Musical Instruments

Zithers gain leverage

Toward the end of the 19th century mechanical devices began to proliferate on zithers. Most of them were short lived, if marketed at all, but a few came into persistent use. One of their purposes was to enable a sequence of strings tuned diatonically to a given key to be shifted into others. Although this can obviously be effected simply by retuning the strings, for example, altering a G major scale to D major by raising all C strings to C♯, rapid changes require a more nimble auxiliary device.

Corresponding mechanisms were applied to chordal string arrangements, altering a block of strings from one type of chord to another. This was illustrated in the preceding post with a Swedish harp zither patented in 1886 by Adolf Larsson, equipped with a mechanism for shifting each supported major chord to the parallel minor or a seventh. This post’s banner image comes from a German patent (no. 266371) for an improvement on that device, issued to Larsson in 1913. A more recent two-position design is demonstrated here.

Semitone levers on an instrument with strings in a continuous diatonic sequence were illustrated in another earlier post, as also demonstrated on a contemporary Lithuanian kanklės, here. Similar devices came into microtonal use on its southerly cousin the qanun. One of what thereby became its two major designs employs the quarter-tone levers explained here and the other has twelve levers per string course, seen here.

The three preceding videos are all worth watching in their entirety. The first of them shows a further important technique discussed in the earlier post that merits reprising. The performer facing the camera in the kanklės ensemble playing Highway to Hell uses the fingers on one hand as dampers for blocking out chords while strumming them with the other hand, seen here. This further illustrates how that technique carried into modern performance, in addition to the corresponding demos on the Latvian kokle and Russian gusli in the other post.

Block chording is also seen on the qanun here. I had previously believed it to be specific to the Baltic and Russian instruments. This led to a surmise that there might have been a European path toward its mechanization on the autoharp. The subsequent realization that the same type of chording is encountered in more distant venues doesn’t change this. However, it does increase the possibility of other sources and routing of impetus to the development of damping bars — assuming that the underlying principle wasn’t harnessed independently in more than one of the contexts where it is found.

The pitch-shifting devices shorten the string by bringing it into contact with a fret or change its tension with a cam. The same effect was attained on harps no later than the mid-17th century with a swiveling hook or small plate positioned near each tuning pin, shortening the vibrating length of the string when turned toward it. As the concert harp developed, means were devised for operating all of the hooks for a given pitch class in tandem (all Cs, all Ds, etc.). Each was connected to one of seven pedals thereby freeing the hands entirely from need to manipulate a shifting device.

The French harpe à crochet was an early such design. Given the foundational significance of the crochet to this blog, I’m going to digress a second time with a quick look at a specimen implementation shown in a book from 1821 by Pierre Erard about the alternative devices used on pedal harps. The crochet is labeled ‘A’ in the drawing at the right, showing how it deflects the string against the fret, with a cross section of the elaborate mechanism enclosed in the instrument’s neck that connects the crochets to the pedals.

This spurred zither makers to begin experimenting both with levers and pedals. The latter made their way to the autoharp in a design by Hermann Lindemann, illustrated in his German patent no. 40312 that entered into effect on 17 January 1886. It was for an “Advancement on the mechanism for damping individual strings on string instruments; Supplement to Patent No. 29930” (Neuerung an der Einrichtung zum Dämpfen einzelner Saiten bei Saiteninstrumenten, Zusatz zum Patent No. 29930).

The rod across the strings just above the sound hole is the axis of a damper bar described in the two-year earlier German patent no. 29930, improved as claimed in this one. The bars below it are of the now standard type but also shift lengthwise between two positions. The device adjacent to the lower string support is a fretted slat underneath the stringbed, with small buttons above it. Each button is connected to a pedal that moves it toward the underlying string and pulls it onto a fret.

Bars functioning as do the ones in the middle figure in a spate of competing designs, the first of which had appeared before Lindemann filed the application for this patent. His retrospective linking of it to the well-known one issued jointly to him and Karl August Gütter in 1884 was an attempt at gaining sole priority over that patent, as well as anything else that might be regarded as an autoharp. (This story is told in full academic detail in a journal article presented here.)

The pedal device is Lindemann’s own innovative contribution to the development of the instrument but may have been included in the patent simply to highlight that involvement. I don’t know of this or any other any pedal design ever having gained traction on an autoharp. However, damping bars are referred to as “pedals” in subsequent patents and other documents. This suggests either that the term had a semantic nuance related to damping that I have not fully understood or that pedals did in fact play some further role in the instrument’s development.

Means for shifting all strings in the same pitch class with a single action came to the zither nonetheless. One design in contemporary use employs levers rather than pedals. In parallel to the modern concert harp, each lever effects two discrete semitone shifts, allowing a given string to be placed in flat, natural, and sharp positions. The locus for this development again appears to be Baltic and the device is demonstrated on a Finnish kantele here.

A speculative consideration of the potential utility of adapting levers to the autoharp might begin by noting that the instrument engages the player’s hands in a way that would severely limit on-the-fly use of any lever mechanism. To the extent that the autoharp is a chord zither, no such agility would be necessary. As seen in the first of the video demos above, levers can be put to good use configuring the instrument prior to the outset of play and left untouched during its course.

This would permit a single-key diatonic instrument to be shifted into an adjacent key without requiring any out-of-key strings or lock bars. Retaining the example at the outset of this post, a G-diatonic autoharp would become a D-diatonic by engaging a semitone lever on each of the C strings. The potential benefit of that flexibility would also be carried into melodic use, especially if dynamic lever switching were to prove practicable.

A few ways of permitting double strings to share the same lever can be envisioned on the basis of the designs seen above. Adding this facility to every string or string pair on a single-key diatonic autoharp would extend its capacity to eight keys. The levers would also determine whether the base scale is major or minor. (I haven’t tried to work out a corresponding scheme for the damping bars in this extended arrangement and realize that there may be no viable configuration using 21 or fewer bars.)

The non-metallic strings on the qanun exert less force against the levers than is the case on an otherwise equivalent steel-strung instrument. This allows streamlining for extremely rapid action. The microtonal arrangement also permits vibrato and the short slide effects that pervade the qanun’s ornamental repertoire. Nonetheless, the operation of mechanically more complex levers can also be astonishingly nimble and intensive, as seen in another performance on the kanklės here.

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