Musical Instruments

The Baltic psaltery and the autoharp

In an earlier post, I announced the impending publication of my article “Northern European Contributions to the Development of the Autoharp” in The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 76 (2023). That issue has now been distributed to the organization’s members. Its contents will become available in digital format via JStor at a later date. An abstract of the autoharp article is included with the initial announcement and information about obtaining an offprint has been added to it here.

In the briefest review for readers of this blog who are familiar with previous accounts of the instrument’s history, it is true that when Charles Zimmermann began producing autoharps in the now familiar wing shape, he misrepresented the scope of his US patent for a “Harp” with a mechanical damping mechanism. However, there is no evidence that erodes his claim of having invented chord bars or coining the term “autoharp” as a designation for a zither to which they are applied. He made and exhibited such instruments in a trapezoidal form before contention about the wing-shaped design arose.

The starting point for the article is the wave of activity that began in German-speaking Europe in the 1870s with the intention of rendering the concert zither more amenable to use by players with little or no musical experience. It does not discuss earlier types of zithers or playing techniques that might have inspired those innovations. However, the principle of producing a chord on a zither by damping strings that do not belong to that chord with the fingers of one hand and strumming the open strings with the other, predates any effort toward its mechanization by far.

A block chording technique of this type is a mainstay of performance on various instruments in the sub-group of zithers collectively termed Baltic psalteries. It is used in alternation with a second basic technique where the fingers of both hands pluck individual strings. The two are also mixed, providing these instruments with both chordal and melodic facility. Here are video demonstrations of this on an Estonian kannel, a Finnish kantele, a Latvian kokle, a Lithuanian kanklės, and a Russian gusli.

The definitive physical characteristics of the traditional forms of the instruments seen in these snippets include a fanned array of strings affixed to a rod tailpiece above one end of the soundboard. There is further regional variation in both design and nomenclature. The divergence into clearly differentiated national designs began with a general tendency toward increasing the number of strings, placing them in parallel, and attaching them to individual hitch pins.

The further incorporation of mainstream lutherie techniques, including the adaptation of mechanical devices used to effect semitone shifts on harps, led to the contemporary (aka “concert”) forms. These instruments have formidable virtuoso capabilities, typified in a review of the history of the kantele that also shows block chording, here.

The ancestral chord technique remains central on a modernized form of the gusli that also retains the basic design and playing position of the older instrument, as seen here. It is shown on a far more extensively modified concert kokle here. A separate post about the development of tuning levers and their application to such instruments includes further examples.

There is no way of determining when or where the block chording technique first emerged. A description of it was placed on the ethnographic record in a book by Andrei Famicyn with the translated title Gusli – Russian folk musical instrument. Historical essay [Гусли – Русский народный музыкальный инструмент. Исторический очерк], published in 1890 (original Russian text here).

This was right in the middle of the flurry of innovative activity that spawned the autoharp. The first description of that process appeared in a German trade journal in 1882 and a critical monographic summary from 1896 explicitly singled out the autoharp as the worst of the instruments that it generated. (These accounts are detailed in the GSJ article.) A distinctive Russian variant called a keyboard gusli, appeared a decade or two later.

It might be rather far-fetched to suggest that the participants in the initial development of the bar mechanism were following the Russian academic literature. However, any of them may have seen Baltic psalteries or their kin in performance situations, say, while traveling in those instruments’ native territories or through other interaction with their makers and players. The autoharp, in turn, appears more clearly to have been a factor in the development of the keyboard gusli (detailed here).

This post’s featured image is a photograph of a recently made traditional kantele in the collections of The Swedish Museum of Performing Arts, detailed here.

More information about the origins, use, and morphology of the Baltic psaltery has also been published in The Galpin Society Journal (among other venues). An article by Ilya Tëmkin titled “Evolution of the Baltic psaltery: a case for phyloorganology?” is included in Vol. 57 (2004), pp. 219-230, and can be obtained here.

Finally, I realize that this post may raise a question about the relationship between zithers and psalteries. This extends far beyond the Eurocentric arena that I’ve been focusing on thus far. Suitably global definitions (albeit debatable in detail) were formulated by Anthony Baines, who was the editor of the GSJ when I made my first submission to it in 1971. In the chapter headed “Ancient and Folk Backgrounds” in Musical Instruments through the Ages, published in 1961, he notes:

The term ‘zither’ can well be employed in our present context generically for instruments with strings stretched over a flat or flattish sound-box without a neck. This simple and obvious idea is one that might have occurred independently to many and have manifested itself with differing detail in this place and that, which indeed it has done. Psalteries, for example, are zitherized harps; they might be described as harps in which the frame structure has been replaced by a flat sound-box with the strings passing over two long bridges hitched to pins down one side and to tuning pegs down the other.

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Andris Mucenieks, Dr hist.
21 March 2023 15:39

Hi, I saw you recommended Ilya Tëmkin’s paper for learning more about the origins of the Baltic Psalteries. His use of phyloorganology is pretty flawed when dealing with artifacts like the Baltic Psalteries. Tëmkin himself published more after, admitting that. Haas has a far more nuanced approach to the theme – he inspired Tëmkin, by the way: Haas, Ain 2001. “Intercultural Contact and the Evolution of the Baltic Psaltery”, Journal of Baltic Studies. Vol. 32 (3): 209-250. I published an updated discussion on the origin of the instruments, especially when dealing with the Scandinavian supposed influence, last year, on the last Saga Conference. You may want to take a look on it ( the article and an expanded version of it with pictures and the embed videos used during the conference (