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George Washington’s Zither

Did George Washington play the zither? Follow Jane Curtis as she investigates the musical inclinations of our nation's Founding Father and clears up some previously held misconceptions in the process. Jane continues with a biographical sketch of Franz Schwarzer, Missouri's famous zither maker.




George Washington’s Zither
and Other Curiosities of American Zither History
by Jane Curtis

Did George Washington play the zither?
Did George Washington even own one?



Significant as these questions are for the early history of our country, it was not until the publication of Josef Brandlmeier’s Handbuch der Zither (Munich: Suddeutscher Verlag 1963, page 304) that they were brought to the fore. The foot-note reads as follows translated into English:

It is little known amongst the American public that George Washington, the first president of the USA, played the zither. According to F Gottschalk, his instrument [presumably a Kratzzither] is preserved in the Capitol.

There is no disputing the first statement here, which is surely one of the primary understatements of the past two hundred and fifty years; but what about the rest of the little item? My investigation produced the following results.

There is no such instrument in the Capitol or indeed anywhere else in the area, nor could George Washington have played it if there had been one. He was totally inept musically, according to the historians at Mt Vernon, and could not play the harpsichord in the drawing room, the home-made banjo in the servants’ quarters, or even his hunting horn. The only item that could possibly have given rise to this story is a hybrid instrument that Washington ordered specially from London for Nelly Custis. It was buried in the attic of the Capitol until the mid-sixties, but the Capitol architect informed me that it had just been moved to storage in the Smithsonian, where I was eventually allowed to see and handle it. It is an interesting and beautifully crafted piece of work, carried on the Smithsonian inventory as “George Washington’s Zither”.

It is not a zither at all, however, but a type of hurdy-gurdy, complete with two-string courses and crank-turned “bowing” wheel. Brandlmeier’s source, F (for Franz) Gottschalk, was playing popular music on the zither publicly and privately in San Francisco as of the early sixties, and he may somehow have been informed of this item on the Capitol’s historical inventory, without actually seeing the instrument itself. He would surely have recognized that it was no zither, not even a Kratzzither, an earlier and much less refined form of the zither as it exists today. One wonders if Martha and George ever heard the Kratzzither played during their visits to Philadelphia, or if they ever heard the so-called zithers (actually forms related to the Appalachian dulcimer) of the early Pennsylvania Dutch.

Reluctantly giving up the idea of George Washington as a zither enthusiast, we jump forward fifty years and celebrate the arrival in this country of the already more developed zither that came to the New World with the large waves of immigration from German-speaking lands. The next question is: Could a land scam have given America its first and greatest zither builder? The answer is a resounding “Yes”. Franz Schwarzer immigrated to Missouri from Austria in 1864, expecting to become a gentleman farmer on the Missouri River near the little town of Holstein. Unfortunately at the time but fortunately for the future, he and his wife were the victims of a land scam, and their promised farm and house turned out to be a piece of raw land and a shack. They soon moved across the river to Washington, Missouri, and Franz went back to his former trade of carpentry. He had had some contact with the zither and leading zither figures in Austria, and somewhere around 1866 he tried his hand at making a zither. This instrument is carefully preserved in the state museum at Jefferson City, and I have held it in my hands.

The first instrument quickly led to others, ever better in quality. In 1873 he won the gold medal at the International Exhibition in Vienna. By this time zither building had become his trade, and he had built a small factory and employed several craftsmen to meet the growing demand from this country and abroad. He developed several different models, most of them featuring the delicate mother-of-pearl inlay that was one of his trademarks.

As he flourished, so did zither playing in the United States. Without the distractions we have today, people made music at home, for their own pleasure and satisfaction and that of the people around them. From the 1870s into the 1920s, zither teachers taught and students learned. Zither clubs abounded. Never mind that the zither is the most difficult of all instruments to play; they had more patience and perseverance in those days, finding joy in the beauty of the instrument and satisfaction in gradually learning to draw beautiful sounds from it. The few American players of today look back on those times with incredulous envy.

The Detroit Zither Club was founded in 1877, followed by clubs in Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, and other areas with large German immigrant populations. The clubs maintained loose connections with one another, gave concerts, held playing competitions, and eventually banded together into a larger union: The Society of North American Zither Clubs, founded in 1888. However, the Society was short-lived; it collapsed in 1892, per Brandlmeier, because of “internal upheavals and external splintering” (hopefully it was not the zithers that were upheaved and splintered). Another group, the Independent Zither League of America, had only five member clubs and did not last long after its founding in 1890. Finally, in 1901, a zither society was founded that lasted until the death of its prime mover, Henry Wormsbacher. Following his death after World War II, there were few zither students, players, or clubs, thus cutting the prospects for the future of zither playing in the United States. The situation is even more precarious today.

But back to the Good Old Days of American zitherdom. Henry Wormsbacher not only led the only surviving union of American zither clubs but also continued to be active as teacher, composer, and performer. He had settled in New Jersey after immigrating many years before, and he eventually moved to Cleveland. He maintained wide contacts, publishing zither music here and in Germany, including a Scherzo in C dedicated to the Twin Cities Zither Club of Minneapolis. I have a number of his solos and duets in my files, most of them still quite playable despite the great changes in taste since his day.

Two prominent zither players who immigrated to the United States and eventually returned to Germany were Louis Melcher and J B Bauer, the latter known for the ardor and deep feeling of his playing as well as for zither compositions, such as the four-voiced multi-movement waltzes, that are still attractive today. However, most of the immigrant zither players stayed here and considered themselves American, as did Franz Schwarzer.

In Washington DC Franz Waldecker published the first American zither newspaper The Zitherplayer beginning in 1879 and was active as a soloist. The spirit of another less known Washington player was conjured by an ailing old zither given to me in the early 1990s. It was from his daughter, a very elderly lady, who told of her father’s wide travels as a Navy officer and his periods of residence in Washington, of how devoted he had been to the zither and how he had taken it with him aboard ship and in foreign lands. He may have acquired it abroad, as it is not a Schwarzer, but a Kiendl, made in Vienna. The tools carried by all players in those days, including spools of metal wire and clippers, still reposed in special little niches in the case.

Berta J M Mueller was renowned as a virtuoso and enjoyed a reputation as an excellent interpreter of the works of Franz von Paula-Ott, a European composer (for the zither) of the typical flowery music of the latter nineteenth century. So active was the zither scene here that many of his works and those of contemporaries were published in this country as well as in Europe. In the early years of the twentieth century one young lady down on the old New Jersey shore learned to play the zither and acquired quite a little library of zither music. Her Schwarzer harp zither, made over a hundred years ago, found its way to me from Forkéd River, New Jersey. If only these old instruments could talk!

E Geist became a distinguished society director and composer in Minneapolis, maybe even connected with the Twin Cities Zither Club. A certain F Wigand in Brooklyn invented a pedal zither. It is one of those little tragedies of life that nothing is known about this intriguing instrument. Did the pedal change the character or duration of tone, as on the piano? Did it shift the strings to produce accidentals, as on the harp? Was it some wonderful flight of fancy? August Nikl, in his detail-packed little volume Die Zither (Vienna: Arion Verlag 1927, page 149) describes a pedal zither but says nothing about its provenance. He describes it as an instrument with twelve pedals, whereby each of the player’s feet has to control six pedals. In addition to these twelve there is a main pedal which raises the pitch of all accompaniment strings simultaneously. (Then why not just have a concert harp!?) [Comment and punctuation by Nikl. He also mentions the existence of a so-called Virginia Zither but gives no details; perhaps an autoharp or Appalachian dulcimer?]

As we few American zither players try to keep the art alive here, while in Europe and Japan hundreds of older and younger people play and are learning to play, we can look back on some happy high points in the American history of this wonderful instrument and hope that we may somehow find patient young students to keep it alive in our country.





About the author: Jane Curtis has been involved with the zither for many years, as a performer, arranger, composer, teacher, and author. She is shown here holding Franz Schwarzer's first concert zither.

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