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.

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Musical Instruments

Slurred miscellany

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Musical Instruments

The Baltic psaltery and the autoharp

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.

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Musical Instruments

Fifes and pastoral pipes in 1862

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.

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Musical Instruments

The Autoharp in Irish Traditional Music — Part 2

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.

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Musical Instruments

The Autoharp in Irish Traditional Music — Part 1

My interests in the autoharp and Irish traditional music (ITM) should be apparent from the topics of the most recent dozen or so posts on this blog. I’ve approached them separately as a musicologist specializing in the history of musical instruments. This post marks a shift toward their intersection in performance from the perspective of a musician whose journey started on the autoharp seventy years ago and found his way more deeply into Celtic music a decade later via the Great Highland bagpipes. I’ve since become comfortably conversant with the Irish idiom on the tin whistle and would like to be able to say the same about melodic performance on the autoharp.

Irish dance tunes and airs figure prominently in its repertoire, not least in the US (where some of those tunes also have their roots), but the autoharp does not have an established position among the instruments normally associated with ITM in its home country. The list of those that are has, however, been less static than might be imagined. Some current fixtures became so relatively recently and others have relinquished their positions.

One particularly relevant example of an erstwhile participant is the autoharp’s cousin, the hammered dulcimer. Its heyday extended through the 1960s and its most prominent exponent at that time, John Rea, was still recording in the late seventies. He appears in an interview from an unknown date and plays O’Dwyer’s Hornpipe here.

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Musical Instruments

De Good Autoharp

I’ve taken the summer off from blogging, tending instead to academic commitments and catching up on overdue reading and research. One of the areas I’ve been drawn into is the use of numeric, mnemonic, and letter-based alternatives to staff notation in the teaching of music. This has been a contentious topic in writing on the theory of Western music ever since the emergence of staff notation many centuries ago. The initial primary concern was how best to help unskilled singers gauge the size of intervals in vocal performance. In the late-18th century interest was additionally turned toward the desirability of music being printable using systems that “bring all its characters within the compass of a common fount of printing-types.”

The design of musical instruments expressly intended to bolster the pedagogical process became a focus of innovative activity that can be traced back at least to 1830. This was targeted both to use in schools and supporting members of church congregations in psalmody. Charles Zimmermann developed his autoharp with tutorial intent, incorporating a system for numbering the strings and the corresponding steps of a scale that could be indicated in simplified printed music. He also devised lesser known schemes for the similar notation of music for the button accordion and labeling the piano keyboard.

Zimmermann presented his contributions to the long-standing broader process as singularly inspired and profoundly significant, leaving obviously coopted prior art without mention. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that the variant autoharps that began to appear in the US subsequent to the release of his, were directly inspired by it. One such patent makes direct reference to the established pedagogical aim, noting that “this instrument is designed more particularly for use in church or Sabbath-school music.”

On 10 February 1891, US Patent No. 445978 was issued to Joseph L. De Good, a music teacher residing in Detroit, Michigan who assigned half of it to Lucius A. Randall, a travel agent in the same city who presumably funded the project. The application  was filed on 20 September 1890, for a “Musical Instrument” and specified a device that could be affixed to “a stringed instrument — such as a harp, zither, dulcimer, or the like.”

It claimed two primary inventions. One was an arrangement of twenty-one damper bars in three-bar groups of major, relative minor, and dominant seventh chords rooted in each of the seven steps of a diatonic scale, with the buttons for each chord type placed in the same one of three rows. The other was “means whereby [a bar] may be shifted longitudinally to produce a chord a half-step different from the chord produced when in its initial position.” Here is the patent drawing of the face of the instrument.

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