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PhD Research || Re-discovery of the Italian salterio

It was her original Salterio from 1725, built by Michele Barbi, which Franziska Fleischanderl could coincidentally acquire in 2014 that ignited her passion for this special string instrument. Before, she was focussed on contemporary music with modern Hackbrett. "But this salterio by Barbi was so beautiful and miraculous that I just switched from contemporary to early music."

This April 28, Fleischanderl will defend her PhD thesis Vestito a ponti d'oro e a cento corde in seno - 'History, repertoire and playing-techniques of the Italian salterio in the eighteenth century' at Leiden University. It is an elaborate research project on the performance practice of the Italian 18th-century salterio.

Fleischanderl was lucky to receive a scholarship for her first years of research. This gave her the means to start her PhD project and intense field-in-research in italy. "It was clear that the Italian salterio is a completely under-researched instrument. With the scholarship I was able to actually work on its re-discovery."

Sound colors and different techniques

After the restoration of the Barbi salterio, the sound really spoke to Franziska. "It was just incredibly beautiful, sonorous, loud, clear, and with many sound colors. With this instrument, I had the best material to research its playing techniques and sounds for my PhD trajectory. The battuto technique is what I learned since my childhood, so I was very familiar with that way of playing, but the two pizzicato techniques (finger-pizz and plectra-pizz) were entirely new to me.

The battuto has enormous varieties in sound, depending on which hammers you use. The wooden hammers produce a very bright sound, similar to a harpsichord. Hammers with leather covering sound more like a fortepiano.

The finger-pizz generally has a very clear and ethereal sound, and it is very comfortable to execute since you actually feel the instrument with your fingers. With this technique, you can change sound colors at lightning speed, from one note to the other, whereas in the battuto technique you need time to change the hammers (what can be done only between movements).

The plectra-pizz, however, has the brightest sound of all techniques and is especially useful for music in bigger halls or ensembles, such as operas. There are a few obbligato arias by Antonio Vivaldi, Leonardo Vinci or Giacomo Tritto, and for this I imagine plectra-pizz being the appropriate playing technique. Moreover, plectra-pizz is useful for players who cannot have long fingernails that are needed for the finger-pizzicato."

You can hear the different sounds of the techniques here: 

Battuto (hammers with leather covering)

Battuto (snakewood hammers)

Finger pizzicato

Plectra pizzicato

In this video Franziska talks about the different playing techniques: 

The Hackbrett

Franziska grew up in Austria playing the Hackbrett. There, the Hackbrett was as normal a choice as piano or violin at the music school. "It is only played by hammers, it has a heavy corpus, steel strings with a high string tension, and its sound is hence very modern. As all modern salterio/dulcimer/hackbrett types in the world, the Hackbrett decided only for one playing technique, which is battuto. This is the case for the Hungarian Cimbalom, the Chinese Yang-Chin, the hammered dulcimer from England/Australia/USA, or the Iranian and Indian Santoor, to name a few. Also in the centuries before the Italian salterio of the 17th and 18th centuries, you see only psalteries that are either played pizzicato OR battuto."

The fact that all playing techniques were united in just one instrument is what fascinated Franziska and ultimately persuaded her to start playing the baroque Italian salterio.

"I think what makes the salterio so special are its different playing techniques that are applied in equal measure. I don’t know any other instrument, back in the 18th century or nowadays, that is played with completely different playing techniques. This offers an enormous wide spectrum of possibilities and sound colors.”

"The salterio sound was very popular during the baroque era. The researches in Italy have shown that it was played so much more than we had known before. It was a regular part of aristocratic music education in the Collegi dei Nobili and private environments of noble families, and it was often used in monasteries and convents since the salterio is closely associated with the church through the Book of Psalms and King David. However, I would not say that the Italian salterio was a „very important“ instrument in its time, but it was a „very special“ one. Often, the historic sources mention that the salterio somehow "miraculously touched the heart" of its listeners.”


Fleischanderl's thesis counts 404 pages, which makes it a dissertation of considerable length. "It was a huge undertaking: doing so much basic research and learning entirely new techniques on my instrument. But it became a passion. That is why my thesis became quite long - it is a first standard work for this instrument.”


For now, Franziska will take a break from intense 'field-in researches in Italy’. She will focus on her musical career by playing concerts and doing recordings presenting the instrument more intensely to the public.

"And I'd like to make my knowledge about the salterio accessible, by articles or a book publication, and possibly by a video-blog on the Italian salterio. Furthermore, I will offer lessons for anybody who wants to learn the Italian salterio."

The performance practice of the Italian 18th-century salterio

Her research, which she started in 2015, focuses on the performance practice of the Italian 18th-century salterio. One of her major research goals was to present a comprehensive picture of its history, use and unique musical qualities to the scientific and artistic communities. Sources indicate that the salterio was played with three different playing techniques: Either the strings were struck with two small hammers (battuto), plucked with the fingernails and fingertips (finger-pizz), or plucked with plectra, which were fixed in metallic finger rings and placed on the fingertips (plectra-pizz). Fleischanderl's artistic aim was to master all the three playing techniques and to apply them equally to the repertoire to express the salterio’s full musical range in its entirety. Read more here on her research.

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