On mottoes and proverbs

From another thread:

Speculating here this evening, it occurred to me that I have always called harpsichord inscriptions mottoes, but actually they are generally proverbs, and truisms to boot.

From my lovely Chambers Dictionary:


A short sentence or phrase adopted as representative of a person, family, etc, or accompanying a coat of arms
A passage prefixed to a book or chapter anticipating its subject
A scrap of verse or prose enclosed in a cracker or sweet wrapper
A recurring phrase (music)


A short familiar saying expressing a supposed truth or moral lesson
A byword
A saying that requires explanation (obsolete, eg Bible)
(in pl; with cap) a book of maxims in the Old Testament
A dramatic composition in which a proverb gives a name and character to the plot
So they really are proverbs.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with extending the word motto to describe these inscriptions, but it’s the fact that they were emphasising truisms and moral teachings that interests me today, such as ‘sic transit gloria mundi’.

And while in a speculative mood, how literate were craftsmen such as Ruckers? How did they know Latin? Could they read and write? I suppose numbering on jacks shows they could.

And where did the tradition of proverbial inscriptions come from for harpsichords? I don’t think many string instruments or other types had them, maybe some organs? It is a fascinating topic.

I’m sure most of you know Thomas McGeary’s article on harpsichord mottoes (or, as Andrew points out, proverbs). I did read it many years ago and don’t remember the details, but probably there are responses to oour questions.

Thomas McGeary, “Harpsichord mottoes”, Journal of the American Musical Instruments Society, 1981, n.7.

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Organs for sure. Detail from Ostönnen in Germany, one of the earliest surviving playing organs:

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Kreward in The Netherlands, one of Holland’s oldest playing organs:

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However, it looks as if these inscriptions on the Kreeward and Osttönnen organs don’t contain mottoes but information about the history of sponsorship, building and reconstruction of the instrument.

As well as the Thomas McGeary JAMS article (which I don’t know), there is a short piece about harpsichord inscriptions by Edgar Hunt in The English Harpsichord Magazine Vol. 1 No.8, April 1977 where it is suggested that inscriptions initially served to justify the moral propriety of making music; a bit like the German custom of putting moral inscriptions on house fronts. But I’m not sure they originally did have this function (see the inscriptions on 16th-c. harpsichords).

The organ examples look more like essays!

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Just lists (I think) of who built, restored or paid for what, and when.