My name is Cary Karp and I retired a while ago from a career in the museum sector that lasted forty-five years. During its course I acquired a fair amount of experience in the conservation and documentation of utilitarian objects. This began with musical instruments, which is my primary area of both practical and academic training, but then expanded. When my time became fully my own, I began acquiring hands-on skill with various craft techniques based on looping. Significant effort also went into ferreting out contextual information about their origin and use, as had long been the case with musical instruments. I'm currently investigating historical details in both fields that strike me as unclear. The purpose of this blog is to share information I’ve come across along the way, and to raise questions that may be worth further investigation.
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.
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.
Recent posts have examined the structural and musical attributes of a variety of zithers. They include a few that were derived from the concert zither but little has been said about the parent instrument. It originated through a fusion of Alpine designs and is still used in traditional contexts.
The melody is played with the thumb alone, which nearly always plucks the strings from the same direction. The speed this can attain is seen in a classical work arranged for the same basic ensemble. The use of the left hand to “hammer on” notes seen at the outset of the performance will be discussed further below.
In contrast to the single strings of the concert zither, the hammered dulcimer next to it in the first video has multi-string courses. It is sometimes played by plucking the strings directly with the fingertips (fueling debate about formal nomenclature and classification). This is the basic technique of another member of the zither family seen in previous posts; the qanun. It also has multi-string courses and the index fingers wear fingerpicks. The important thing to note in the following demonstration is the single targeting of the top string in a course.
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.
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 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.
The word “crochet” designates both a tool with a hooked tip and a family of looped structures made with that tool. It additionally names the craft of producing fabric consisting of those structures, the fabric itself, and the objects into which it is worked. Each sense of the term has its own history and its appearance in an older text does not in itself indicate either a technique or a craft, even if the topic clearly relates to fabric production. Care is therefore needed to avoid conflating usage at one time and place with that of another.
The modern form of the craft can be traced back to the early 1800s and is commonly referred to simply as crochet. It didn’t initially span the full range of structural detail and techniques that were to develop (with a few also dropped along the way) but the aggregate has borne the name in English-language publication since the late 1830s. Nonetheless, its most basic structures — chains and the slip stitch — are verifiably older. Their position on the timeline of hook-based loopcraft has been indicated in various ways.
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.
I am pleased to announce the publication of the article “Three objects catalogued as vantsöm in the collections of the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, Switzerland,” in the Archaeological Textiles Review No. 64 (2022).
It was coauthored with my friend Anne Marie Decker after a joint visit to the museum to examine the described material. Anne has made a corresponding announcement of the publication on her own blog, Nalbound. The complete ATR volume in which the article appears is freely available for downloading here, and this blog’s document repository includes an offprint. Here is the abstract:
The looped structure termed a slip stitch in the craft glossary of crochet can be produced both with a hook and an eyed needle. These implements are not equally amenable to working that structure into complex constructs such as the toe and heel of a sock. This article describes the examination of three objects that have been misidentified as nalbinding. Two of them are certain to have been crocheted and the third is highly likely also to represent that technique. The provenance of the objects is recorded as “Coptic Egyptian” on anecdotal evidence and without ascription of specific dates. If scientific dating were to establish that any of them approaches even the youngest age this might imply, the accepted date for the advent of crochet would require major revision.
An earlier post examined evidence of the fife and flageolet interchangeably occupying the same niche in the accompaniment of dance in late-16th-century France. The fife was otherwise more clearly associated with military music, leading to a question about whether it had a more prominent role in civilian contexts than is generally recognized. Evidence of that being the case toward the end of the 18th century is provided by published compilations of Irish and Scottish dance tunes that explicitly list the fife as one of the instruments to which they are suited.
An etching from the mid-19th century presented below illustrates a fife in a manner that bolsters the notion of it having filled the musical role now commonly played by the tin whistle. (The flute is named as a separate instrument in the referenced compilations.) Of perhaps greater interest, it also depicts bagpipes of a type that is widely believed to have fallen out of use before the artist was even born.
This post continues the discussion of ornamentation in Irish traditional music (ITM) from the preceding one. It begins with an elaborate characteristic device — the “Irish roll” — and instrument-specific variation in its performance. There are differences between, for example, the way a flute player conceptualizes and executes a roll, and a fiddler’s perspective on it. There is also a diversity of approaches among performers on the same instrument, as with any other aspect of individual style.
The musicologist in me has been trying to find a uniform descriptive model that accommodates the full range of approaches to the ornament’s execution. This is not simply an intellectual exercise but is intended to assist the autoharper in me, who in parallel has been looking for ways to play idiomatic rolls on that instrument. It has never been anywhere near the ITM mainstream in that genre’s home country, at least for melodic use, so the present endeavor can only reflect an extrapolation from the practice on other instruments.
The following text is illustrated with links to recorded performances and staff notation. The reel The Raveled Hank of Yarn is used in exemplification throughout. Jimmy O’Brien Moran plays it on the uilleann pipes here. This is how it would typically be notated in a compilation of Irish tunes intended for general use.