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Zithers
by Gregg Miner, as part of www.minermusic.com)

O Tannenbaum
(German carol)

   

  (clockwise from left to center)

Concert Zither - Washburn, ca. 1898

Quint "Mermaid" Zither
- Anton Kiendl, ca. 1880

Quint Harp-Zither
- Franz Schwarzer, 1898

Elegy Zither
- Franz Halbmeier, ca. 1900

Bowed Zither
- J. Haslwanter, 1873

 

 

Disclaimer to Internet readers: 
The following text is a humorous essay written for the layperson. It originally appeared in a companion booklet to my 1995 Christmas Collection CDs. The information, while factual, is presented in a personal, unorthodox manner. No offense is intended toward my fellow musicians or fellow musicologists.

Germany's national instrument, the zither, is famous for playing the entire score of the classic 1949 film The Third Man, which was the first and last anyone ever heard of it. Yet according to zither players, it is the most perfect musical instrument ever designed - versatile and expressive, with a range nearly as great as the piano - and they will tell you this in no uncertain terms (don't worry, your chances of meeting an actual zither player are less than being struck by lightning). Nevertheless, because the term "zither" has been so abused - applied to any remotely uncommon American, European or ethnic instrument so long as it has strings, we need to distinguish the real specimen, so that, should we decide to attempt a zither revival, we're playing the right instrument.

The example we're concerned with belongs to the group of "Alpine" zithers - folk instruments that gradually evolved into concert instruments in Austro-Germany during the nineteenth century. The key distinguishing feature of our subject is...frets. That should make it easy enough. In the photo, you'll see a fretted fingerboard down the left side of the instrument (this is considered the bottom side because it faces the player when on the playing table). The melody is played on the five fingerboard strings, tuned in fifths (a',a',d',g,c in the concert or "prime" zither), which are stopped with the fingers and thumb of the left hand while plucked with a thumb pick on the right hand. Adjacent to the fingerboard is a row of open accompinament strings (tuned in a "circle of fifths") and bass strings (descending chromatically) which are plucked with the remaining right hand fingers (just imagine laying a guitar and a small harp down on a table and trying to play both at once!).

And if you think it's a nightmare to play, try tuning one - you have to use a little wrench on the twenty - to forty-plus strings. Had enough? But wait! Now you have to get together with two or three of your zither-playing buddies and get everyone's instrument in tune with each other's so you can form zither trios and quartets. For these ensemble purposes, they even make different sized and pitched zithers - like the quint, tuned a fifth higher than the prime zither, and the elegy, or alto, tuned a fourth below the prime. They also make a bass zither, and that's simply going too far.

While in Missouri, you can visit the Franz Schwarzer zither exhibit in the state museum, because Missouri is where this award-winning zither maker set up shop around 1870. In 1885 Schwarzer invented the harp-zither, a different body style featuring a pillar (a harp-like column) inserted into the exaggerated s-curve on the far side. His fanciest model was so unbelievably ornate and intricately inlaid that it cost as much as a house of the same period.

The bowed zither may seem strange, but is exactly what it appears to be - a violin for zitherists. Resting on a table, the left hand frets the fingerboard (tuned backwards from a violin) exactly like a zither, while the right hand bows the strings.

I discovered this beautiful "mermaid" zither languishing, covered with filth, under a shelf in a small folk music shop. While virtually all vintage instruments need some work, this piece required substantial restoration of the soundboard, inlay and binding, and some delicate gluing of the hand-carved ebony mermaid. To date, no luthier seems to be able to identify the type of wood used for the back and sides (the top is rosewood). However, one elderly zither player seemed to have no problem - his cry of recognition: "(Oh, that's) tannenbaum!"

Copyright 2000
Miner Music