Musical Instruments

The keyboard autoharp and gusli

Two recent posts discuss a manual technique for blocking chords on a zither with the fingers on one hand while plucking and strumming the strings with the other. This predates the use of mechanical chording devices on such instruments and can plausibly have inspired their development. I didn’t initially realize how vital that technique still is, or its geographic range, and have reworked both posts.

Rather than suggesting the reader take another look at them, since the same technique figures in the present text, I’ll segue into its discussion with a demonstration on a gusli. This term designates a group of Slavic zithers of differing designs.

Three such instruments are on stage here. The soloist is playing a modernized form of the archetypal wing-shaped gusli. The changed structural details are without consequence for the aspect of its use to which attention is being called. The player’s left hand demonstrates the block chording that may have inspired a mechanized correlate on the autoharp (detailed in the two earlier posts here and here).

The technique both delineates chords when they are actively strummed and controls which strings can vibrate in sympathy. The left-hand fingers also shift in tandem to damp strings that are plucked melodically, further sculpting harmonic resonance. Mechanical means for doing this are at the heart of the keyboard gusli, which is one of the two large rectangular instruments in front of the conductor.

The other is an unmechanized form that can be traced back into the 18th century. It developed along the same lines as the modern Baltic and Finnish concert zithers discussed in the cited posts. It is seen in the next video as typically configured in the mid-19th century.

The full-sized stationary guslis in the first video have smaller counterparts, scaling down to the size of the unmechanized one at the time when the keyboard device was added. Reports about the date of that development vary but it can reliably be set to 1905. A smaller floor-based keyboard gusli is seen in the following video and a lap-held variant will be presented below.

In February 1888, US patent no. 390830 was issued to Ferdinand Wigand for a “Zither” with a piano keyboard and effectively the same action as the keyboard gusli’s. The patent text describes the functionality of the autoharp and was one of numerous entries in a wave of competition over means for increasing the number of chords that instrument can produce. It is uncertain whether this cascaded directly into the keyboard gusli but the chronology and substance of the innovations suggests the earlier one provided at least some inspiration to the latter.

Wigand changed the chordal arrangement of the damping pads in prior autoharp designs to one based on pitch class. That is, the C bar permits all instances of the note C to sound freely, rather than permitting all notes in a C chord to sound. Playing a C major triad requires the simultaneous action of the C, E, and G bars.

His design keeps damping pads in contact with all strings until a bar is actively lifted, and includes a mechanism for raising all bars simultaneously. The previous (and still prevalent) chordal autoharp design permits all strings to sound until a bar is activated. A chromatically tuned twelve-bar instrument with damping pads ordered by pitch class can play in any key.

Wigand also opted for a trapezoidal rather than five-sided body. This allowed the bar housing to be farther to the left of the instrument, thereby increasing the pluckable area of the stringbed for a right-handed player. This was optimized on the keyboard gusli. Presenting the activating component of the device as an octave segment of a piano keyboard also propagated from the 1888 patent into subsequent designs. Here are three drawings from it.

Functionally equivalent but mechanically differing implementations have since appeared at shorter or longer intervals. A representative review is included in US patent no. 2022/0406275 for an “Autoharp Keyboard Mechanism” of this type issued to Ken Ellis as recently as December 2022. There is a useful background narrative and demonstration here.

The year 1888 also saw the founding of the Great Russian Orchestra by Vasily Vasilievich Andreyev. At some point thereafter guslis were included. They and a number of other traditional Slavic instruments were modernized during the group’s establishment. That initiative was led by Andreyev’s associate and successor, the composer Nikolai Petrovich Fomin. His collaborators included the luthier Semyon Ivanovich Nalimov, who devised the modern balalaika and domra in the process.

As already noted, Fomin added the keyboard gusli to the orchestra in 1905. It is unclear when work with it began but one or more piano designers are certain to have contributed to its development. As noted above, it is also safe to assume that at least one of the participants was familiar with the keyboard autoharp. The two stationary instruments are frequently paired in both traditional and classical contexts.

Their mirrored symmetry is a consequence of the keyboard mechanism being placed at the left end of the stringbed, with the bass strings extending to the player’s right rather than left. This permits a right-handed player to hold a pick in their dominant hand, enabling the undulating arpeggiation that is a primary contribution of the keyboard gusli to the various ensembles that include it. This post’s banner image is a graphic representation of how two specimen triads are played, taken from an orchestration manual published in 1962.

The keyboard gusli is widely linked with this capacity for ornate chordal accompaniment. Echoing the initial rationale behind the autoharp, the requisite skill is relatively easy to acquire. Nonetheless, the keyboard gusli is a virtuoso solo instrument in its own right. This was presented on the smaller one in the third of the preceding videos, with a wider range of techniques demonstrated on the full-scale concert instrument immediately above. The following performance displays still more of its capability.

The keyboard housing is significantly larger than the one in Wigand’s patent. However, the effect of the enclosed action is the same. Two basic mechanisms developed. The one just seen has a single row of dampers along the right edge of the housing, with internal detail shown here.

The other action retains the mechanical approach described in the 1888 patent. Its internal design is shown in the next clip. There is no substantive basis for differentiating between it and a keyboard autoharp. If this bar-based action should prove to be the earlier of the two implementations on the gusli, the relationship between it and the earlier patented instrument would become far less a matter of conjecture.

A good amount of savvy engineering went into both alternatives — from the perspective of piano rather than zither design. The scaling of the bass strings is foreshortened to the smallest practicable degree, providing the same audible benefit that makes a grand piano more appropriate than an upright to a concert stage. The metal reinforcement of the wooden frame minimizes concern with distortion due to string tension.

The keyboard action is placed as close to the end of the strings as possible, with oblong dampers extending along their length. The bar-based design adds a second damper to those in the lowest octave. The bars are also in a fanned array that is wider on the bass side.

This approach and the one with a single row of dampers inhibit the undesired but audible harmonics that can beset the sound of an autoharp as a result of dampers touching ostensibly muted strings at nodal points. This phenomenon would surely have been prominent on Wigand’s instrument. Regardless of whether the keyboard gusli was consciously intended to remedy such things, if piano designers were asked to do so, the current implementations would both be plausible outcomes.

There is a striking similarity between the way the right hand plucks the strings with a flatpick while the left hand operates the keys, and how the hands are used on the wing-shaped gusli. The smaller instrument is the more nimble of the two in several obvious regards, not least its melodic facility, and does just fine with serpentine arpeggios and glissandi.

A lap-held keyboard gusli would therefore not add much to the traditional orchestra but such instruments are used in other musical contexts. They are strung and tuned diatonically and only have the seven white keys. The dampers are aligned in a single row as discussed above. A number of diatonic models are seen in the following presentation. The action is exposed and demonstrated beginning at 45’22”.

The instrument in the cardboard box near the presenter’s right hand is a trapezoidal autoharp fitted with ordinary chord bars. He plays it briefly in another video but is clearly unfamiliar with even its most basic technique. It is referred to locally as a keyboard gusli and demonstrated here at the end of a discussion about damping systems based on chords versus pitch class.

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