WHAT IS A ZITHER ?
WHAT IS A ZITHER ?
Stringed instruments are part of ancestral music and have been improved constantly over time. They fall into two main categories: frames and boxes. The frames include the harps and the lyres; the boxes include all other instrument: violins, guitars, pianos etc…and zithers. Plucking a string is one of the easiest ways to produce a pitch : we stretch a string tightly between two ends and depending on its length, the sound will be higher or lower. With this concept in mind, many instruments were created for different types of music and we find cultural stringed-instruments all over the globe.
By definition, Zithers consist of a sound box with many strings parallel to it. The strings do not extend beyond the edge of the sound box (as in a guitar, for example). The shape of zithers varies as well as the number and tuning of the strings, and the way they are played: some are plucked, some bowed and some hammered. Some are held on one's lap, some held against the body and some played on a table.
The zither is similar to a harp in sound but is played differently...
During medieval times, some stringed instruments from the Middle East were introduced into Europe, via Turkey. These instruments were adapted and became known as “Psalteries”. They were very popular: both in the court and in the church. Psalteries can be seen depicted on paintings, played by kings, troubadours or angels. They come in a variety of shapes. They are still played in some countries, especially in France where a monastery specializes in "psaltérions".
EMERGENCE OF THE CHORD-ZITHER
It is from the psaltery that a number of other instruments evolved in Germany: one is the concert-zither which has a fretboard (made famous by "The Third Man's Theme") and another is the hammered dulcimer, still used extensively in folk ensembles in Germany & North America. Then, two instruments appeared during the late 1800’s: the Autoharp and the Chord-Zither.
These new instruments gave more room to play chords which are mainly used in western popular music.
Every country has a zither-like instrument. Middle Eastern countries have the Qanoon, Chinese have the Gu Zheng , Indians have the Santoor, Latvians have the Kokle, Hungarians have Cymbalom, Ukranians have Bundoura… to name only a few! These ethnic instruments are adapted to the folklore of their home country and add to the richness of their popular culture.
EMERGENCE OF CHORD-ZITHER
Both the Autoharp and the Chord -Zither were designed not so much for the elite, but for the common people. The chords could be strummed easily and anyone could have the pleasure of making music in their own home. They were also instruments that lent themselves to mass manufacture, due to their simple constructions. They were first made by German settlers in North America around 1870, and then in Europe. They were exported to the rest of the world at that time, including Australia and New Zealand.
AUTOHARPS AND CHORD-ZITHERS
AN INSTRUMENT WITH MANY NAMES
The very first instruments made in America were called "Columbia Zithers" and “Guitar-Zithers”. These generally had single strings. Double stringed instruments were made later and were called "Mandolin Guitars" (mandolins have double strings). However, different names were often given to a new model or if it was made by another company, just for commercial purposes. Some Chord-Zithers also bear the label "AutoHarp" or "Concert Zither", which is confusing since these two are completely different instruments. Even though the name "Chord Zither" is not commonly used except in textbooks and by some German manufacturers (Akkord-Zither), it is the name which best describes the instrument, causing the least confusion.
THE CHORD-ZITHER IN AUSTRALIA
Chord zithers were first imported from the US during the late 1890’s. They continued to be popular throughout the early 1900’s, often being sold door to door. A common model was the brown and gold 4-chord American “Mandolin Guitar” sold around 1920. During the great depression, people who could not afford a piano would buy a chord-zither. Consequently, it became known as the “poor man’s piano”. Another very popular model which came out during the 1930’s was the German-made “Guitar Mandolin Banjo”. The label inside the instrument tells us that it was sold by the Austral School of Music – Melbourne – Sydney – Auckland. It was sold door to door throughout the country.
The following scenario describes a typical scene in those days:
A travelling salesman - who was often a university student or somebody with an ear for music - would tune up the instrument around the corner before calling into a house. The housewife would open the door... He would then play a tune or two and demonstrate how one could learn by just following numbers. Upon hearing the beautiful sound of the instrument, the housewife would commit to purchasing it. She only had to pay a deposit and the rest would be paid by instalments. The cost included a correspondence course. The first song was “Nearer my God to Thee” and a new song would come in the mail every week. People living in the metropolitan area would be entitled to a series of free lessons. In Melbourne, these were held in booths upstairs from a music shop in Elizabeth Street.
Students would reach by tram, carrying their instrument under the arm…
Guitar Mandolin Banjo 1930
The decline in the popularity of the chord-zither is due to the following factors:
> The original tuning is old fashioned and needs updating. The type of music traditionally played on the chord-zither also became outdated. (see Etienne's tuning here)
> The instrument was difficult to keep in tune, especially in Australia’s weather conditions. Nowadays, we have electronic tuners (which didn't exist back then).
> Chord-zithers were still found in music shops in Australia until the late 1980’s. They were imported from East Germany and became unavailable after German reunification in 1989. Nowadays one has to buy a 2nd hand instrument or buy online.