Musical Instruments

Matters of course

This blog’s icon is a trademark of the Swedish musical instrument maker John Bertels (1861–1928), who placed it on the autoharps he began producing no later than 1891. His catalog included five models of the “Swedish Original Grand Zither” (Svenska Original Flygelcittra).

The Swedish Original Grand Zither should not be confused with German and American bar- or chord zithers, autoharps, “Preciosa”, “Erato”, “Lipsia”, and others, which are twice as expensive and by far not as easy to learn, practical, and well made.

The first three models closely resembled the named competition but the top two were Bertels’s own design. The exceptionally large Model 5 is the central element of the graphic device.

Photo: Bukowskis

The preceding quote is from a brochure dated 1894 where the instrument is also described.

No. 5. Double-strung so-called Parlor Grand Zither, 95 cm long, 57 cm wide, beautiful, curved shape, fine black finish, extremely elegantly decorated, 76 strings. 24 chords (10 major, 6 minor, and 8 seventh chords), all semitones (chromatic scale), including a patent keyboard and hand rest, wonderfully beautiful tone. kr. 100.—

The bar housing is raised in the preceding photo and shown in playing position in the next one, where the double strings are clearly visible. Each such “course” is separated from its neighbors by wider spaces. Two bars act in tandem for each chord. One has a button at its lower end and is hinged at the upper end. The midpoint of this bar engages with an underlying conventional chord bar that rests on springs at both ends and is lowered via the button bar. The cover of the housing can be raised to alter the instrument’s sound, shown open in the stylized graphic.

Photo: Bukowskis

The resonating zither table also serves as a case with a folding lid, divided in the middle to provide further flexibility in regulating the instrument’s volume. It was sold separately for an additional 40 Swedish crowns. A smaller single-strung chromatic model No. 4 (photos here) has the same compound bar action and cost 45 kr, plus 30 kr for the table/case combo. The remaining models 1–3 have conventional chord bars and are single-strung diatonically as needed for the supported keys.

The brochure cites reviews of Bertels’s instruments from local newspapers. A particularly detailed one appeared in a February 1892 issue of the Gothenburg Evening Newspaper (Göteborgs Aftonblad).

…Mr. B’s instruments are beautifully designed and well made; the sound in them is unusually beautiful, soft and pleasant, while being strong and rich — in the largest (double-strung) variety it is organ like — and that Mr. B’s entire tutorial system is so easy to understand, that no prior musical knowledge or any other aptitude is needed in order to immerse oneself immediately in it.

The gentle learning curve resulted from the tablature sheets seen in the case next to the instrument in the full photo (and below; discussed in detail in an earlier post). The 1894 brochure includes instructions for their use. As characterized such texts from that time, both chordal and melodic techniques are described. Notes in a melody that are muted by the bar for the prevailing chord require the momentary lifting of that bar while they are plucked. Such “open noting” (using one of several current designations) was there from the outset notwithstanding the widely held belief that the autoharp was conceived solely for the easy production of chords.

Other Swedish manufacturers cloned Bertels’s double-strung autoharps and he continued to manufacture them after relocating his factory to Stockholm in 1896. The extent to which any of them reached an export market is unclear. Geographic proximity suggests that the parlor grand can have been known to the designers of the Russian keyboard gusli (discussed in another earlier post; revised and extended significantly since its initial appearance), plausibly having lent impetus to it.

The unmechanized rectangular gusli to which the keyboard was added had its own idiosyncratic stringing scheme. As seen in an instruction book published in 1808, it was strung chromatically with twelve single strings per octave. However, they were not spaced as equidistant semitones. Instead, emulating a keyboard, the seven steps of the base diatonic scale were spaced evenly with the chromatic semitones inserted between them.

This resulted in alternating groups of five and seven strings, separated by gaps. Two octaves are shown in the 1808 drawing but the text states that the range of the instrument could be two or three times larger. The extension of the bass strings to the player’s right is the opposite of the direction typically seen on the instruments of that day and in other documents.

The string spacing was regularized on the variant to which the keyboard was added in the early-20th century, presumably to accommodate evenly spaced dampers. The mechanism was placed at the player’s left with the bass strings extending toward the right, enabling an adaptation of the flat-picking technique of the wing-shaped gusli. That instrument joins the stationary duo in the following performance.

In 1896, a Swedish patent was issued for another zither that interposed larger gaps between blocks of equidistant strings. This design separated chords that occupied the entire stringbed and is now commonly called a harpeleik zither (discussed in detail here). During the 1920s, a distinctive variant emerged in Latvia and became a fixture in traditional ensembles there over the following two decades.

The autoharp in the lower right-hand corner of the video frame is on exhibition in the performance venue with others seen in closer detail in the following photograph. Adjacent text corroborates the domestic manufacture of such instruments at least as early as the 1930s. Those seen here are all strung with double courses.

The autoharp is regarded as a chord zither in Latvia, without melodic capability. It is typically used as a lap-held counterpart to the harpeleik-type instrument. The double strings serve to enhance its sound.

The first of the preceding two videos shows the unmechanized instrument played by musicians in different ensembles. In the next video, one of the performers compares the autoharp with it and other indigenous zithers. He demonstrates a diatonic autoharp in the single key of G major and notes that he had explored an American style of using such instruments melodically.

He found reaching for centrally positioned buttons in an upright playing position to be uncomfortable and never became conversant with the requisite technique, instead designing his own double-strung autoharp. This places a standard array of 21 chord buttons at the treble side of the instrument but connects them to a scale-based sequence of individual dampers as seen on the keyboard gusli in the first of the preceding demos.

Flipping the points of view, an American-style player would take the baseline for the discussion of autoharp configuration to be the chromatic instrument with 36 or 37 evenly spaced strings and up to 21 chord bars. The three-bar instrument would immediately be identified as a “single-key diatonic.” However, on closer look there would be a question about the number of strings and their placement in double- and triple-strung courses.

Such stringing arrangements never found their way into mainstream autoharp design in the US but did become commonplace on a competing type of chord zither that ascended to greater popularity in the early 20th-century. This was the “Guitar-Zither” patented in the US by Frederick Menzenhauer in 1894 (the topic of a previous post from which I’m going to reprise a few details). Here is a drawing of it taken from the UK patent issued to him in 1896.

Menzenhauer’s UK patent

The left half of the stringbed can plausibly have provided a model for the chords-only design patented in Sweden in the same year. However, Menzenhauer’s initial patent was explicitly for “certain new and useful Improvements in Guitar-Zithers” also calling it “my improved guitar-zither.” This raises a question about the nature and origin of the instrument on which the improvements were based.

He derives the “guitar” half of the name from the chords on which “the accompaniment is played in the nature of a guitar.” The “zither” half is taken from the “zither-like … open scale of strings” on which “the tune is played.” He marketed the instrument in Germany as an “American Guitar Zither,” This can be read either to indicate an American origin or as the camouflaging of earlier European roots.

Sorting this out is further complicated by a later variant that replaced the single strings on the zither half with double-strung courses. Such instruments were called mandolin zithers. This was an apt coinage but inverted the initial semantics. The mandolin-style stringing was applied to what was originally the zither half of the instrument, shifting the zither label to the array of chords.

Meinhold’s Autoharp Accord-Zither-Harfe

Players of this type of chord zither opt between its guitar and mandolin variants as best suits the music at hand. The difference is obviously of no consequence in chordal accompaniment but can be quite relevant to the rendition of melody. Performances on both forms are easily found online but are often at staid tempos.

Returning to the Baltic region, the guitar zither has a prominent niche in Estonian traditional music and is well suited to its livelier performance. (This all has a correlate in diatonic autoharps but I’ll leave that for later. Note also the harpeleik zither behind the performer in the wrap-up vid.)

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