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.
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.