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.
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.
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 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 a fair number of those tunes originated) 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 in that role extended through the 1960s and its most prominent exponent at the time, John Rea, was still recording in the late seventies. He appears in an interview from an unknown date and plays O’Dwyer’s Hornpipehere.
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.
NOTE: The initial version of this post appeared before a publication date had been set. It has now been revised to reflect the actual release.
I am pleased to announce that my article “Northern European Contributions to the Development of the Autoharp” has been published in the The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 76 (2023). As noted in an earlier post, that is where my first research article appeared fully fifty years ago and I contributed to the journal regularly for a long while thereafter. Readers of this blog who are interested in the history of musical instruments but are unfamiliar with that publication will find it worthwhile to visit the website of The Galpin Society.
Here is the abstract of the article:
Several means for simplifying the playing technique of the concert zither were devised during the latter decades of the nineteenth century, some significantly changing its physical design. The autoharp has its roots in that process and was greeted by the zither establishment with particular scepticism. It was a popular success notwithstanding and numerous patented variations on its definitive system of damping bars appeared in rapid succession. There are blurred lines between original invention and plagiarism, and assigning priority for the seminal innovation is itself problematic. The contending instrument makers were Charles Friedrich Zimmermann and Karl August Gütter. Both were born and trained in Germany, but Zimmermann subsequently relocated to the US and became a naturalized citizen. They appear to have tracked each other’s work closely. This article reviews the basis for the uncertainty and attempts to clarify it. The persisting popularity of the autoharp in the US has diverted attention from European involvement in its development. Although Gütter’s initial role has been recognized, his engagement in the instrument’s subsequent development is less well known, as is that of other autoharp makers known only for their production. Swedish contributions are discussed as a case study in the broader northern European participation.
This post takes another look at the often blurry lines separating what are regarded as categorically distinct types of chord zithers. The focus this time is on variant forms of the autoharp that branched off before it had fully acquired its current identity. The baseline is an unmechanized zither with free strings only, tuned to a continuous scale that can be anything from single-key diatonic to fully chromatic.
It becomes an autoharp by the attachment of a battery of movable bars with damping pads — but there’s more to it. Adding that the pads on a given bar have to be arranged to mute the strings that don’t belong to a specified chord still doesn’t cover everything. The lock bars now commonplace on two- and three-key diatonic autoharps mute strings that don’t belong to a specified scale, rather than chord. Systems that produce chords by pressing two bars simultaneously entail further variation, so it is also necessary to distinguish between one type of bar and another.
There are also instruments where the damping action is reversed, muting all strings until a bar is activated. Such arrangements are also scale-oriented, with a bar opening every instance of a given note, and typically present the player with a piano-type keyboard rather than one or more rows of buttons. However, both operate damper bars and the requisite additional qualifier is whether they cause strings to be muted — ‘additive action’ — or unmuted — ‘subtractive action.’
Instruments with additional devices that strike or pluck the strings, sometimes in elaborate hybrid configurations, are aggregated under the apt heading ‘gizmo’ harps. In terms of family relationships, they are cousins of the autoharp and don’t need to be weighed into any precise definition of it. However, plucking mechanisms appear side-by-side with damping mechanisms in early patents for instruments that are presented as autoharps and would otherwise be seen as such. The following closer look at them is intended to inform the discussion of how current notions of design specificity developed.
I’ll wade into it midstream with an illustration taken from a patent for a “Harp” applied for by John St. John on 11 December 1890 and issued as US Patent No. 463368 on 17 November 1891.
One of the most widely known details about the history of the autoharp is that its name first appeared in a US patent issued to Charles Zimmerman in 1882. Seeing one mentioned in an advertisement in the 21 September 1884 issue of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat is therefore unsurprising.
E. W. Muller instructs on piano, guitar, mendiline, zither, auto-harp, singing, etc.: a lodging-room in exchange for instructions.
This also provides a concrete date by which the autoharp had come into circulation, pushing the generally accepted estimate back from 1885. There is a useful clue about the model that Muller owned, in the section headed “Criminal Notes” in the 16 February 1885 edition of the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
Frank Muller was jailed to-day on a charge of stealing an autoharp valued at $50, from Ernest W. Muller.
Assuming that it was made by Zimmermann, $50 is roughly what one might expect him to have charged for a handmade instrument of the design illustrated in his patent. We know that such things existed through a photograph of him playing one, in an article by Ivan Stiles in the Spring 1991 issue of the Autoharp Quarterly, titled “The True History of the Autoharp.” (However, a close look at that photo shows a bar arrangement that may differ from the one in the patent drawing.) Here is the patent illustration, flipped vertically for comparison with the following images.