Tuesday, July 15, 2014


The word castanet comes from castaina, the Spanish word for chestnut. 
They are shell-shaped clappers hinged together with string and were originally  played by a Spanish dancers who, holding a pair in each hand, used them to produce rhythmic patterns of sound to accompany their dance movements holds a pair in each hand.
The castanets are a centuries-old, percussion instrument whose earliest recorded history dates to over 1000 B.C. and whose origin is attributed to the Phoenicians, a culture imminently commercial, who thrived in the countries surrounding the basin of the Mediterranean: Greece, Turkey, Italy, and Spain.  

However, over the course of history, it has been Spain that has conserved and developed their use and as such, the castanets are considered the cultural patrimony of Spain (they are considered the national instrument of the country).  Thus, the castanets are usually used with the music that gives a Spanish color and character to that music.

The castanets consist of two pairs of shallow, cup-shaped, pieces of special wood, usually chestnut (castana), although other woods and materials have been used in more contemporary times.  Each pair is drilled to receive an ornamental cord, which is looped round the thumb.  The pairs usually differ slightly in pitch; the lower is called macho (male) and the higher hembra (female).  The higher-sounding pair is usually held in the right hand.  The cups hang downwards and are manipulated by the fingers.  Each instrument is handcrafted and molded to fit the size of hand of its professional user.

But this Spanish style of castanet-playing is rarely used by an orchestra in modern scores, not only because they are difficult to use and master BUT because there are less than four professional castanet players in the world.  Rather, at times, two pairs of orchestral castanets are used, or alternatively a “castanet machine,”

 in which the cups are secured by elastic to a central piece of wood ending 
in a handle which is held and shaken.
Above is another version.

Castanets are usually employed in music (to give that Spanish character) 
such as Bizet’s Carmen


Chabrier’s rhapsody Espana

Massenet’s ballet Le Cid.  

Wagner wrote for them in the Venusberg Music in Tannhauser (1861) where they lead in to the abandoned excitement he depicted.  They also help to establish the atmosphere of the scene in the Dance of the Seven Veils in Richard Strauss’ Salome.  Britten employed them significantly in his Let’s Make an Opera, where they imitate the cry of a night bird.  And they are frequently used to support rhythmic structure, as in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto.

The castanets are considered perhaps the most sophisticated of the percussion instruments.

A Bolero dancerAntonio Cabral Bejarano (1798–1865) 

Henry Woods: Young Couple Dancing With Castanets, 1876
Castanets must be attached to the thumb of each hand by a string and the fingers must be lined up at certain points on the castanets in order to properly play the instrument.
The Castanets 
Day I
The Castanets 
Day II
Dancing Girl with Castanets
1909, Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Besides castainuelas, there are several other Spanish words for castanets, including pulgaretes 
(because some dancers attach them to their thumb, or pulgar) 
and platillos (saucers).

Ballet Dancers - Delphin Enjolras
Ballet Dancers by Delphin Enjolras
(Using Castanets)
Carmencita, 1890 by William Merritt Chase