The name cymbal (also cimbel or cymbel) comes from the Latin cymbalum (plural cymbala for a pair of cymbals) which in turn derives from the Greek kýmbalon (cup).
Cymbals originated in Asia and are among the oldest percussion instruments. They have always been closely associated with religious worship and rituals (e.g. funeral rites), although they were also used to accompany dances; dancers hung cymbals around their necks on a piece of twine and beat them in time to the music. Cymbals were only ever used in pairs and the playing techniques included single strokes, strisciatti (rotating both plates against each other) and rolls.
A wide variety of cymbals was already in existence in antiquity:
- a large pair of cymbals with a construction that strongly resembled today's;
- dancers' small cymbals that were played like castanets (finger cymbals);
- plates with a slight upward curve of the rim and a pot-shaped dome (Chinese cymbal);
- two hemispheres with leather straps or handles.
From the Orient to Europe
Cymbals were first introduced into Europe in the Middle Ages by the Saracens, who brought them to Spain and southern Italy. However, at the beginning of the last millennium they disappeared again, probably because the art of hammering had been lost. Despite this, portrayals of cymbals can be found in medieval miniatures up to about the 15th century.
It was not until the 17th century that cymbals returned to Europe, in the wake of the Turkish wars. Turkey had long been famed for the excellence of its cymbal manufacture. The music spread by Turkish military bands (Janissary music) was characterized by noisy and rhythmic instruments such as the bass drum, the side drum, cymbals, the triangle, the tambourine and the bell-tree. European military bands began imitating Janissary music at the beginning of the 18th century.
It was not long before Turkish cymbals began to be scored – albeit very rarely – in the opera orchestra. Christoph Willibald Gluck asked for them in his opera Iphigénie en Tauride (1779), specifically in the Scythians’ chorus in Act 1 (cymbals, triangle, side drum). The best-known example of an early use of cymbals is probably Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Turkish opera from 1782, The Abduction from the Seraglio (cymbals, triangle, bass drum).
It was in the second third of the 19th century that the cymbals finally established themselves as a permanent part of the percussion section. They were used very effectively by Ludwig van Beethoven (in his 9th Symphony), Georges Bizet (in Carmen), Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner among others.
The tonal and dynamic nuances of Turkish cymbals led to their increasing popularity in the course of the 19th century. To begin with one of the plates of a pair was simply suspended from a desk hook, but this is no longer done for reasons of tone quality. Moreover, high-quality pairs of cymbals are valuable and care should be taken not to damage them by striking them with sticks made of wood or other materials.
The Chinese cymbal did not achieve popularity until the 19th century, when marching bands discovered the virtues of its sound. Two cymbals were clashed against each other. The instrument is used only very rarely in the orchestra. In the 20th century it found its way into jazz, pop and rock music and from time to time it is also used in modern chamber and orchestral music.