You are here

Nikolaus Weigel - One-hundredth Birthday Anniversary

In Nikolaus Weigel's time, zither tunings abounded and to a certain degree were a matter of personal preference. Recognizing this discrepancy, he set out to standardize and expand its capabilities. In this article, author Fritz Stang examines the life of this musical innovator, whose contributions for the zither have become a recognized standard. Discovered in an old issue of Saitenspiel, this article has been translated from the original German and edited by Jane Curtis.

On 17 January 1978, exactly one hundred years will have passed since life ended for a man whose life knew only one goal: To give the zither that technical foundation that would later enable it to be used as a concert instrument.

Born on 11 December 1811 at Hanau in the Pfalz, he came to Munich/Giesing at the age of eleven, where his father had acquired a farm, which the son was one day to take over. But Fate had other plans. Because of an accident—he fell off a horse and broke his leg – the 19-year-old could no longer follow his planned occupation. During the long period of convalescence, his elder sister taught him to play the zither in 1831. It never crossed his mind at that time that he would only seven years later produce the very first zither manual.

No information is available as to when he first began to plan a manual for this instrument that had never had an orderly and systematic arrangement of the strings. In the Foreword to his first edition he wrote: “As common as the zither has become, it remains only an incomplete and irregular instrument, not yet accepted into the realm of cultured music, since the bass clef is limited to at most four keys and the treble clef, with its diatonic fingerboard, is very incomplete and is almost unusable for higher-level music.”

Thus Weigel had set himself a high goal. He was surely driven by the sound of the zither, as he said: “There lies a magic in the metallic voice of the zither, inexpressible in words but felt in the heart…”. And he was also disturbed by the lack of order in the stringing. Players handled it as they thought best, so that according to J Bennert the number of tunings must have been legion.

It was absolutely necessary to get them organized. He therefore demanded: uninterrupted chromatic fretting for the fingerboard, fourth-fifth tuning for the open strings, and the proper notation used for all harmony instruments. Today all of this may go without saying, but in Weigel’s time it seemed to most zither players like an impossible task. Remember, the zither is, per Kennedy, a real folk instrument, for it was created in Bavarian territory, thus by the people. From huts it came into palaces, was brought into villages and cities by itinerant folk singers, each one an individual, many of great natural talent.

In its day a very popular instrument, the zither was forced to compete with the continuous popular demand for novelties. It was less what was performed by musicians but rather how and with what “handworking tools” it was done. This requirement and technical skill were the important criteria of performance. Audiences were just as much interested in what the zither looked like: its color and form, how many strings it had, how many frets were on the fingerboard.

Other tunings and supposed improvements continued to be invented, which led Lola Ott to the sarcastic remark: “They creep out everywhere, like the frogs of the Egyptian plagues.” To be sure, the argumentative lady—actually Luise Auguste Buchecker, daughter of the well-known maestro Buchecker (1829-1894), in style and speech a real Kennedy—was probably referring more to the period after Weigel.

But is this remark, reduced to the purely practical, not symptomatic of the whole period of development from the Scheitholzzither up to the concert instrument?

If we look away from the many-sided peripheral phenomena and penetrate into the actual heart of the development, we would be led to no other analysis than that which C Sachs has given in Geist und Werden der Musikinstrumente: “Obviously it is not a matter of a gradual rise in the number of strings… . With the zither, it is more a need to add several strings [at once] to enable formation of a proper scale, so that in general we can reckon with [the addition of] five strings from the very beginning.”

We ask ourselves what this view has to do with Weigel’s reform. It not only clarifies the inner cohesion of a logical development but at the same time confirms its validity, because with it all scales are possible on the zither. But until that point was reached, Weigel had to overcome many a barrier. In writing his manual he had no previous examples to which he could refer. He had to rely completely on his intuition and experiments.

When he finished the manual in 1838, he could not find a publisher for it. They laughed at him, because at that time it was considered impossible to play the zither from written notes. This did not prevent him from having his manual printed at his own cost and publishing it himself. The reaction of the publishers was understandable, for who wanted to take the risk of publishing a manual for which there were at the time no students?

Moreover, the first edition of 1838 was not yet perfect. It began [the first circle of accompaniment strings] with f’ and closed with a-flat, which was followed by A-flat. For the second edition in 1844 he found a publisher, Falter and Son, Munich, who paid him a fee of 100 Gulden. In this edition the first circle opened not with e-flat’ but erroneously with with e-flat, which should actually have been in the second circle; and this first circle ended with d-flat’, whereby an enharmonic octave was created, having its counterpart with a-flat—b-flat in the second circle.

Not until the third edition was a satisfactory result obtained. If J Christ’s Darstellung der Zither, Hoenes Verlag Trier, 1891, is correct, it was the Mittenwald zithermaker Anton Kiendl (1816-1871) who corrected the Weigel system and completed it to the unbroken circle of fourths and fifths. This would of course have been done with Weigel’s agreement. Before Kiendl had moved to Vienna, he, Umlauf, and Ponnier had introduced the non-continuous “Vienna Tuning” in Austria, so it would be a pleasant irony if it were also Kiendl who introduced Weigel’s method to the zither virtuosos in Vienna after he moved there.

Before Kiendl, Ignaz Simon, or more precisely his son-in-law Haslwanter, who is supposed to have had better technical knowledge than Simon, had built the Weigel zithers. Christ also remarks—without belittling Weigel’s great service as inventer of the fourth-fifth system—that before Weigel’s second edition Michael Mühlauer (1815-1858) had already published his manual for Munich Tuning. But it too, like so many others, has long been consigned to the past, because their authors too were unable to complete the fourth-fifth circle chromatically. The fact is that Weigel’s reform ignited a spark among all zither players interested in the technical side of tuning, even though other tunings were still circulating decades later, to be finally swept away by Time.

The fact that the Kammervirtuoso Petzmayer (1803-1884) was no longer prepared to support Weigel’s reform, could not hold back the surge toward the goal. The assumption may safely be made that Duke Max (1808-1888), who had already been using bass clef notation, continued to follow Weigel’s work with special interest. The common efforts of Petzmayer, Duke Max, Weigel, Simon, Haslwanter, and Kiendl, all contemporaries, made the zither what it still is today (per Kennedy), for Grünwald’s Reformzither also follows Weigel’s system in its basic principle. And even though—knowingly or unknowingly—Michael Mühlauer became his competitor, his name must be added to the list.

All of these men, whether supporter, virtuoso, zither teacher, or instrument maker, surely knew each other, since they were all active at the same time and in the same place, or in the vicinity of Munich. And Weigel would presumably have spoken with one or more of them about his plans. Who else was there he could have discussed them with?

Finally, it was indeed Weigel’s reform that opened the way for later use of the zither as a cultured instrument. But ingratitude is the world’s payment, as the old saying goes. In the beginning he was laughed at and made fun of, later his work was copied by unauthorized people who published it as their own. But he himself, as the actual originator, paid the highest price for his life’s work: He died on 17 January 1878 in bitter poverty.

Have you written, or are you aware of, an article which explores the life of a famous zither personality? If so, contact us.