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Researching Zitherspiel in Wien. 1800 - 1850

What was originally intended to be an introductory chapter for a book on the "Golden Age" of the zither soon turned into a sizable project in its own right. Now published, Dr. Joan Marie Bloderer's book Zitherspiel in Wien. 1800-1850 represents a significant expansion of her dissertation of the same name. In this article, Dr. Bloderer shares some of the research experiences from her latest work.

I have always loved sounds. Rain on the grass, shoes on the pavement, kids giggling.... I wrote my master’s thesis on the Javanese gamelan because the mixture of gamelan sounds — of bronze and leather and bamboo, and of the human voice being used as an instrument — all blending in an empty early-morning princely courtyard with the sounds of birds and of people softly talking ... these sounds are absolutely beautiful. And I wrote my doctoral thesis on the zither, because the sound of the zither is in effect the human voice – in a grand and often melancholy way – at my fingertips. How do I describe that universe of sounds emitting from a tightly drawn string that isn’t bowed, but plucked? And the zither, ranking modestly among Western instruments, isn’t weighted down with a tradition of very „classical“ compositions and exacting ways of playing, as in the case, for example, of the violin. The zither is just a zither. Handled gently, it rewards us in turn. Played with understanding, it gives great pleasure to a surprising number of very different people. The sound of a zither can be magic.

My first difficulties with my doctoral thesis resulted not from non-acceptance. On the contrary! The local faculty was actually pleased to have a „modern“ „folksy“ thesis in the works. The difficulty for me was that no „real“ musicologist took the topic seriously, at least not at first. So initially there were no high scientific expectations to goad me along. I dawdled along the way, tuckered down every little thematic side road that looked interesting, and took several years off to just read and think. Things definitely changed after graduation. The paper was very well received. My publisher and my fine editor didn’t know much about zithers, but they had a sterling understanding of music history and of the aims and methods of musicology. It is thanks to their very high expectations that my rather dry academic dissertation was transformed into the fascinating story it became. Even if that working-over and expanding took me an additional year (no more laziness, please)!

The Zither Player by Franz von Defregger

As to research on the 19th century zither, I had to learn to read between the lines. There wasn’t all that much direct information, and a lot of what was written down was repetitious (one person just copying what another had written earlier) and/or just plain wrong (often for the same reason). I felt like Sherlock Holmes, which turned out to be a nice way to feel. Imagine my satisfaction, for instance, at recently hearing that the early Johann Strauss „Cither-Landler“ (from 1829) I had found by chance and included in my book was indeed written down „by ear“ by Strauss – not composed by him, just accidentally heard played by an early zither player. Strauß’s notation has turned out to be the earliest „zither music“ we know of. Proof of that appeared last December, by the way (Strauss-Allianz-Verzeichnis, Part 1, pp. 45-48).

Doing research on the 19th century zither has required a very creative approach to gathering information. It has meant reading old plays and novels, investigating theater programs from the 1840’s and comparing them with newspaper reports of the time plus checking all the old advertisements. Plus haunting the web-sites of used-book dealers. And it has meant examining a lot of zithers in museums and taking a lot of pictures to be studied later in my office. Thank heavens for digital photography! The most extensive investigating was done on the zithers in the depot of the Ingolstadt City Museum, about an hour north of Munich. My good advisor was Ernst Volkmann, who had made the collection and who is, by chance, my zither maker. Among other strange coincidences, my very early Kiendl-Zither (Nr. 239, built about 1855) was discovered by a friend in her attic. She doesn’t play the zither, and no one knows how it got there. So one thing led to another, and the paper (later the book) just grew. I had meant to write an introductory chapter before getting into the „Golden Age“ of zithers 1850-1900, but that introductory chapter grew into a very sizable book. That „Golden Age“ will just have to wait. There’s so much that happened before that!

My next book will be about the – often coincidental - events connected with zither playing in Munich 1835-1880. (There are many parallels to the Viennese zither, but also some big surprises). The first step in that direction is a lecture I’ll be giving in a museum in Munich in March. The research for that evening is well under way on, and has got me back on my toes. I’ll be lecturing just a few blocks from the shop of one of the earliest Munich zither makers, Ignaz Simon. None of the local historians knew he had even existed! And that in Bavaria, a country where the zither is very much loved. The book about the Munich and Bavarian zither will be coming out in 2010. Then and only then will it be time for the Golden Age of zither playing. A lecture I’m giving in Vienna – also in March – has set my sights again on that theme, but time will tell. And that’s definitely another story .... .

Lecture on 14 March 2009

Zitherplaying at the Gates of Munich, or:
The Circle Around Ignaz Simon

On Saturday 14 March 2009, at 6 pm in the Haidhausen Museum in Munich, there will be a lecture that should be of great interest, to history fans in particular. The author of the recently-published book Zitherspiel in Wien 1800-1850, will lecture on the following subjects:

The workshop of Ignaz Simon in Haidhausen was an early meeting place for an illustrious circle of zitherplayers and those interested in the zither. The quality of the Simon zithers is partly explained by this circumstance. From their own personal experience Nikolaus Weigel, the first to write a zither instruction manual; court musicians J B Treu, Friedrich Feyertag, and Franz Stahl; Duke Maximilian in Bayern; and the duke’s personal court virtuoso Johann Petzmayer, made valuable contributions leading to practical improvements in the Simon zithers.

This alone, however, is not sufficient to explain the dynamism of the Simon workshop. Why did Simon settle in Haidhausen? Why did he not relocate his zither production later – like Anton Kiendl in his day in Vienna – to the inner city? What meaning did his foster-son and nephew Johann Haslwanter have for him, for his zithers, and for his circle? What influence did Simon’s circle of influential zither-playing customers have on early zither music, and what influence did early zither music have on Simon’s production and on the illustrious circle that frequented his workshop?

These are all questions that Dr Joan Marie Bloderer will answer in detail.

Museum director Hermann Wilhelm will begin the evening with an introduction on life in the artisan village of Haidhausen just outside Munich. The musical framework for the evening will be provided by Petra Hamberger. She will play original compositions of Duke Maximilian and Johann Petzmayer on a replica of an Ignaz Simon zither (Model 1844), as well as compositions of the above-named court musicians, on an original zither from their time.

Zitherspiel in Wien. 1800-1850 provides insight into the lives of early zither personalities, tunings of the zither and samplings of printed zither music. The reader will certainly glean new information from the significant number of never before published illustrations included with this text. For those interested in continuing their research, an extensive bibliography is also provided. For more information visit the publisher's web site at Schneider-Musikbuch.

"Zitherplaying at the Gates of Munich, or: The Circle Around Ignaz Simon" was recently published as "Zitherspiel vor den Toren Münchens, oder: Der Kreis um Ignaz Simon" in the Januar/Februar 2009 issue of Saitenspiel. Our thanks go to Dr. Jane Curtis for offering this English translation.

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