PrintMail this page




The lyra is a three-stringed fiddle with a curved, pear-shaped body, cut along with the neck and the head from a single block of wood. The top has two soundholes (the 'eyes') shaped like half-moons. The lyra is played upright. The strings are not pressed onto the fingerboard, as with the violin, but from the side with the fingernails.

Probably the lyra orginated in medieval Byzantium, from where it spread over a large part of Southeastern Europe. Closely related fiddles with a living tradition are the  Calabrian lira, the Dalmatian lijerica, the Bulgarian gadulka and the kemençe of Ottoman art music. The lyra is also known in the Greek parts of Thracia and Maccedonia, and on some islands of the Aegean Sea. It is still particularly popular on the island of Karpathos. (see Instrument of the month of July 2012)

In Crete the lyra acquired a special status. The Cretans consider it as a symbol of their musical tradition and cultural identity in general. Besides countless amateur musicians, there are hundreds of professional players, nearly all men. The lyráris is the key figure of the band, and generally also the lead singer. Lyrárides can become true idols. Everywhere in the villages and along the roads posters with their portraits announce their gigs. In Crete party music is most often lyra music.

For some, the history of the lyra in Crete goes back to the eleventh century at least. Even a link with the lyre of Greek antiquity has been suggested, but that  is a very different stringed instrument altogether. It is, however, generally thought that the lyra was imported from Asia Minor during the Ottoman occupation, possibly as recent as the early eighteenth century.

In its original shape the Cretan lyra had a small and shallow sound box. In order to  distinguish the original from the contemporary lyra, it is now called a lyráki ('little lyra'). The Mim acquired one in the 1914-1928 period (inventory number 3374). The lyráki has three gut strings tuned a1 - d1 - g1 . Only the A (the tonic) string is shortened, The D string serves as a drone. The open G string (the subtonic) completes the traditional hexatonic (six notes) scale. The bagpipes of Crete (askomandoúra) and the Aegean Sea (tsamboúna) are also hexatonic. On its introduction in Crete and on other Greek islands, the lyra was presumably adapted to the musical possibilities of the bagpipe, which had been adopted much earlier, and with which it occasionally played together.

The original lyráki has three wooden tuning pegs set in the back of the head. The bow is shorter than a violin bow, and mainly suitable for fast tempi with short strokes. A series of bells is attached to the bow, which accentuate the rhythm when the bow is moving. This is particularly helpful when the lyráris is playing alone, which was mostly the case outside the major towns until well into the twentieth century. Also because of its carrying sound the lyráki is especially suitable for dance music, but less for the accompaniment of singing. Therefore, a lower sounding model with a bigger and deeper sound box got into use in the 1920s, the vrondólyra ('thunder lyra').

These days the lyráki and the vrondólyra aren't often played any more. Since the 1950s the lyrárides have rather favoured a new intermediate lyra model that suits all needs. Manolis Stagakis (1913-2006), a maker from Rethymno, is considered to be the father, and even Stradivarius, of this modern lyra. He developed his new model from the 1940s onwards. The Stagakis lyra was quickly adopted by other makers, and it became the standard model in the 1960s.

Stagakis continued to apply a few aesthetic and  technical innovations that the lyra had already borrowed from the violin, its prestigious rival, in de 1920s. The neck was given a scroll, a black fingerboard and metal strings. The rear pegs were replaced by the lateral tuning pegs of the violin, or by the metal tuning mechanisms of the mandolin.

Even more essentially different from the original lyra are the new playing technique and musical possibilities. The strings are now tuned like the three lowest strings of the violin: a1 - d1 - g. They are set wider apart, allowing space for the fingers to shorten them all three. Moreover, the modern lyra is played in different positions. Accordingly, the tone range has been significantly expanded. The lyráris doesn't need to limit himself to the old hexatonic drone music, any longer. He is now able to modulate fluently, and he can also play the same - also recent - repertoire as his violin playing colleagues. Moreover, the modern lyra is mostly played with a standard violin bow without bells, which is much more suitable for a new melodic repertoire that needs legato playing with long bow strokes.

The development and diffusion of the modern lyra did not only go hand in hand with the changes in musical taste, but also with the rise of professional lyrárides and the gradual generalization after 1915 of bands with plucked instruments, which took over the accompanying roles of the drone and bells. These included the guitar, mandolin and the boulgari and laoúto lutes. Originally the lyra was accompanied by a boulgari, a variant of the  Turkish saz, and after 1920 also by a laoúto, a lute with a long fretted neck and a large, rounded body similar to the Arab ud's. Around 1940 the boulgari had all but completely been ousted by the laoúto.

As a matter of fact, it isn't self-evident that the lyra became the musical emblem of Cretan identity. Until the middle of the twentieth century the lyra was only prominent in the central half of the island, and mainly in the province of Rethymno. In western and eastern Crete the leading instrument was rather the violin. It reached Crete during the last decades of the Venetian occupation, which ended with the conquest of the island by the Ottomans (1645-1669). It is therefore not excluded that the lyra was even adopted after the violin.

The lyra mainly thanks its present status as an emblem of Cretan identity to the influential Greek musicologist Símon Karás (1903-1999). For more than thirty years Karás led the department of national music of the Greek state radio. He determined on his own authority what was fit for the radio and what was not, and in 1955 he put the Cretan violin under a ban. For Karás the violin was a foreign usurper, which he held responsible for the decline of the pure, age-old tradition of the Byzantine lyra. This questionable, nationalistic and puristic view caused many violin players to switch over to the lyra.  Ironically, Karás thus precipitated the transformation of the old, bagpipe based lyráki tradition into contemporary lyra music, which is strongly tributary to the violin. Later on Karás would admit he had been mistaken.

This lyra was made in 2014 by Nikos Papalexakis (°1978). Curator Wim Bosmans bought the instrument in September of that year in the little workshop of the maker in Rethymno. Nikos is a son of the workshop's founder, Giorgos Papalexakis (°1948). In 1995 he set up shop in the former workshop of Manolis Stagakis in 6 Dimakopoulou St.

The body, the neck and the head are cut from a single block of walnut wood. The top is in cedar wood that was recycled from a 600-year-old Venetian house in Rethymno. The tailpiece is in rosewood. The soundholes, the top and the fingerboard are bordered with inlay and/or white plastic strips. The neck has a black plastic fingerboard,  inlaid with six white plastic dots, which are supposed to indicate the position of the notes. Here they have a rather decorative function. The back is adorned with a carving of a flying partridge, a traditional motive of the lyra makers in Rethymno. The bow is of German make. This is a so-called 'professional' lyra, which refers to a finer decoration and to the use of more expensive woods, rather than to a better sound quality.

Wim Bosmans


Lyra 2014.720, Nikos Papalexakis, Rethymnon, Crete, 2014
Lyra 2014.720, Nikos Papalexakis, Rethymnon, Crete, 2014
Lyra 2014.720, Nikos Papalexakis, Rethymnon, Crete, 2014
Lyra 2014.720, Nikos Papalexakis, Rethymnon, Crete, 2014
Lyra 2014.720, Nikos Papalexakis, Rethymnon, Crete, 2014
Lyra 3374, Crete, before 1928
External Video
See video