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Zither Societies in America

In Handbuch der Zither, Dr. Josef Brandlmeier provides a brief account of the zither in the US, beginning with the formation of the first zither club in Detroit in 1877. Zither newsletters, additional clubs and personalities emerged shortly thereafter. This translation from the original German text has been kindly provided by Dr. Jane Curtis.


It was Germans who brought zither playing to America, and it is still cultivated there today in ethnic German clubs. This applies particularly to North America. The first American zither club was founded in Detroit in 1877, soon followed by more clubs in New York, Philadelphia, and Buffalo and gradually in many other large North American cities. The individual clubs maintained loose connections with one another and held playing competitions, "prize zither concerts" as they were called.

The experience gained in such meetings led to the founding in 1888 of the "Society of North American Zither Clubs", modeled on the "Society of German Zither Clubs". It was short-lived; internal upheavals and external splintering led to its dissolution as early as 1892. The same fate soon overtook the "Independent Zither League of America", founded in 1890, which had only five member clubs. In 1901 another American zither society was created and consolidated, this time with success. There is no doubt that this was due largely to the efforts of the German-American Henry Wormsbacher, who was active as zither teacher and composer in New Jersey and later in Cleveland.

The American society fell apart after World War II, with the death of Henry Wormsbacher, its longtime president, but there are still a few zither clubs today (New York, Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, et al). But there was no upcoming generation of zither players, no worthy artistic presentation of the instrument, no well-trained and progress-oriented teachers, and naturally no commercial, industrial, - in a word, economic - base for this branch of the arts. Zither playing existed as a relic preserved by a disappearing minority within the large American population and was never regarded as anything more than this; and so it was condemned from the very start to play an insignificant role in American artistic life. The great upswing in zither playing and composition, as we have experienced it in the last decades, was totally ignored there because it was totally unknown.

Beside Wormsbacher, the American zither tradition has left us only a few names. Franz Waldecker was a distinguished soloist and publisher of the first American zither newspaper The Zitherplayer (1879). Berta J.M.Mueller was renowned as a virtuoso and enjoyed a reputation as an excellent interpreter of Ott's[1] works, many of which were published in America. Notable is also the longtime activity of J.B.Bauer, who won many friends for the zither with the ardor and deep feeling of his playing and who also composed for the zither; he later returned to Germany and died in Munich in 1954[2]. Louis Melcher was also active for many years in the States before returning to Germany. E. Geist became a distinguished society director and composer in Minneapolis[3]. Other Americans became prominent as "inventors" in the realm of the zither, namely F. Wigand in Brooklyn, in connection with the pedal zither. More recently, Franz Gottschalk has been playing light selections and dance music at dinners, parties, and hotels in San Francisco.



Author's Footnote 31, page 304: One after the other, the following American zither publications came and went: the Nordamerikanisches Zitherjournal, Internationale Zither-Zeitung, Pacific Coast Zither-Journal, and Pan American Zither-Journal.

Author's Footnote 32, page 304: It is little known in 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.[4]

Translator's notes

[1]Franz von Paula-Ott, 1822-1907, was renowned as a composer and player, using standard tuning.

[2]Born in 1865, Bauer was a composer and player, using standard tuning.

[3]Geist may have been connected with the Twin Cities Zither Club, to which Wormsbacher dedicated the duet Scherzo in C-dur. Inquiries to various musical and university sources in Minneapolis failed to turn up any mention of this club or of any zitherplaying in the area.

[4]In the mid-1960's I investigated this report. There is no such instrument in the capitol or indeed anywhere else in the area, nor could Washington have played 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 slaves' quarters, or even his hunting horn. The only item that could possibly have given rise to this story is a hybrid instrument that Washington had made in London for Nelly Custis and that is now preserved in the Smithsonian. I was allowed to see and handle this interesting and lovely piece of work, which was then carried on the inventory as "George Washington's zither", and found it to be not a zither at all but a cross between a lute and a hurdy-gurdy. The misleading designation was to be changed.

This article has been translated from pages 125-126 and 304 of Handbuch der Zither, Munich: Süddeutscher Verlag 1963. Translated with the permission of the publisher. Translation and footnotes by Jane Curtis.

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