“When the instrument in near, it sounds rather harsh; but, from an adjoining room, especially when two are played together, as was the case when we first heard the music, the effect is very pleasing. The tunes we heard played were chiefly Danish and Norwegian. Mr. Stephenson’s daughter made me a present of her Lang-spiel.”
When Sir George Mackenzie travels around Iceland, he is accompanied by letters of introduction. He is no young man without means but a powerful, titled, well-to-do Scotsman, highly educated and recognized. He was the youngest person, age 18, to ever be inducted into the Scottish Royal Society. His recognition was for proving that diamonds are made of pure carbon.
He comes to Iceland because of his interest in the geology. However, since, there are no commercial inns or way stations in Iceland, he and his friends must stay in churches, farmhouses or tents. They must find grass for their horses. Although they have with them some food and are able to shoot birds and catch fish, they are in need of the milk, cream, skyr, rye bread and fish that can be provided by the local farms. Because of his connections, Mackenzie is able to stay at the homes of the wealthiest farm owners, the best-off priests. He does not have to stay in the Icelandic farm homes that he describes as wretched, filthy, ill-smelling and crowded.
Yet, his book, Travels in the Island of Iceland During the Summer of the year MDCCCX (1810), is highly valuable because of his observations of life in Iceland.
His attention to culture can best be seen during his visit to Indreholm, the home of Chief Justice Stephenson. It is here, during a supper unimaginable to the ordinary Icelander who lived on coarse rye bread, skyr, milk, butter, dried fish and, perhaps once or twice a year, meat. There is boiled salmon, baked mutton, potatoes imported from England, sago and cram, London Porter (imported), and port wine (imported).
It is while dining on this banquet that Mackenzie’s group hears music coming from another room. They were delighted. They’d never heard anything like it before and thought it might come from a piano-forte. To their amazement, the music was from an Icelandic instrument called a Lang-spiel. The musicians were Mr. Stephenson’s son and daughter.
The Lang-spiel (as he spells it) was brought to the guests so they could see it. Mackenzie, in his thorough manner, describes it.
It “consists of a narrow wooden box, about three feet long, bulging at one end, where there is a sound-hole, and terminating at the other like a violin. It has three brass wires stretched along it, two of which are tuned to the same note, and one an octave lower. One of the two passes over little projections, with bits of wire on the upper part. These are so placed, that when the wire above them is pressed down by the thumb-nail, the different notes are produced on drawing a bow across; and the other wires perform the same office as the drones of a bagpipe. In short, it is simply a monochord, with two additional strings, to form a sort of bass.
What Mackenzie was listening to was a traditional Icelandic drone zither. It can be played by plucking the strings by hand or with a bow or by hammering on the strings. In Iceland, because wood was not available from locally growing trees, the Langspil was made from a variety of driftwoods.
In 1855, 45 years after Mackenzie’s musical evening, a book was published explaining how to make Langspils and how to play them. However, the Langspil nearly disappeared by the mid 1900s. There has been a concerted effort to resurrect it and various bands include it among the instruments on which they perform.
If you’d like to buy one, you can do so at http://langspil.webs.com/langspil.htm