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 and 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 now 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 Charles Zimmermann misrepresented the scope of his US patent for a “Harp” with a mechanical damping mechanism when he began producing autoharps in the now familiar wing shape. 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 also 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 mechanization by far.

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