, but the natural, he saith, comes from Britain, and indeed we have mountains of it, especially in Glocester-shire, Sommerset-shire, and Notinghamshire: but we let the Calaminaris go for Ballast into forein parts, in very great quantities, before it be wrought, so as the best Brass beyond Seas is made of our stone rather than their own, which deserves a further consideration: and I remember about 30 years since, one Demetrius a German, did set up a Brass-work in Surry and with the Expence of 6000 pound(as he told me) made it compleat and good to profit: but the forein Merchants joyning with some of ours , found wayes to bring him into suits; and meeting with no incouragement he was at last necessitated to submit the work, to his own ruin, and unspeakable prejudice to the Kingdom, in loosing so benificial an Art, having here both the best Copper and Calamine of any part of Europe.

Now whereas Pliny, Cap, 33. speaks of about 18 several Mines of Brass, we must not understand it as a specific Metal: though the word AEs is vulgarly applyed to both, but those Mines were either Copper mines, capable of being made Brass; or so many several sorts of Lapis Cadmie or Calamin, from the composition of all which with Copper, Brass was made more or less both in Quantity and Quality: and this Art of composing it, is said, by him to be first invented by Cadmus a Grecian, contemporary with Joshau, in whose time the word Brass is first mentioned in the Sacred Story, Exod. 25.3. And it is observable, That though in the composition of Brass, there is more of the stone than of Copper, and that Copper is a Metal, and that other a Stone, yet it takes a new name of Brass, and not its own, or of the Metal, Copper: and being thus made Brass, it is an Imitator of Gold, both in Colour and in many Virtues, and in such esteem, that the Roman Treasurers were call’d Tribuni AErarij, rather than Aurarii: and Camerarius says that the AEgyptians, (long before the Romans) had so great Veneration of Brass that they made Images of it, and laid them in the graves of their Kings, to preserve their Bodies from Putrefaction, and to men of lesser quality they nailed their dead bodies with many brass nails. Also Virgil, Horace and Homer are all full of their Encomiums on Brass, and therefore it may well have the honour of a seventh Metal, though compounded of a Mineral. Now as the common Brass is of a Goldish colour, so Pliny l. 34. c.11 tells us of a white brass, (which is no other (as I conceive) than Brass Tind-over, and called Laten, or Auricalcum.

COPPER, T, Cupfer, L. Cuprum, A. Copper, and is accounted the third Metal in esteem next Gold; and, as is pretended comes from the Isle of Cyprus, from whence it had its Name Cuprum; we need not go so far for it, having many Mines of that Metal, both in England and Wales, especially those at Keswick in Cumberland, which occasioned a great Suit between QueenElizabeth and the Earl of Northumberland, concerning her Right to them, upon the account of Royal Mines, which Case is reported by Plouden, with the Opinion of the Judges on the Queens side, whereby the Society for the Mines Royal, have had and still have the care over them, but for want of Fuel and skilful Miners, they are of no use at present; This Metal is of three sorts, the Red or Reddish, is the proper Natural Copper: Yellow Copper, which for distinction, is properly called Brass, is an Imitator of Gold: the White is when Copper is tinged with Silver, so as it imitates silver.

LATTEN, T Latton, Auri Chalcum and Orichalcum, also Coronarius, and is a Compound of Copper and Lapis Calaminaris, and is so cast into Forms and not wrought with Hammers, in respect of its friableness or brittleness, that which is also made of thin Plates of Iron and so Tin’d over, is vulgarly called Latton.

Submitted by Keith Sanger, September, 2010

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