The German musical instrument manufacturer, Theodor Meinhold (1846–1913), played a significant role in the popularization of the autoharp in Europe. One of his contributions was a form of sheet music that is positioned underneath the strings (adapting a scheme presented in a US patent issued shortly before his own German patent). It graphically maps the movement of the right hand from string to string when playing a melody and numerically indicates the chord bars to be held down by the left hand for accompaniment.
Meinhold obtained German Imperial Patent No. 63702 for it in October 1891, illustrating the device schematically to permit its use with “zithers of the most differing constructions.” It includes a mechanism “for sounding accompaniment chords [through which] the playing of certain melodies is extraordinarily eased.” This accompaniment device is seen under the word “Bass” in the following illustration and was co-opted from another US patent that presented a simplified alternative to the chord bars on an autoharp. (I’ll discuss the two earlier documents in a separate post.)
This was an extension to German Imperial Patent No. 60200 that Meinhold obtained a few months earlier for charts placed above the strings. The two patents were licensed in tandem to other manufacturers and underlay charts are still in production and commonplace use for chord zithers (aka guitar zithers).
Meinhold focused on the adaptation of the underlay charts to the autoharp, himself. The specimen shown in the preceding illustration is for “Die letzte Rose” and he retained it as “Die letzte Rose (The last rose of summer)” on the cover of the fourth edition of his bilingual tutorial guide.
This book appeared in dozens of editions (which normally meant printings rather than revisions) with essentially unaltered contents but sometimes updating the illustration of the instrument to match a more recent model. The first edition would have appeared between the patent date and the one of a handwritten annotation on a list of available underlay sheets.
The same list has a detailed illustration of an autoharp with an underlay chart for “O Tannenbaum (Maryland, my Maryland).”
The city name Helsingborg and the Swedish word for Christmas present — Julklapp — are certain indications of its provenance. This is corroborated by Swedish language lyrics appearing on printed underlay charts found in the same package, which also bear the name of their producer, “Fredrik Eggelings Musikhandel i Lund” (musikhandel = music store). Additional charts were notated by hand on the backs of cardboard mounting sheets for photographic negatives imprinted with “J. Hammarlund. — Fr. Helsingborg” who was presumably the giver of the present and had acquired it from Eggeling. Its recipient marked some of the homemade charts “Eva H” but also indicated that it stood both for Eva Hammarlund and Eva Hallgren.
Quite appropriately, the printed charts include the song O Holy Night with Swedish lyrics. I’m presenting it in the same Yuletide spirit to the readers of this blog (who are likely to be wondering what on earth any of this has to do with loopcraft or, alternately, what a new blog about autoharps is supposed to be good for. The underlying thought is explained in the preceding post and it is possible to subscribe selectively to RSS feeds for what are hereby this blog’s two main topics.)
With the exception of the patent, the material seen above was found together with a Meinhold Preciosa model autoharp in a cardboard box that may well be the one it came in from the factory (and is now in my possession). It contains a few additional accessories that will be described below. Other than some of the charts and the strings, the items in the box were plausibly all there when it left Eggelings’s store. In any case, the printed and the handcrafted charts all fit perfectly into position on the instrument. (The strings now on it are wrapped around the tuning pins in the opposite direction to the one shown in Meinhold’s drawings, suggesting that they had been replaced during its active lifespan.)
In current parlance, this would be described as a 25-string, six-bar, single-key diatonic autoharp in G Major, single strung throughout. (This is an archetypal configuration but partial double stringing is now customary on diatonically tuned instruments.) The bars produce CM, D7, GM, Em, Am, and Bm chords. In addition to being labelled as such, each bar is marked with a capital letter that indicates its position in the bar housing and a numeric identifier that matches the one notated on the charts. A major chord is indicated with an Arabic numeral and a minor chord with a Roman one.
A chart makes no intrinsic reference to a key. The index mark on it is matched to a reference point on the autoharp positioned over a string sounding the root of the key to which the instrument is tuned. If the bar has a device for shifting the position of some of the damper pads relative to the others, the key of the instrument can be changed and there will be a separate alignment point on it for each.
The six-bar instrument illustrated on the advertising sheet is strung and barred for F major. The one shown on the cover of the instruction book has five bars but two of them have shiftable pads, making it a two-key diatonic autoharp in CM and FM. The two alignment markers are also positioned for these keys. It is not entirely clear how the labeling of the bars is to be read. (This extends beyond “A♯ Major-Dur” being used in both illustrations to avoid the ambiguity of “B” meaning “B♮” in English but “B♭” in German.) However, the underlay chart is drawn correctly and clarifies the configuration of the instrument.
The alignment markers on the Preciosa are both for C strings, set an octave apart. The two index marks on the chart for O Holy Night indicate what correspond to page turns. The leftmost mark is aligned first and when the end of the charted segment is reached, the sheet is realigned to the next mark (reflecting the arrangement in the initial patent drawing).
The three different ways of labeling the bars are intended to permit their use with systems of notation other than underlay charts. The instruction booklet makes that point expressly and includes nineteen songs in conventional staff notation with subscripted string and bar numbers. They are in the keys of CM, GM, and BbM, which are not all available on the instrument shown on the book’s cover. However, each song is normalized to the key of the instrument by the string and bar numbers.
The notated key was apparently selected to avoid leger lines (a convention in the typesetting of music that dates back to its outset) rather than being the key in which the piece was to be played. The transposition would not have been noticed by someone relying totally on the numerical notation but it is interesting to speculate about how it was regarded by someone playing from the staff notation.
The Christmas package also includes an eight-note pitch pipe that gives G4=448Hz, with the other notes tuned to the same level. This is just over a whole tone higher than the current A440 pitch standard, itself slightly above what was then prevalent in Sweden. If an instrument tuned to it was played together with other instruments, the nominal key of a piece in the instruction book would be overridden by the consensually determined key used by the group. If a fixed-pitch instrument such as a piano were part of it, the autoharp would in any case need to be tuned directly to it.
The package additionally contains a wire music support for insertion into the body of the autoharp. The holes for it show considerable wear, suggesting that Eva read English and German songs from the booklet and Swedish ones from the underlay charts. There is no way to determine whether she played from the numerical or staff notation in the booklet, but anyone able to play Rule Britannia melodically as presented in it would certainly count as a skilled autoharpist.
There would be no reason for indicating the string number for each note if the sole intention was for the autoharp to accompany a vocal rendition. The instructions say that, “The picking can be done by means of the Thumb, a Ring, a small wooden Stave or with a small oval plate of horn.” The ring (abbreviating “zither ring”) is what autoharpists now call a thumb pick and was made in either metal or tortoiseshell at the time. One of each type is also in the package.
Seen in isolation, the graphic device on the soundboard of the Preciosa might suggest that it was made from a design patented by Meinhold, but not necessarily in his own factory. However, his trademarked label is affixed to the inside of the instrument opposite the soundhole. It tells an interesting story of its own about autoharps and their relationship to chord zithers is considered in detail in the next post.