Musical Instruments

Chord Zither Competition

The English term “chord zither” is a general designation for a zither with a string arrangement that permits the easy production of chords. Instruments doing this with a mechanical device are often categorized by the type of device and named individually, typically as labeled in a patent. The “autoharp” is a well-known example. It is also referred to as such in German-language discourse. However, in Germany itself the instrument was initially called an Akkordzither — chord zither.

That name came to be applied more specifically to the “Guitar Zither” for which Frederick Menzenhauer was issued US Patent no. 520651 on 29 May 1894, from an application filed on 20 April 1893. This was nearly a decade after the emergence of the autoharp. In addition to his headquarters in the US, he maintained a business presence in Germany, marketing the new instrument there from the outset as an “amerikanische Guitarenzither.”

Menzenhauer registered the design for his Guitarre-Zither in Germany on 5 January 1897 (DRGM68664). It was also referred to colloquially as an Akkordzither, sharing that label with the autoharp. The alternate designation “Menzenhauer Guitar Zither” was ultimately taken into use for marketing both in the US and internationally. Here is a photo of an exemplar that found its way to Sweden.

Photo: Scenkonstmuseet, inv. no. M1974

This design and Menzenhauer’s business operation are discussed in greater detail in an earlier post. The following text takes a similar look at a chord zither widely associated with Scandinavia, now commonly referred to as a harpeleik zither. Leik is a general colloquial designation for a musical instrument and harpeleik (aka harpolek) would be better translated as “harp zither.” Its immediate precursor appeared in Swedish patent no. 8039 issued on 31 October 1896 to Adolf Larsson for a “Device for Zithers” (Anordning vid cittror). The patent drawing is this post’s banner image and here is a photo of an instrument made by the inventor according to that specification.

Scenkonstmuseet inv. no. X5837
Photo: Sofi Sykfont

The fretboard and profile of this design appear to have been taken directly from the Alpine concert zither — the instrument behind the wave of inventive activity toward the end of the 19th century that spawned all the instruments under present consideration. Here is an illustration of it from the second edition of the Theoretisch Praktische Zitherschule (Theoretical Practical Zither School) by Nikolaus Weigl, published in Munich in 1844 (online here).

The additional devices seen at either end of the strings in Larsson’s design are not mentioned in his patent text. However, he does explain them in a personal account following remarks about the autoharp.

However, I could not tolerate the rasping side noise that occurs when playing a Bar-Zither [autoharp] and kept experimenting. A large zither was made with the strings tuned to a C‑chord in a group, with a so-called fretboard underneath. I was able to produce the different major chords by pressing the strings against it, with levers attached to so-called capodasters. Since this device could not produce minor and seventh chords, another zither was made with 5 string-chord-groups equipped with mechanisms for minor and seventh chords.

Despite the peculiar silence in this patent about the pitch-shifting mechanisms, Larsson went on to refine the one at the lower end of the strings and subsequently patented it separately. He also produced what were to become the iconic models without a fretboard, instead adding more chords to an ever wider body. He called an instrument of this general design a praktikcittra (praxis zither).

Photo: Scenkonstmuseet, inv. no. X5581

The personal commentary cited above notes several transactions with other makers (including at least one legal dispute) about the rights to his patent and the extent of his personal involvement in the manufacture of instruments bearing it. One such exchange regarded instruments labeled with the name of a music store in Osby, Sweden, Undomsstjärnans förlag (The Star of Youth Publishers), illustrated here with a particularly large instrument.

Despite the variation in the instrument’s appointment and adjunct mechanical devices, Larsson only made one specific claim in the initial Swedish patent.

The arrangement on zithers, that strings are ordered in groups of which each includes those strings that are required to produce a certain chord.

Menzenhauer made the same claim in his three-year-older US patent.

A musical instrument or guitar-zither, provided with an open scale of leading-strings at one side of the sounding-board, and a number of groups of strings arranged at the other side of the sounding-board, the strings of each group being tuned to the intervals of separate harmonic chords for the leading strings.

Alwin Eichler also claimed this innovation in German patent no. 101661 for a Zither mit Saitenanordnung in Akkkordgruppen (Zither with strings arranged in chord groups), which entered into effect on 3 September 1897. He filed a substantively identical application for a UK patent for “A New and Improved Zither or the like” on 1 November 1898, issued as no. 22999 in that year’s series.

This invention consists in a zither like instrument in which the strings are arranged only in harmonious groups each of the groups comprising soprano and bass strings. By this arrangement the playing of the instrument is essentially simplified and is possible without the use of dampers which are indispensable when the strings are arranged in chromatic succession. … The pins s s on the left hand edge of the instrument serve for fastening the music sheets.

The music sheets are included in the German patent drawing and instantiate the graphic tablature for “zithers of the most differing constructions” patented by Theodor Meinhold in 1891 and licensed to other instrument makers. Their use on guitar zithers is illustrated in the post linked to above. The corresponding application to autoharps is discussed in another previous post.

The reference to dampers in Eichler’s patent leaves no doubt that his instrument was conceived with the autoharp in mind. He named it the “‘Aeol’ American Harp-Zither” and marketed it in Germany as an Amerikanische Harfen-Zither. This also indicates full awareness of the American guitar zither and competitive positioning against it. The shift in Swedish nomenclature from praxiscittra to harpeleik is likely to be a reflection of the same competition, as was the subsequent addition of a more elaborate “Concert Aeol Zither” to Eichler’s line. This had two obliquely positioned stringbeds, one in a scalar and the other in a chordal arrangement.

As did Menzenhauer, Eichler operated in Germany and the US, with a third facility in England. His Aeol zithers were initially manufactured by the Aeolian Company in New York and here is a music sheet published by his London establishment.

The proximity of the dates of the Eichler and Larsson patents bolsters the question about one possibly having influenced the other. Menzenhauer had clearer priority to the chordal arrangement. Although of obvious historical relevance, the legal consequence of all this was limited. A patent only affords protection in the country where it is issued and international coverage requires multiple national patents. Normally, such applications can only be initiated by the original inventor or their assignee. However, there are manifold instances of laxity in the review of that status, resulting in the issuance of patents particularly vulnerable to challenge in court.

One pertinent example is a Swedish patent for an autoharp issued in 1891 (SE3275; also for an Anordning vid cittror), naming Larsson as its inventor. The drawing and description of the instrument are congruent with earlier patents issued in Germany and the UK (and intervening copycat patents elsewhere in Europe). This similarity cannot possibly have been coincidental. (Details about it are included in my recent article on the history of the autoharp, with access information here.)

At the very least, this demonstrates that Larsson kept an eye on zither-related patent activity abroad. Other relevant details can be gleaned from his personal archive. The material in it cited here was collated by Margareta Höglund in an article titled Zittra-Lasse, Kolmottagaren som skapade akkordzittran (Zither-Lasse, the coal handler who created the chord zither), in the bulletin Smålåtar (Small Tunes), no. 3, 1998, online in a later reprint here.

She notes that “according to a handwritten annotation on the [sealed Letter of] Patent he already sold the rights to its use to a Herr Alvin Eichler in Berlin in 1898.” Larsson’s subsequent production clearly indicates that this was not an exclusive arrangement. However, a second document states that he had been embroiled in a patent dispute in Germany, decided in his favor with a considerable financial award. On the basis of what I currently know about this (intending to delve further), the two references can have been to the same event. Otherwise, Menzenhauer or the operator of his German business, Oscar Schmidt, are reasonable candidates for having been on the other side of the litigation.

Larsson appears to have ceded concern with the melodic potential of his chord zither to Eichler, whatever the terms of their transaction may actually have been. The Swedish harp zither remains in production and is regularly encountered in the musical contexts for which it was designed. One such is shown here with Margareta Höglund playing a portable model built into a folding case.

The instrument’s chordal string array can also be harnessed for intricate self-accompanied melody well beyond Eichler’s intention, as Ulf Östeby demonstrates here. (This is worth watching all the way through, the Swedish dialog notwithstanding).

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