History of the Zither

ZitherA zither is a stringed instrument that is plucked with a plectrum and could be one of the most ancient musical instruments.

The plectrum is the main distinction between the real zither, or ‘Schlagzither’ and the ‘Streichzither’ which can be played with a bow, and is more or less a hybrid invention.

The zither may be called the national instrument of Bavaria, Styria, and Tyrol, for it was played by all classes, and no inn was without one.

It consists of a flat box which lies on the table, strung with five metal strings passing over the frets, and from twenty-seven to forty strings of various kinds played as open strings plucked with the fingers, to form the accompaniment to the melody which was played with a plectrum, on the strings nearest the performer.

There were many slight varieties in the make of the instrument, and every professor had his own preferences; the form most commonly seen is that shown in the photograph which represents the normal shape of the instrument.

The ‘Concert-Zither’ was longer and more powerful in tone. It had from thirty-six to forty-two strings.

An even longer variety was the ‘Elegy-Zither’ which was tuned a third or fourth lower than the others.

The tuning of the melody strings with the two highest being nearest the player; the two A’s were of steel, the D of brass, the G of steel covered with silver wire, and the C of brass covered with copper wire.

These strings are stopped by the fingers of the left hand on twenty-nine frets, arranged in semitones. The accompaniment strings are arranged in what at first sight seems to be an arbitrary and complicated order.

The twelve or thirteen string nearest the player (the highest eight of gut, the rest of silk covered with silver wire) were called the ‘harmony-strings’.

The ‘bass strings’ which lie again beyond the ‘harmony strings’ were tuned in octaves adding some notes tuned semitonically in the extreme bass.

The accompaniment strings were played with the three middle fingers of the right hand, and were plucked towards the player, whose thumb was occupied with the melody strings.

The musical effect of the zither was greatly enhanced by the picturesque and romantic circumstances in which it was usually heard.

The metal ‘melody strings’ had a naturally plaintive tone, and their ‘singing’ quality contrasts with the more harp like tones of the accompaniment, while the resonance of the whole was considerably increased by the characteristic sympathetic vibrations of the open strings.