Discovering The Polychord
By Meletios Pouliopoulos
In May of 2014, I toured the Maliotis Cultural Center in Brookline, Massachusetts to prepare for a lecture I would give on the lost history of Greek music in America. During that visit, the executive director of the center, Lee Tamis, asked me to look at an instrument that they had received 30 years ago, to see if I knew anything about it. The instrument appeared to be a type of harp on a wooden base, standing over 6 feet tall. Carved on the head plate at the very top were the words written in Greek: “POLYCHORD, E. Tsamourtzis, Athens,33.”
When I began my research, the only things that came up in a Google search was the US Patent document, and a brief paragraph in Greek on Tsamourtzis' life. I used worldcat.org to find that the inventor had published a book in 1936 in Athens, and was lucky that the only library in the United States that had the book was in Brookline, MA. at the Archbishop Iakovos Library of Hellenic College Holy Cross. There was an addendum published in 1938 that was archived with the English book, which included letters Tsamourtzis had received on his Polychord, and several newspaper articles from around the world. I was also able to find a few newspaper articles here published here in the USA which mentioned the performance at New York's Town Hall.
The Polychord is a harp-like instrument invented in 1934 by Evangelos Tsamourtzis. It has 117 strings that span 6 octaves—61 strings on the right side of the instrument, and 56 on the left. The instrument has three pedals which operate dampers on the strings, and can be pressed individually or together. Its strings are metal, and are plucked—and the overlapping tones and Polychord design provide a range and capability beyond that of a regular harp, allowing the performer to render beautiful chromatic glissandi.
Evangelos Themistokleous Tsamourtzis (b. 1885, Pergamos, Asia Minor–d.1965, Athens) was a brilliant inventor, composer, multi-instrumentalist, and luthier who went blind at the age of 3. At a young age, he travelled from Athens to study music in Vienna, receiving a diploma of professor of Musicography Braile at the Imperial Institute. He also received a diploma as first-class concert tuner through his work at the famous Bösendorfer piano factory, and continued on to Germany for instruction at the Ludwig Hupfeld Factory in Leipzig. Later he returned to Athens, Greece, and opened his own music instrument company. Tsamourtzis was by that time an esteemed member of the Conservatory of Athens, and of the Academy of Athens.
In 1934, after 5 years of work, Tsamourtzis completed construction of the Polychord. He filed a patent in Athens on December 1, 1934. The US Patent for the Polychord was filed November 21, 1935 and was awarded on May 25th, 1937. In 1938, Tsamourtzis came to America to introduce the Polychord through two New York performances: the first demonstration given at Steinway Hall in New York on May 11th, 1938, and the second was a concert given at the Town Hall on May 25th, 1938. The Town Hall performance featured two classical compositions by the Greek composer Dimitrios Levidis. The Town Hall performance was also broadcasted over the radio, and was followed by a film showing Tsamoutzis building the Polychord. Neither the radio broadcast nor the film have been found as of yet.
In September of 1937, the Conservatory of Athens notified Tsamourtzis that they would like to begin teaching the Polychord in the next academic year. Mathilde Wassenhover, a professor of harp at the conservatory, submitted proposal for to have the Polychord be part of the conservatory’s curriculum, after developing a teaching method fof the instrument, and publishing her methodology in “The Polychord” (Athens, 1936). Unfortunately, World War II had broken out and the Conservatory course for the Polychord was never offered.
As far as we know, the Polychord that is at the Maltiotis Center may be the only one left in America. It was donated by Irene Kastoris of Michigan in October of 1984. Ms. Kastoris had passed away later that year and little is known of her family and how she came by the Polychord.
A friend of mine and 2014 graduate of the Advanced Piano Technology program of North Bennet Street School in Boston, Panos Tsigkos of Athens, came to inspect the Polychord at the Maliotis Center, and to try to tune it. He removed the head plate from the instrument, and inside written in pencil was the name of the luthier, Nikos Kosmas, September, 1939, Athens—Brahami (now known as Agios Demetrios).
Tsigkos, who has now returned to Athens, still remembers how well the sound resonated when he plucked the Polychord. Its magic and mystery spoke to us both, and we hope that one day we will see this beautiful instrument restored.
Meletios Pouliopoulos, is a Greek music historian and archivist who has documented and archived thousands of recordings for over 30 years, including 78 rpm records, field tapes, and interviews. In Boston, he produced the radio show "For the Record: The History of Greek Music" and also co-produced the "Live and Unplugged" program for five years. Pouliopoulos researches Greek music, consults on Greek music programming and legal issues, and lectures on Greek music produced in America. In 2015, he served as a consultant on Greek Music in America, an exhibit about Greek music that was produced by the City of Tarpon Springs, FL. His articles on Greek Piano Rolls in the United States and on the artist Nicos Tseperis are included in new book Greek Music in America (2018, University Press of Mississippi). He is the founder and president of Greek Cultural Resources (www.GreekCulturalResources.org), a non-profit dedicated to the preserving, documenting, and celebrating Greek music in America.