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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