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The Zithers of Anton Karas

Anton Karas, through his music in the film 'The Third Man', propelled the zither to new heights of popularity around the world. In this article, Dr. Günter Wittenstein details the life and zithers of Anton Karas, whose zither music carried the mood and so brilliantly accented the plot of The Third Man movie.




Since 1949 the zither has been inseparable from the film 'The Third Man'. After being an instrument of strictly regional importance the zither gained international recognition with the 'Harry Lime Theme', played by zither virtuoso Anton Karas (1906 - 1985). Only a few people know about the character of zithers, and even fewer know exactly which zither Karas used to compose and record the now famous film score. Known today as the 'film zither' this historic instrument remained hidden from the public for two decades, but is now on display in Vienna's Third Man Museum.

The Character of Zithers


Photo Courtesy Third Man Museum Vienna ©

The zither belongs to the piano family and is a combination of guitar and harp. The fretboard is played with the left hand and has 5 strings (adgGc = Viennese tuning or aadgc = Munich -or common tuning). The part of the zither resembling a harp has up to 37 open strings which are tuned in the order of the circle of fifths. They are played with the fingers of the right hand whilst the thumb, at the same time, has to strike the strings of the fretboard: a rather difficult undertaking!

The 'Early Zither' of Anton Karas

In 1918 the 12 year old Anton Karas found a concert zither in the attic, which he started to play. He was very much influenced by the zither virtuoso Adolf Schneer. By the age of 17 Karas was already playing for tips in local wine taverns, by this time on a zither made by Anton Kiendl (1816-1871). Kiendl was famous for his zither playing, but received even more credit as a zither manufacturer, indeed he is deemed to be the founder of the 'Viennese Zither School'. This early zither of Anton Karas is about 160 years old and was recently restored by Curt Claus Voigt (Munich), and is thus still playable today. I myself have played it to mark Karas' centenary, on July 7th, 2006, amplified by the original resonance table (made of maple and palisander, with black stained pear wood inlaying, on which are placed the zither's feet). This zither, together with the resonance table, is in the possession of the Karas family.

The 'Film Zither'

After the Second World War, Anton Karas played a larger zither with a 43 scale fretboard. The 5 strings over the fretboard and the 29 accompaniment strings were arranged according to 'Viennese tuning', which Karas favoured over the now commonly used one. The fretboard strings are in chromatically illogical order, also the open strings are placed differently. The accompaniment strings g and f# are tuned one octave higher, whereas the contrabasses eb, f, d, e, c# replace the supposed basses of the circle of fifths. So the contrabasses come closer to the fretboard and can be reached easier. Proponents of the commonly used stringing call this a defect. The Viennese call it an effect!

Karas slightly modified the Viennese tuning and did not replace the Eb bass by an Eb contrabass. An Eb bass can be heard only once in the film during the chromatically played sequence after the sentence "We have better witnesses. Look here..." (g, f#, f, e, eb, d, g#, d). During a conversation with Karas he noted down for me the Viennese tuning on the back of an autographed photograph. This note is now on display in the Third Man Museum, alongside the film zither.

The film zither was tuned half a note lower compared to the now commonly tuned a, giving it the distinction of a beautiful and unique sound. Carol Reed described the sound as "gritty and dirty". Incidentally, the best sound was created on Reed's oak kitchen table, the table on which the film music was composed on. In summer 1949 under Carol Reed's influence, Karas was at the height of his art. He recalled this period with the words "it was so artistic".

During the famous opening sequence of the film 'The Third Man', the soundhole and accompaniment strings of the zither are shown. The movement of the strings, however, is for effect only and does not correspond with the 'Harry Lime Theme' playing in the background.

After the world premiere of the film in 1949, the film zither was restored by the company Franz Nowy (Vienna), during which a soundhole label baring the Nowy logo, and the remark "repaired in 1949", was attached. It is a simple instrument without enclosed tuners for the fretboard strings, the top is mahogany veneered, and the back and the sides are varnished black. In the upper part of the fretboard one can see a stamp indicating the restoration by Nowy. Beneath this mark another stamp is visible inscribed "G. Haid Wien". Georg Haid (1864-1951) was manufacturer of zithers and guitars. He was trained under Johann I. Bucher and had his own factory in Vienna from 1894 onwards. On the outer edge of the top of the zither there are three damages to the intarsia line. Due to Anton Karas' intense and intensive playing the film zither shows heavy signs of usage.


Anton Karas' Film Zither - Photo Courtesy Third Man Museum Vienna ©

Only a few weeks after the film's opening in 1949, Karas was invited to play the film zither at the Senior Empress Club in London to the delight of Princess Margaret and others alike. It was also this zither that accompanied Karas on his early tours: he played it at Buckingham Palace and for Pope Pius XII in Rome. The audience with the Pope was scheduled for 5 minutes, but according to Karas he spent "35 minutes with the man".

Later the film zither was put aside for several decades, on a shelf in Karas' garden house in the back of his wine tavern in Vienna-Sievering. Fortunately, in 2005 Karin Hoefler and Gerhard Strassgschwandtner were able to acquire this legendary instrument for the Third Man Museum.

The 'ANGU-Full Sound Zithers'

Following the great success of the film, the appearance and technical possibilities of the film zither no longer fulfilled Karas' requirements and he was able to afford a custom-made instrument. Using Karas' ideas, Anton Guggenberger, master at Nowy zither factory, built the so-called 'ANGU Full Sound Zither' (ANGU-Vollklangzither), giving it his own name: ANGU stands for ANton GUggenberger. The ANGU zither is wedge-shaped (6 cm high beneath the bass strings, which is double the height at the fretboard). This was to ensure a stronger sound of the contrabasses.


ANGU Zither - Photo Courtesy Third Man Museum Vienna ©

This zither had 5 strings over the fretboard and 26 open strings. The accompaniment string ab next to the fretboard was planned but not attached, also the contrabasses b and bb were missing. Anton Karas played this particular zither with its straight right bridge and black varnished back from at least 1953 onwards (when he opened his own wine tavern "Zum Dritten Mann" in Vienna-Sievering) until two years before his death in 1985. According to his will this zither was put on his coffin to follow him into the grave, although whether the instrument really is there remains a secret!


Photo Courtesy Third Man Museum Vienna ©

Guggenberger also built another similar zither for Karas in the 1950s. The upper part of the right bridge on this instrument is flared to the right, making it possible to attach longer bass strings, which were handmade by Nowy. Karas himself claimed that he had used this zither mainly "for photo shoot", although Nowy told me that he had to maintain this instrument on a regular basis because Karas worked it so hard. It is this zither that is now on display in the Collection of Ancient Musical Instruments in the Neue Burg in Vienna.

Certainly Anton Karas' great love for the zither lasts beyond his death: his tomb stone in Vienna's Sievering Cemetary is in the shape of a zither, inscribed in gold with the opening bars of the 'Harry Lime Theme'.






Our kind regards are extended to Dr. Günter Wittenstein for his permission to publish this article. Photographs used for this article are courtesy of the Third Man Museum Vienna ©. The Third Man Museum is the project of Karin Hoefler and Gerhard Strassgschwandtner. For additional information, visit the Third Man Museum's web site at www.3mpc.net or e-mail contact3mpc@hotmail.com

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