As defined in ethnomusicology, zithers are diverse. In my recent post I outlined the various zither types under the Sachs-Hornbostel system: bar, tube, raft, board, trough, frame. Worldwide, plucked zithers are common (note the “Zither” entry in The New Grove dictionary of musical instruments), but bowed zithers seem quite rare. Half-tube board zithers, both plucked and bowed, are distinctive to East Asia.
Anna Þórhallsdóttir playing the langspil. From wiki.
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Turning to a less exotic area of “world music”—and perhaps posing us a certain challenge in “delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse“—the “Alpine” box zither became common around south Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in the 19th century.
Its precursor was the scheitholt, dating back to the 14th century—which might lead us down the path of early north European zithers like the hummel and épinette de Vosges, as well as the Appalachian dulcimer (see this article on the excellent Essential Vermeer site, which I introduce here); and moving further east, the cimbalom family (including the tsymbaly of Hutsuls in Ukraine), as well as a wealth of Baltic psalteries!
From The New Grove dictionary of musical instruments, “Zither” entry.
The Alpine zither is sometimes bowed as well as plucked. Here’s an example:
I’m drawn to the Alpine bowed zither by a personal connection. Rudi Rieber (1934–2004), father of My Brilliant Friend Augusta, taught himself to play the Konzertzither in his youth. He was brought up in Winterlingen in the Swabian Alps south of Tübingen. There, as his daughter explains:
My watchmaker grandfather Wilhelm had a clock-and-silverware shop. One day around 1940 a gypsy woman purchased something there, for which in return she offered to barter her zither. My father Rudi, then 5 or 6 years old, watched her demonstrating how it was to be played, both plucked and with the bow. Later he also taught himself to play the violin, guitar, and mouth-organ.
Left, Rudi Rieber, 1994;
right, Rudi’s grandson Selim, 2000, at the age of 7,
shortly before he followed the path of jazz/rock/pop drumming…
In 1994 Rudi recorded a series of songs for his 60th birthday, inviting his former classmates. His spoken introduction reflects a sense of responsibility towards a tradition under threat. Recalling his childhood after the NSDAP took control of the municipality in 1933, he commented:
We were fortunate to still be taught many of these beautiful songs, and we can be happy that this treasure has been given to us. We are grateful to our teacher H.C. Seeger, who understood how to enrich our entire life—in times when folk-song was under the threat of being misused and replaced. With this recording I am attempting to weave a thread of our tradition from half a century ago down to today.
All this was in tune with the Wandervogel youth movement from 1896. In protest against industrialisation, its ascetic devotees immersed themselves in the countryside, communing with nature; and Volkslied was at the heart of the movement. The Wandervogel groups were outlawed by the Nazis in 1933; so while it’s not immediately audible, we might almost regard the maintenance of this repertoire as a kind of underground preservation.
Augusta’s intrepid explorations of her father’s repertoire reveal how early and regional folk traditions became interlaced with the world of Mozart and Mahler.
The early-19th-century collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn had a pervasive influence on German identity, and on both folk and art cultures. Songs that Rudi played from this repertoire include Jetzt gang I ans Brünnele, a Swabian folk-song documented by the composer Friedrich Silcher (1789–1860):
Es, es, es, und es, es ist ein harter Schluss is a satirical apprentice’s song from the Wanderjahre repertoire (cf. Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen settings). The wiki entry on Es, es, es… details its reception history since the 19th century—this was one song that the Nazis did readily adopt, “apparently apolitical, describing the grievances of the previous century”, its catchy melody suitable for marching.
Among other pieces that Rudi recorded, Wenn alle Brünnlein fließen is a 16th-century antecedent—again apparently Swabian—of Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen from Die Zauberflöte; Mozart also set Komm lieber Mai und mache.
This is the kind of domestic musicking quaintly evoked here:
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Intriguingly, the piano is classified as a zither (Not a Lot of People Know That…)! Further to John Cage’s innovative use of the instrument, Stephen Scott (1944–2021) was a pioneer of the bowed piano. Here’s his Entrada:
Ha! There’s one angle that the ever-inventive Augusta, a fine pianist trained in Paris, still has to explore…
I’ve focused here on bowed zithers—but all right then, I guess we have to play out with the theme from The third man (1949), iconic soundtrack to an iconic film, plucked by Anton Karas:
The opening melody makes another worthy addition to my list of Unpromising chromaticisms (“write a staggeringly popular tune using only the five semitones within the range of a major third, with two chords”):
See also Zithers of Iran and Turkey.
Posted from Kuzguncuk, Istanbul—
with many thanks to Augusta!