Pedro Caldeira Cabral – Trio

Pedro Caldeira Cabral – Cítara Portuguesa
Joaquim António Silva – Violão
Duncan Fox – Contrabaixo


 The Fado Cittern Legends


The portuguese word Fado as been applied to an urban musical expression with a large variety of styles of both vocal and instrumental music.

The original meaning of the word (fate, destiny) was employed mainly to describe the subject of the texts, originally related to commom people’s belief in a fated life, typical from 19th century romantic mentality.

The first written fado melodies for instrumental use appear to be those contained in a manuscript from 1836, and among them figures the “Fado do Marinheiro”, considered to be the earliest fado known. At that time there were three different fado genres known as Fado batido (dance), Fado cantado (song) and Guitarrada (instrumental solos).

The Portuguese Cittern (then called cítara) was the ideal instrument for the fado performance, for its particular expressive vibrato technique and distinctive melodic sound sustain character, inspiring an impressive number of composers in the course of the past two centuries.

Some of them became legendary figures and are still present in the modern folk musical mythology, as in the case of A.F.Maia (1830-1912), L.C.Silva (1859-1934), A.Freire (1891-1946) A.Paredes (1899-1980) and his son Carlos Paredes (1925-2004).

The instrument we now call a Portuguese guitar was known until the nineteenth century throughout Europe as Citra or Cítara (Portugal and Spain), Cetra ( Italy and Corsica), Cistre ( France), Cittern (British Isles), Zither and Zitharen (Germany and Low Countries).

Directly descended from the Renaissance European Cittern derived in turn from the medieval CitoleThe Portuguese guitar as we know it underwent considerable technical modifications in the last century (dimensions, mechanical tuning system, etc.) although it has kept the same number of courses, the string tuning and the finger technique characteristic of this type of instrument.

There is evidence of its use in Portugal since the thirteenth century (Cítole) amongst troubadour and minstrel circles and in the Renaissance period, although initially it was restricted to noblemen in court circles. Later its use became popular and references have been found to citterns being played in the theater, in taverns and barbershops in the seventeenth and eighteenth century in particular.

In 1582, Friar Phillipe de Caverell visited Lisbon and described its customs; he mentions the Portuguese people’s love for the cittern and other musical instruments.

In 1649 was published the catalogue of the Royal Music Library of King John IV of Portugal containing the best known books of cittern music from foreign composers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in which the complexity and technical difficulty of the pieces allow us to believe that we had highly skilled players in Portugal.

The angel playing the cittern (c.1680), a sculpture of big dimensions in the Alcobaça monastery, depicts in detail the direct ancestor of our portuguese cittern.

In the first half of the eighteenth century, Ribeiro Sanches (1699-1783) had cittern lessons in the town of Guarda as himself mentions in a letter from St.Petersbirg in 1735.

In the same period there are other evidence to the use of the cittern alluding to a repertoire of sonatas, minuets, etc. shared with other instruments such as the harpsicord or the guitar.

Later in the century (ca. 1750), the  so-called “English” guitar made its appearance in Portugal. It was a type of cittern locally modified by German, English, Scottish and Duth makers and enthusiastically greeted by the new mercantile burgeoisie of the city of Oporto who used it in the domestic context of Hausmusik practice. This consited of the “languid Modinhas”, the“lingering Minuets”  and the “risqué Lunduns”, as they were then called.

The use of this type of Guitar never became widespread. It disappeared in the second half of the nineteenth century when the popular version of the cittern came into fashion again by its association with the Lisbon song (Fado) accompaniment.

We find the last detailed reference to the Cítara in 1858 in the book of J.F.Fètis “The Music Made Easy”.The Portuguese translation includes a glossary describing the various characteristics (tunings, social status, repertoire, etc.) of both cittern and “English” guitar of the time.

Nowadays, the portuguese cittern became fashionable for solo music as well as acompainiment and its wide repertoire is often presented in concert halls and in the context of classical and worldmusic festivals all around  the world.

© Pedro Caldeira Cabral

Translated by Kenneth Frazer