Under the title ‘History’ there are details relating to the instrument and to those composers, who specifically wrote for the Viennese zither.


General Information

The zither is a very traditional instrument. We find historic information regarding the zither in Vienna from about 1800. The shape of the instrument remains the same to the present day and the stringing stems from the mid-19th century. Printed practice exercises and compositions stem also from this time. As well as a constant background accompaniment in inns and heurigen the zither began to make appearances as a salon instrument in well- established bourgeoisie houses as well as some aristocratic homes. The composition of the waltz ‘ Tales from the Vienna Woods’ by Johann Strauss and the film score by the Viennese musician and zither player Anton Karas in „The Third Man“ (1949) immortalised the sound of the Viennese zither throughout the world.



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 „Scherzzithern“, 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 was appointed zither teacher to Empress Elisabeth. 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. A 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.


Viennese Folk Music and the Viennese Song

In suburbs of Vienna, in inns, pubs and Heurigen a special form of instrumental music was developing and reached its peak with the Brothers Schrammel. Their repertoire embraced all hitherto known forms of Viennese music: dance, Heurigen marches, the song, the polka and of course the waltz. Those favourite and popular songs sung at the Heurigen stem either from Vienna or are about Vienna. A significant aspect of the Viennese Heurigen music is the interplay between musician and guest. The knowledgeable guest can influence the choice of music, join in singing or accompanying the musicians. A Heurigen musician has to be able to play songs on request by heart and from a huge repertoire. The musicians play for a quite low fixed fee but then receive tips according to how well they play and how well their offering is received by the guests. The golden age of the old Heurigen music is long past and now there are just a few Heurige that offer live music. Today zither music at a Heurigen is usually only available by request.