History – General Information
The word zither stems from the ancient Greek word „kithara“. In the past there were several instruments that preceded the zither. Michael Praetorius in his work „Syntagma Musicum” of 1619 lists and describes all the instruments known to him including the Scheitholz. The original Scheitholt usually consisted of a wooden soundbox about 50 cm (19.7 in) long and 5 cm (2 in) wide, with a simple headstock and two or three strings. Besides brass, these strings were often also made of simple materials such as animal hairs, gut or waxed linen. There is no fingerboard but there are wires which are set in the wood under the strings as frets.
This is followed by instruments such as the „Scherrzithern“, the „Kratzzithern“ and the „Raffeles“ which because of their shape and build are considered forerunners of the zither.
At the beginning of the 19th century a number of members of the aristocracy and wealthy bourgeoisie brought the zither to the cities from their country estates. Here they were frequently found in inns where they were used for entertainment frequently accompanying singer, violinists and or guitar.
The first zither virtuoso was Johann Petzmayer who, in 1826 was invited to play for the Austrian royal household and so the zither was elevated to salon status. In 1838 Petzmayer was engaged as court musician to Duke Maximillian of Bavaria, the father of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. The first printed music sheet entitled ‘Austrian Ländler’ by Alexander Baumann was published in 1847. Franz Kropf, a zither specialist who began his career in his father’s inn accompanying a local guitarist. Schools teaching the art of zither playing appeared from 1850.
In 1856 Carl Ignaz Umlauf presented the first zither concert in the Musikverein Vienna thus establishing the instrument in the classical repertoire. The Strauss brothers also introduced the zither into their compositions. In 1868 Anton Paschinger played the first performance of the renowned „Tales of the Vienna Woods“ by Johann Strauss.
The first zither club was established in Vienna in 1875 and immediately the zither became an instrument of fashion. Zither players were highly regarded and several aristocratic employed their own private zither player. However the fall of the Empire destroyed the social status of these zither players. Several amateur players formed workers clubs and several of these still exist today.
In 1949 the sound of the Viennese Zither won immortal fame through the world-famous music composed and performed by Anton Karas for the film “The Third Man”.
In March 2017 ‘The Viennese art of tuning and playing the Zither’ has been placed on the list of UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Austria.