Although today it is virtually unknown, the cistre ou guitarre allemande was a popular plucked instrument in France in the decades leading up to the Revolution in 1789. Instruments and music first appear in the 1760s (but see note * below) and by the 1790s the cistre was in decline.
Examples of this attractive instrument in its various forms (and with variant spellings), survive in museums and more than thirty collections of music were published for it in just twenty years. It is music primarily written for amateur players although some of the music is both technically and musically challenging. The repertoire is mainly dance tunes and opera numbers, but there are also many songs with cistre accompaniment. There are sonnates too, for cistre with a second part (obligé ), usually a simple accompaniment for a violin or sometimes a second cistre. Joseph Carpentier also published short pieces for cythre in combination with other instruments (mandoline, violin, flute).
The cistre is tuned to an A major chord and much (but not all) of the music for the instrument is in just two keys: A major and D major. Perhaps the limited number of keys and the simplicity of a lot of music for the instrument - and the simplicity of much of the music of that era - has led to its almost universal neglect today.
Despite its limitations it's a fascinating instrument. Like the English guitar (which was popular in Britain at this time), the cistre has wire strings and a chordal tuning which gives it a pleasing, ringing sound. But unlike the the English guitar, the tuning of the cistre is not fully chordal. The basic 7-course tuning is: E-A-d-e-a-c#'-e'. Joseph Carpentier and Mr Demesse wrote for an 8-course instrument with an added low D lying off the fingerboard.The texture of cistre music is also different from most English guitar music.Composers and arrangers for the English guitar tend to treat the instrument as if it were a melodic instrument with occasional passages in thirds and very few chords apart from C major, the home key of the instrument. Here is a page of English guitar music (F. Schuman, London):
Cistre music has at least a rudimentary two-part texture as here, as in this page from one of Pollet's cistre publications from Paris:
The Spanish guitar was also played in France at the time and the guitar then had five courses of strings tuned like the top five strings of the modern classical guitar. Although many songs with Spanish guitar accompaniment were published, the cistre seems to have been much more popular for amateurs to play solo pieces and sonnates. But there are many songs with cistre accompaniment as well as well as the solos.
Some cistres (usually described today as arch-citterns) have extra bass strings. A typical 'arch-cittern' has two pegboxes. The first pegbox has eleven pegs for the seven-course configuration of four pairs of strings and three single, bass strings. The second pegbox often has five pegs for five more basses, making a twelve-course instrument. (See gallery)
The music of the time as it is represented in compositions and settings for the cistre is also distinctive. It could not be more different from the elusive music of the French Baroque period. The era in which the cistre flourished is,generally, an era of simplicity and clarity. Some of the tunes of the time are familiar today as nursery rhymes. The melody known in English as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" was set by Joseph Carpentier, C.F. A. Pollet, Mr Demesse and F. Lefevre. But there are more sophisticated and ambitious compositions and arrangements too, and more so by Joseph Carpentier. (see music).
* The Victoria and Albert Museum (London) has a cistre-like instrument with a lute-shaped body and ten tuning pegs. The accompanying notes describe it,surprisingly, as French and from 1757.