Orpharion by Francis Palmer, London, 1617.
Collection of Musikmuseet, Musikhistorisk Museum & Carl Claudius’ Samling, Copenhagen, Denmark
Inv. No. CL 139

Last updated Thursday, June 21, 2012.
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General Description
The Palmer instrument is an orpharion of 9 courses with the festooning similar to that normally seen in iconographic sources of the time. It is currently on public display as part of the collection of Musikmuseet, Musikhistorisk Museum & Carl Claudius’ Samling, Copenhagen, Denmark, and possesses the inventory number CL 139.
Provenance / Maker
The maker's label in the instrument indicates the name of the builder as "Francis Palmer" and the date of 1617.
Back: 4 pieces of Walnut (dark staves) and 3 pieces of Maple (light staves)
Sides: Walnut
Soundboard: coniferwood (probably Spruce)
Neck: Maple
Fingerboard: Maple
Fret "wedges": Ebony and Maple

maximum length: 1005 mm
string length at treble: 518.5 mm
string length at bass: 601.5 mm
body length: 421 mm
maximum width: 269 mm

thickness: c. 1.2 mm
height at neck, including soundboard and back: 72 mm
height at bottom, including soundboard and back: 75 mm

length at treble side: 313.5 mm
length at bass side: 318.5 mm

at treble: 248.5 mm
at bass: 272 mm
width at nut: 71.4 mm
width at body: 86.2 mm

from top to the back of the nut, at center: 319 mm

diameter: 100 mm


Both the nut and the bridge of the instrument are slanted so that the bass strings are longer than the treble strings. This difference in string length was an innovation used either to allow a more satisfactory bass string in terms of tone or a higher top-string pitch based on the metal available at the time.3

The fretting appears to be some sort of meantone or a mix of meantone and equal temperament. Alexander Batov has made a comparison of the fretting to equal temperamentat at both the treble and bass ends based on measurements taken directly from the full-sized drawings of the instrument by Darryl Martin (see Plans/Drawings, below) . The result of that comparison can be seen below in the following chart:

  Treble Bass
frets 1/4 1/5 1/6 1/8 equal 1/4 1/5 1/6 1/8 equal
1       * +         +
2   +         +      
3         +       +  
4 +         +        
5         +         +
6       +         +  
7         + +        
8         +       +  
9     +     +        
10         +         +
11         +       +  

Mr. Batov's explanation of the chart follows:

The + sign shows which temperament each individual fret position is closest to. It is assumed that the first course is tuned to the nominal G (which should not be confused with the absolute pitch!) and that the following sequence of chromatic and diatonic semitones is produced when it is fingered on 1st to 11th frets: g#, a, b-flat, b, c, c#, d, e-flat, e, f, f# (* sign signifies if a-flat is chosen instead of g#).

As for the bass side of the fingerboard, one would need a full-size drawing to determine fret distances along the line of the 6th course. So the calculations are made following the same sequence of intervals (i.e. as for the first course), as well as on the assumption that the 6th course is there instead of the 9th. The results show how far from any fixed arrangement fret positions are, which is, in a way, hardly surprising. At the same time, fret positions on both the treble and bass sides are fairly congruous (with the exception perhaps for the 7th fret). 4

Peter Forrester also has produced a drawing, below, of how the frets compare to meantone temperaments using both the measurements from from the full-sized drawings of the instrument by Darryl Martin and from measurements taken some time in the 1970s. Mr. Forrester has noted that these latter measurements correspond to Mr. Martin's measreuments at the bass but differ at the treble!5 As such, he is asking if anyone has another set of measurements which can be shared.

(Click to enlarge.)

Mr. Forrester explains that "[t]he drawing shows side-by-side and reduced to the same overall length for the octave, fret positions for ET, 1/6th comma, treble and bass (marked M) from the published plan, [and] treble and bass from the earlier drawing (marked A), 1/6th comma, ET."6

Plans / Drawings

A technical drawing and a report on the condition of the Palmer orpharion by Darryl Martin are available for free as PDF downloads, courtesy of the Musikhistorisk Museum of Copenhagen, Denmark.

The report contains some photos of the instrument and a general description of particular aspects of the construction of the instrument not readily apparent from the drawing. For scholars interested in this instrument, the articles below are also highly recommended, as they contain additional information not contained in the report.

Literature / Additional Resources
My appreciation and thanks go to Darryl Martin for making his information on the Palmer instrument publicly available as well as for his suggestions and corrections for this page. I would also like to thank Ture Bergstrøm and the National Music Museum of Denmark for their assistance in providing information and answering questions, and for their kind submission of and permission to include high-resolution photographs of the Palmer instrument on these pages.
  1. Martin, Darryl. "The Palmer Orpharion: A Reevaluation," (2003) at http://www.darryl-martin.co.uk/palmer.htm. [back]
  2. Ibid. Only basic measurements are provided here. More detailed measurements, including fretting, are available via the text and drawings of the instrument. See Plans / Drawings, above. [back]
  3. Abbot, Djilda and Segerman, Ephraim. "Strings in the 16th and 17th Centuries." GSJ 27 (1974), pp.49-73. [back]
  4. Batov, Alexander. "[CITTERN]: Re: Palmer orpharion images." 27 November, 2007. E-mail to the "Cittern List" hosted by Wayne Cripps at http://www.cs.dartmouth.edu/~wbc/lute/lute.html. [back]
  5. Forrester, Peter. "[CITTERN]: Orpharion frets again." 1 December, 2007. E-mail to the "Cittern List" hosted by Wayne Cripps [see note 4, above]. [back]
  6. Ibid.[back]

How to cite this page: Hartig, Andrew. "Orpharion by Francis Palmer, London, 1617." Renovata Cythara: The Renaissance Cittern Site. Ed. Andrew Hartig. 21 June 2012. 24 March 2017. <http://www.cittern.theaterofmusic.com/old/palmer.html>.

All site contents, unless otherwise stated, are copyright © Andrew M. Hartig, 1999-2012. All rights reserved.