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On the Zither

This article, by Dr. Gerlinde Haid, comes from the Austrian publication Volkskunst heute (Folk Art Today),[i] a beautifully illustrated magazine devoted to Austrian handcrafts, costumes, and customs. The article is translated by Dr. Jane Curtis, and illustrations reproduced, with the kind permission of the publisher, the Hilde Jasser Verlag- und Werbegesellschaft mbH, Vienna, Austria. Translator comments and additions are set off in brackets; some slight rearrangements of material have been made for greater clarity in the English version.

Old Tirolean folk zithers in
Mittenwald and Salzburg form.

The reawakened interest in Stubenmusiki[ii] inspired by Tobi Reiser in the 30s has brought an old folk instrument to new honor: the zither. Many folk musicians used to wrinkle up their nose at the word "zither". “Zither” meant salon music and the daughters of the upper class and "folksiness", smacking insipidly of togetherness and dilettantism – all expressed in a mixture of Heurigen schmalz and "Abend am Traunsee"[iii], made up of poor selections, very little artistry, and much romanticism. In reality there was more to it than that. Tobi Reiser was a genius at picking up what appeared usable to him. He integrated the zither into his Stubenmusik along with harp, Hackbrett[iv], and bass fiddle. In this function the zither is again popular on the folk music scene, in a "second incarnation", as the folk music researcher Walter Wiora would say, meaning that this music is no longer heard in its original contexts of dancing, everyday usage, and social gatherings, but is now performed at the old homeland reunion, at Christmastime, at Easter, in the spring, at get-togethers of singers and musicians. Its original role in folk music was different, and here and there still is today, with all the regional peculiarities belonging to this type of music.

Dancing the Steirer, with zither music.
Drawing by C.B.Binzer. The zither
player holds the instrument on his knees.

The "East Alpine mountain zither", to use the technical term, is one of our most typical folk instruments, because it was invented in the realm of folk music.[v]According to sources, it must have been developed during the 17th century. Its immediate ancestor is the "Scheitholt" ["log"], which Michael Praetorius mentioned in 1619 and described as a low-class instrument. The oldest zithers had drone strings like the hurdy-gurdy, were held on the knees, and were played tremolo style. They were called Kratzzither, Scherrzither, Zwecklzither,[vi] and Raffele, and were also widespread in Scandinavia, Denmark, and North Germany as the "Langleg" [the Norwegian langeleik] and "Hummel" [the Swedish hummele]. The Raffele is still known today in the South Tirol.[vii] Little is known about the first "Schlagzithern" [struck zithers], whose melody strings were struck with a thumb ring as is done today, while the accompaniment strings are pulled. We do know that until about 1830 zithers were diatonic and that their further development went hand in hand with the expansion of Alpine melody and polyphony. The practice favored in our "original country music", transposing the melodies by a fifth when they are being used to accompany dancing, corresponds to the arrangement of the strings in intervals of a fifth. The playing order of the frets (the scale begins not with the base tone but with the tone a fifth below it) corresponds to the predilection for the leadoff tone derived from this fifth:

These very simple diatonic instruments have long since disappeared from use in folk music. All that remains is a number of preserved exemplars in our museums, each one unique, corresponding to the inventiveness and imagination of their builders.[viii] Two main types have developed from them: the Salzburg form, which later became the concert zither, and the Mittenwald form, which had no issue. And from those days we also have Peter Rosegger's[ix]delightful account of the dignity, significance, and individuality of the old folk instrument:[x]

        The harp of the Alpine folk song is the zither, but not that perfected modern zither on which wandering artists once in a while achieve an admirable virtuosity. Such an instrument would be beyond the reach of the ordinary farmer, if only because it would cost the entire year's pay of a hardworking fellow, to say nothing of the time and finger dexterity required to play the zither.

        My father had three brothers; each played a self-made two-stringed zither, expressing their innermost life in quite tolerable style. This inner music life consisted of a half dozen Steirer dances, or as they called them "Altweltischer" ["old worldish dances"], which brought the rest of the group to their feet in short order. My father was far superior to them artistically, however: he had three strings on his zither and played not only these dances but also folk songs, Jodler, and all sorts of unusual tunes of which we couldn't make head or tail. And if we asked him what they were, he replied "Nothing". They were combinations of tones he had created himself, however his fingers fell onto the strings, forgotten as soon as they died away.

        The ring which zither players wear on the right thumb was unknown to us. We just took a piece of fish bone and scratched busily away. The expression "Zithernschlagen"[xi] was thus fairly accurate. My father did not like it when they danced to the "Zitherschlagen", although the sharp shrill tones easily overrode the clumping of mountain boots. When we eventually heard a polished zither player, we did not know what kind of strange music it was, until my younger brother looked at the instrument and astonished us with the report that the thing looked like a zither but was much larger, waxed to the nth degree like the bailiff's boots, and strung with at least several dozen strings.

        "Several dozen strings!" cried my father, "it can't be; it's no zither, it's something else."

Singers from the Styrian Alps, with violin, zither, and guitar. Copper etching from Vienna 1829

How did the simple "peasant zither" become an art instrument?[xii]The way was long and complicated, beginning when the "Alpenlanders" and their music were discovered by the educated classes. The Styrian Alpine Singers, seeking their living far from their homeland, traveled to many countries after about 1825, as did the Tirolean National Singers. [The pictures show the Styrians using violin, guitar, and zither, the Tiroleans with zithers and Hackbrett.] Folk singing groups from Vienna soon began to travel as well. Of special importance in making the zither known was Johann Petzmayer (1803-1884), from Zistersdorf in Lower Austria. He became so proficient on the zither that Duke Max in Bayern, father of the empress Elizabeth, took zither lessons from him and in 1838 gave him the rank of Kammervirtuoso. From then on the musically talented among the nobility of Bavaria, Austria, and other areas, played the zither. It spread in turn to the ordinary folk, returning to where it had originated.

The Vienna Biedermeier writer Alexander Baumann, who introduced the zither into Vienna high society,
here playing the zither in an Alpine pasture near Grundlsee. Lithograph by Eduard Swoboda, c.1850.

Hand in hand with popularization came many attempts to improve and perfect the zither, to broaden its capabilities, to create instruction materials, and to standardize the tuning. It became a chromatic concert instrument, highly stylized, with five melody strings and as many as thirty-seven accompaniment/bass strings; and individual virtuosos did great things with it. Equally noteworthy were the attempts to establish a standard instrument. Along with perfectly serious efforts in zither clubs and publications, many strange things appeared. There were instruments with patterns to slide under the strings, supposedly making it easier to play; there were some with buttons for playing accompaniment chords automatically;[xiii] and other experiments offending against true musicianship.

Tyrolean National Singers' Society

Zither-playing folk musicians participated in this process. The zither is for accompaniment. It accompanies dancing and singing, violin and flute; it accompanies the amateur in the mountain meadow and the milkmaid milking, if the story is true that cows give more milk when they hear the delicate tones of the zither. And I know a young zither player who twice a day stands at the highly modern milking machine in his cow barn, minus zither of course, but has a way of playing that evokes his cows and farming. I know an old zither player who told me what he had learned at his first zither lesson: two left-hand chords, "even" and "odd", and when he then stroked the strings with his right hand, as told by the teacher, out came his first "Steirer". I know a zither player with hands so large and broad that he could completely cover a small zither, but the delicacy with which he handles his instrument is incomparable.

Folk Scene at a Heuriger in Vienna about 1818.
After a pencil drawing by Josef Lanzedelly (1774-1832)

Folk music does not need theory or even necessarily written notation. What it needs is feeling, musical instinct, musical imagination; then every limitation will become a creative push. The zither is an incomplete instrument, that is its strength.[xiv]

Title page from "Collection of Selected Mountain Songs"
by Ulrich Halbreiter, Munich 1839, dedicated to Duke Max in Bavaria


[i]. [1986 No.2, pp14-17]

[ii]. [Stubenmusik (or -musi) is music played at home or in such friendly cozy places as the Bierstube, the Weinstube, and other places of good cheer.]

[iii]. [The old Vienna evergreens played in the Heurigen nestled among the vineyards of the Wienerwald, reinforced by the unforgettable Anton Karas film score for The Third Man, helped create the zither's reputation as just a schmalz instrument, as did the many old tyme pieces (like the venerable Ein Abend am Traunsee [An Evening on Lake Traun]). Played too often and overdone, this kind of music becomes as boring as any others; but as part of the full range of music possible on the zither it continues to please players and listeners, and fortunately it is not disappearing as the zither realizes its full potential in other classical and modern types of music.]

[v]. [Like the American hammer dulcimer]

[vi]. Author's note: Cf. Karl Magnus Klier, Volkstümliche Musikinstrumente in den Alpen. Kassel and Basel 1956, p.84-93, and Leopold Schmidt, Volksmusik. Salzburg, 1974, pp33-39 and illustrations 28-31.

[vii]. [The Kratzzither ["scratch zither"] resembles the Appalachian dulcimer, which normally has two or three strings over frets (usually diatonic) and one or two unfretted strings strummed as drone accompaniment. It is played by sliding a small bar of metal or wood over the fretted strings with the left hand to set the melody while the right hand strokes all of the strings at once, forth and back, with a quill or plectrum. Josef Brandlmeier's Handbuch der Zither (Munich: Süddeutscher Verlag, 1963, page 22) has this to say about the Kratz-, Scher(r)-, Zweckl-, and Raffelzithers:

        The Scher(r)zithers and the Zwecklzithers still extant a hundred years ago in the Allgäu and Vorarlberg respectively (Alemannic areas bordering on Old Bavaria and the Tirol) were also Kratzzithers, which have evidently survived longer on the edge of the area under Bajuwarian influence. The name Scherrzither derives from the word scheren [to shear], while the Zwecklzither is so-called from the Zweckl (=Holzstäbchen [little wooden bar]) used to play it.

        Closely related to the Kratzzither as regards historical development is the ... Raffel, also called Raffele or Raffelzither.... The fingerboard of today's Raffelzither, with its five strings, corresponds exactly to that of the standard zither. It is played with a plectrum of wood or horn, rests on the player's knees, and is secured in its position by a pedal on a leather strap. The left hand sets tones as on the zither, while the right strokes with a plectrum as on the mandolin.]

[vii]. [The Raffelzither in its presentday more developed form can be purchased in some of the areas where it was once popular.]

[viii]. Author's note: Cf. Kurt Birsak, Notes to the Folk Instruments in the Salzburg Museum Carolino Augusteum, especially regarding the arrangement of frets on the Alpine zither. In Die Volksmusik im Lande Salzburg, Wien, 1979, pp199-217

[ix]. [Peter Rosegger (1843-1918) was an Austrian folk poet. He came from a farm family in the Steiermark (Styria), had no formal schooling, and began his working life early as a tailor's apprentice. He soon went to seek his fortune in Graz, the nearest city of consequence, where he attended business college and got his first writing job on a local newspaper, the Tagespost. His first collection of poems, in dialect and entitled Zither und Hackbrett, was published in Graz in 1869. He later wrote several novels dealing with the unfavorable impact of urban life on rural, siding with the latter, and in 1876 founded the monthly folk magazine Heimgarten, continued by his son after 1910. His collected works, published 1913-1916, ran to forty volumes, with a second edition 1922-24.]

[x] Author's footnote: Peter Rosegger, Neue Waldgeschichten. Wilde Musikanten. Eighth edition, Wien, Pest, Leipzig, 1896, pp306-307.

[xi]. ["Zither(n)schlagen", meaning literally "to strike the zither", is merely another way of saying "to play the zither", as one might say in English "strike the harp" or "strike up the band". As "schlagen" can also mean hit, beat, beat on, etc., the writer is playing on words to indicate that their technique was not very refined.]

[xii]. Author's note: Cf.August V. Nikl, Die Zither. Ihre historische Entwicklung bis zur Gegenwart. Wien, 1927

[xiii]. [Both of these were autoharps, or chord zithers. They still exist today and are in fact quite popular in such areas as the southern Appalachians. Other than being a neckless sounding box with strings, they have virtually nothing in common with the true zither. There is no fingerboard. They are held in the arms in a more or less vertical position. The upper strings are chromatic and are strummed with the right hand, all of them, harplike, to accompany singing or other instruments. The more developed versions have lower strings and bass strings, so placed as to allow tuning in chords, which are set to the desired key and are struck with the left hand, either directly or by means of typewriter-like keys. Other hybrid offshoots are seen occasionally, for example the Waldzither (forest zither) I encountered a few years ago in Wuppertal, Germany.] Styrian Alpine Singers with violin, zither, and guitar. Copper etching from Vienna 1829

[xiv]. [This is a worthy reminder not to forget the zither's folk origins. Once discovered by a few aristocrats, the zither went quickly from a folk instrument to a hobby of the upper classes. Although it came to be thought of as a schmalz instrument, as Dr.Haid has related, it developed technically, and the highly refined concert zither is now recognized as a "serious" instrument, its tonal range exceeded only by that of the piano, and the only instrument outside the keyboard family on which melody and full accompaniment can both be played on one instrument by one player. Just as the zither was revived among the common folk after its adoption by high society, so its folk side should be maintained now that it is accepted as a classical instrument.]